Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources


The Dangers of Sugar


Sugar in food and drink has been linked to diabetes and more


By Kendra Smith


You may be thinking that sugar — a natural substance — can’t be as bad as the artificial stuff we find in food these days. Well, as it turns out, of all the concerns over the years about ingredients, from preservatives and dyes to fats like partially hydrogenated oils, the various sweeteners added to foods and beverages during manufacturing, known as added sugars, might be the most deadly of the bunch.

A 2015 review of multiple studies, published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, offers an in-depth look at added sugars. The results? Added sugars were found to be associated with the development of prediabetes, diabetes, and serious diabetes-related complications like stroke and heart attack. James J. DiNicolantonio, PharmD, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO, one of the review’s co-authors, says added sugars are connected to other health problems, too, including high blood pressure, obesity and liver disorders.

Moreover, adds DiNicolantonio, there’s a potential connection to more conditions: the development of Alzheimer’s disease, digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, and autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease. If those associations aren’t quite enough to make you rethink your sugar habit, consider this: a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that an excessive amount of added sugar in the diet can raise your risk of dying from heart disease.


Added Sugar Vs. Naturally Occurring Sugar

Before you get rid of the contents of your kitchen — after all, don't most foods contain sugar? — it’s important to understand the distinction health experts make between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar.

The added sugar you’ve probably heard the most about is high fructose corn syrup, often abbreviated as HFCS. But DiNicolantonio says all added sugars, which can include fruit juice, honey, and syrups like maple and agave (all of which are naturally occurring sugars that may look harmless in an ingredients list), are unhealthy if you eat too much of them. 

Contrast that with naturally occurring sugars, which, somewhat confusingly, contain some of the same compounds found in added sugars. As an example, the “fructose” in HFCS is also the sugar found in fruit. But the key phrase here is “naturally occurring”: when sugars occur naturally, as they do in an apple or glass of milk, they also provide the body other important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, and fiber, which “buffer the sugar load,” according to DiNicolantonio.

That's why it's important to focus on including whole foods like fruits, veggies, and low-fat dairy in your diet, rather than processed ones that may contain added sugar. Learn about how to limit added sugar in your diet.


Published on June 1, 2015. Updated on April 21, 2016.

Kendra Smith is a wellness and lifestyle writer and editor living in San Francisco.

Reviewed by Shira Goldenholz, MD, MPH on April 26, 2016.
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