As director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis, I teach the UC system’s largest undergraduate nutrition class with about 2,400 students each year. I’ve written a textbook for general nutrition that is in its third edition, and I serve as an expert resource to the media on behalf of UC Davis to combat misinformation in nutrition and health-related topics.
I would no sooner tell students that sugar causes diabetes than I would proclaim eating an apple a day prevents all that might ail you, such as heart disease and cancer. What the research shows, and what I teach my students, is that diabetes is caused by multiple factors, including lack of physical activity, genetics and excess calories from any source.
Why is it, then, that some politicians are misleading millions of people by suggesting that the disease can be prevented simply by avoiding sweetened beverages?
Worse, why do some think that sticking a safety warning label on those beverages will have any marked difference in the dietary behaviors of diabetic or pre-diabetic patients?
Last month, I testified before the Assembly Health Committee to oppose Senate Bill 1000, which would have required safety warning labels on most beverages with added sugars. The labels would state, “CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
Repeatedly, supporters of SB 1000 emphatically stated that “liquid sugar is a unique driver in today’s diabetes and obesity epidemics” and that “liquid sugar leads directly to diabetes.” Their statements, however, are not supported by current dietary recommendations from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or by current research.
The human body does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars from fruit vs. sugars added to foods (sweetened beverages, cakes or candy). The notion that liquid sugar has a different impact on the body (such as negatively affecting the liver and pancreas) compared to “solid sugar” is not supported by the totality of scientific research.
SB 1000 failed to garner enough votes in the Health Committee to move forward, but was granted reconsideration. It also succeeded in generating a great deal of false information in the media – namely, that sugar-sweetened beverages are responsible for the increase in diabetes. In fact, statistics on sugar consumption and diabetes rates show otherwise.
Reliable, widely used food consumption data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – conveniently left out of testimony by supporters of SB 1000 – shows that consumption of added sugars in the American diet decreased substantially between 2000 and 2008. Sugar intake from sweetened beverages decreased by 37 percent over that period.
Yet, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes has risen over these same years. If sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is a key driver behind these health woes, then why the rise in diabetes despite the dramatic reduction in sugar intake from sweetened beverages?
Clearly – and as many nutrition educators and scientists would agree – there is much more to the obesity-diabetes epidemic than blaming sugar-sweetened beverages.
It is misleading and irresponsible to proclaim that sweetened beverages are “proven dangerous products.” A warning label on sweetened beverages would woefully misguide consumers, leading them to believe that sodas, teas, fruit drinks and sports drinks are at the root of their risk for diabetes. It is for this reason that I opposed SB 1000.
Rather than creating a political scapegoat like sugar-sweetened beverages, we need to identify a comprehensive approach to diabetes prevention that involves its multiple components, such as implementing physical activity and healthy lifestyle programs for youth. This is what I teach my students, and it’s a lesson our political leaders would do well to learn.
Liz Applegate is a senior lecturer in the nutrition department at the University of California, Davis, and a paid adviser to the American Beverage Association.