For decades we’ve been told that saturated fat and cholesterol are the twin culprits behind heart disease, but a new study suggests that sugar may be at least as dangerous to the heart. The research published in JAMA Internal Medicine (online, Feb. 3, 2014) found that sugar could be a major contributor to death from heart disease.

Sugar is not the only sweetener under a cloud. In particular, the safety of aspartame remains controversial. An Italian team of toxicologists maintains that rodent research and an epidemiological study link aspartame to cancer. Their recent commentary in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine is titled “The Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame: The Urgent Need for Regulatory Re-Evaluation.”

Historical Perspective

For decades the only concerns raised about consuming sugary sweets had to do with cavities or obesity. When we asked a world-class diabetes expert 25 years ago whether sugar contributed to type 2 diabetes, we were told in no uncertain terms that any connection was no more than an old wives’ tale. Now we know that sugar does contribute to insulin resistance, diabetes, dementia, cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure and heart disease.

The latest research analyzed sugar consumption in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality. Tens of thousands of Americans were tracked for decades. The more calories people consumed in the form of sugar, the greater their likelihood of dying from heart disease.

Sugar consumption is way up in the U.S. Our great-grandparents looked upon desserts as a special treat. Today, sweets (containing sucrose and fructose) are a huge part of our daily diet. Americans consume sweetened fruit juice along with sugary yogurts and cereals for breakfast, donuts or pastries for mid-morning snacks, soft drinks at lunch and throughout the day along with a variety of sweetened snacks and desserts. It is not unusual for adolescents and adults to get 25% of their total calories from added sugar. When they do, they are getting the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of sugar.

No one could consume that much sugar at one sitting without feeling awful. But because it is hidden in so many different foods and beverages it sneaks up on us. Those who consume that much sugar are twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who get less than 10% of their calories from added sugar. Sugarholics who get one-third of their calories from sugar quadruple their risk of dying from cardiovascular causes.

Even though there are no federal guidelines on sugar consumption, less is best! Some experts are suggesting that added sugar should make up no more than 15% of total calories.

What About Aspartame?

Many people have responded to the advice to cut back on sugar by turning to artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, one of the most popular, has been available for over 40 years and is included in more than 6,000 products. It sweetens at least 500 different medications. One would assume that its safety is beyond question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly affirmed that aspartame is safe. A recent risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the compound is safe at current levels of exposure.

The new review by Italian researchers, however, calls for a re-evaluation of the data. The authors point to studies of carcinogenicity over the lifetime of laboratory animals. They argue that their lifetime exposure studies are actually more sensitive than typical two-year protocols because they reflect effects that may take a long time to show up.

Adding to the controversy, Harvard researchers published their epidemiological data in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Dec., 2012). They concluded:

“In the most comprehensive long-term epidemiologic study, to our knowledge, to evaluate the association between aspartame intake and cancer risk in humans, we observed a positive association between diet soda and total aspartame intake and risks of NHL [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] and multiple myeloma in men and leukemia in both men and women.”

The animal research also detected lymphomas and leukemia as well as liver, kidney and lung tumors. The Italian scientists wrap up their discussion of the safety of aspartame by calling for better research and protection of pregnant women and young children from excess exposure. You can listen to our interview with one of the authors, Dr. Morando Soffritti, here.

The Bottom Line

Despite reassurances by U.S. and European regulatory authorities, we are not convinced the final chapter has been written on aspartame safety. Substituting this artificial sweetener for sugar may not improve long-term health outcomes.

What can you do?

First, enjoy fruit as a better dessert. The epidemiological analysis from JAMA Internal Medicine did not show a hazard from the sugars inherent in fruit.

Second, try to retrain your taste buds. The less sugar you eat, the less you will crave its seductive flavor. A small amount of sugar from time to time as a special treat is not likely to pose a serious health risk. But when we consume the equivalent of 31 teaspoons a day, we are asking for trouble.

 

Join Over 52,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

Each week we send two free email newsletters with breaking health news, prescription drug information, home remedies and a preview of our award-winning radio show. Join our mailing list and get the information you need to make confident choices about your health.

  1. Helen M
    Reply

    Thank you Nancy and Kathleen. In my head I know I must put my own health first; my heart is another story.
    I don’t like stevia and I have tried several. Including flavored ones – thrown away money.
    I do like fruit, especially in the summer, but have to be careful because of my diabetes. Dr. Mercola dislikes even the fructose in fruit and advises against more than 15 grams a day when you have health issues. I have some fruit at night only, used to have it three times a day. And I try to stick with berries. If we have citrus I have one section only. Bananas are a fond dream.
    Right now I am coming out of a bad fibro flare and in two or so weeks will be weaning off of prednisone. The prednisone helps with the spinal stenosis, but increases my fatigue and depletes my potassium. For years potassium has been doing a vanishing act inside me; perhaps because of celiac. My hope is that once I feel better, away from the side effects of prednisone, since the good effects wane anyway, I can become more disciplined about my care.
    As I read these comments, the bad stuff others have, and what has helped, my heart bleeds for all the pain out there, but also rises with hope that I can find something to help me feel better, do something productive with my days.

  2. Mari
    Reply

    Want to cut sugar? Try different brands of stevia. Some are liquid, some are powder. Some of the liquids are flavored–English Toffee seems to be the favorite of people who use stevia. I think stevia works great with fresh lemon or lime juice mixed with lots of water. It also works for coffee or tea and can be added to seltzer waters with fruit juice if you must have fizzy stuff. I also buy plain yogurt or kefir and add my own sweetener (stevia of course) and vanilla or fruit.

  3. Kahleen
    Reply

    God bless you Helen. Take care of yourself first, that is the only way you can be of help to anyone else. Your husband seems happy doing what he is doing. I say, leave well enough alone. No use making him unhappy. That will be harder on you.

What Do You Think?

Share your thoughts with others, but be mindful of protecting your own and others' privacy. Not all comments will be posted. Advice from web visitors is not a substitute for medical attention. Do not stop any medicine without checking with the prescriber. In posting a comment, you agree to our commenting policy and website terms and conditions.