UCSF researchers call for government regulation of sugar

Graphic by Irin Son

As worldwide rates of obesity and diabetes diagnoses increase, researchers at the UC San Francisco (UCSF) say that sugar intake should now be regulated, much like alcohol and tobacco. The researchers suggest that sugar may be responsible for nearly 35 million deaths related to diabetes, heart disease and cancer—all of which are exacerbated by obesity.

UCSF colleagues Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis declared their call for sugar control initiatives in the Feb. 2 issue of Nature magazine. By increasing modest sales taxes on sweeteners and tightening certification on vending machines at schools and workplaces, the researchers believe that sugar consumption would be less convenient for consumers. “We’re not talking prohibition…What we want is to actually increase people’s choices by making foods that aren’t loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get,” stated Schmidt.

The announcement comes during a time when sugar consumption has reached record highs; according to the UCSF Newsroom, the past 50 years have witnessed a tripling of the worldwide level of sugar consumption. “There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” stated UCSF Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Robert Lustig in a news release. “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”

The diseases that stem from obesity are a major concern among the scientific community. According to the United Nations, diseases such as diabetes and heart disease now account for more health costs than infectious diseases (for the first time in human history); 75 percent of healthcare dollars in the United States are spent combating these diseases. Along with obesity effects, the researchers maintain that large amounts of sugar intake also account for metabolism change, increase in blood pressure and the impairment of hormone signaling.
Ken H. Stewart, the preventive care specialist at UC Riverside, works with the Campus Health Center and Preventive Care Clinic to foster health education and wellness guidance. In an interview with the Highlander, Stewart stated, “An option that I am fully behind is a push that will focus on chronic disease prevention. This would consist of encouraging people to live a healthy lifestyle by promoting health education, menu labeling and possibly taxing of drinks that have added sugars. For those who are at an increased risk, establish a program that helps them decrease their risk.”
The article authors Claire Brindis and Laura Schmidt believe that intervention methods must incorporate community-wide solutions which promote awareness. Both researchers maintain that in order to move the public away from excessive sugar consumption, sugar must first be acknowledged as a top medical concern. In addition, the authors argue that the new scientific findings on sugar should be widely publicized in order to boost awareness levels about sugar’s effect on health.
The expertise and knowledge of scientists at UC Riverside may help identify alternative methods to reduce sugar toxicity intake. UC Riverside Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Jiayu Liao revealed in a Highlander interview that genomic and molecular engineering technology has enabled new methods for the creation of healthier and more authentic sugar substitutes. Even a molecular blocker of sugar absorption in the human intestines is a viable option. “We certainly need to reshape life and food styles dramatically. The over-productivity of food and the lifestyle of sitting in front of computers certainly add burdens to diabetes and obesity. We need to consider how to balance the trends in both sugar consumption and metabolic diseases,” concluded Liao.
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