It’s no secret that we collectively have a sugar problem in the United States. Throughout the last twenty or so years, the food on the shelves of our grocery stores have become proliferated with enormous amounts of added sugar. And consequently, the American people are more unhealthy than we have been at any other point in history. 41.9% of all Americans are obese, and each year 600,000 people die from cancer, 800,000 people die from heart disease, and over 200,000 people die from diabetes – all of which can be traced back to an excess consumption of sugar. This week we will discuss the epidemic of excessive fructose consumption in the United States and its implications for our overall health as a society. 

Our bodies need sugar to function, but not the type of sugar you are probably thinking of. Glucose, the sugar within our blood, is considered to be the energy of life – every cell in our body burns glucose and it is the main source of fuel for our brain. Glucose is essential for human function, but glucose consumption is not necessarily essential. In fact, the human body can produce glucose on its own if it is not absorbed through our diet. But let’s set the record straight, glucose is not the problem that is causing widespread death throughout the US. The sugar that is causing hundreds of thousands of people to die each year due chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is fructose. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found primarily in fruit, honey, sugar cane, and even some vegetables. When food manufacturers discovered that they could produce pure fructose from corn or sucrose and use it as an ingredient in processed foods and beverages to enhance taste, the health of Americans took a turn for the worse. Over the last 20 years, obesity rates have skyrocketed. Per the CDC, between 2000 and 2020, obesity prevalence increased from 30.5% to 41.9% Severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.

You might be wondering, how did food manufacturers get away with such a thing? Starting in the 1970’s, people began showing up to the doctors office with an increasing number of cases of cardiovascular disease. Doctors and researchers searched to find a cause, and two main camps developed: the fat camp and the sugar camp. Around this same time, the sugar industry started to play a heavy hand in dietary policy set by government agencies. The big shooters in the sugar industry commissioned the Department of Nutrition to paint saturated fat as the bad guy, and as a result, fat became “detrimental” to your health – it clogged your arteries, caused high cholesterol, and resulted in heart attacks. Not until only a few years ago did people come to fully understand that fat is not the main issue – it is the excessive amounts of fructose in our diets.

This excessive consumption of fructose in the average American diet caused a new biological response. The liver acts as the engine in our metabolic process – it breaks down fats, converts excess carbohydrates and protein into forms that are stored for later use, and produces bile to detoxify the body. The liver metabolizes fructose completely differently than it does glucose. When glucose gets into the liver, it turns into glycogen – this glycogen is used to regulate your blood sugar levels. However, when fructose is metabolized by the liver, it does not turn into glycogen. Instead, it turns into mitochondria in our liver which ultimately diverts to fat formation. This fat raises the triglyceride levels in both the blood stream and the liver, and ultimately results in fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the cause of nearly all chronic diseases: diabetes, cardio vascular disease, cancer, polycystic ovarian disease, and many more.

All of the diseases mentioned above can be traced back to excess sugar consumption. Today, 29% of American children eat a bowl of fruit loops and drink a glass of orange juice (41 grams of sugar) first thing in the morning as part of the National School Breakfast Program. The average American consumes 77 grams of sugar per day which is more 3 times the recommended daily serving. Even as more and more data is released on just how bad sugar is for our health, the majority of Americans can’t go a day without it. Why? Stay tuned next week as we turn to the neurobiology of sugar addiction.