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Added sugars are bad for the heart, but does it matter which kind you eat?

April 20, 2010 |  2:08 pm

You probably already know that foods with a lot of added sugars aren’t all that healthy. They can rot your teeth, make you gain weight and raise your risk of developing diabetes.

Sugar A new study in this week’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. has more bad news for those of us who crave sweet foods – table sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other added sugars also can mess with your blood lipids in a way that increases the risk of heart disease.

In a nutshell, the researchers figured this out by analyzing the diets of more than 6,000 representative Americans who participated in a long-term study. They paid particular attention to the proportion of their daily calories that came from added sugars (caloric sweeteners that are added to prepared and processed foods, not the sugars that occur naturally in fruit and other foods). They also looked closely at the level of high-density lipoprotein (aka “good cholesterol”) and triglycerides in their blood.

What they found is that the more sugar you eat, the worse your HDL and triglycerides get. And that boosts your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In doing their analysis, the researchers calculated that Americans eat an average of 21.4 teaspoons of added sugars each day. That translates into 359 calories, which account for 16% of daily caloric intake, on average. (For the sake of comparison, added sugars made up only 11% of daily calories back in the late 1970s.)

Where were all of those added sugars? For the biggest consumers – those who got more than 25% of their total calories from added sugar – a lot of it came from soda and other sweetened beverages, said Judith Wylie-Rosett, who heads the division of behavioral and nutritional research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and wasn’t involved in the JAMA study. If those big-time sugar consumers were simply eating a lot of Twinkies and other junk food, their diets would have more fat, she said.

Carbonated soda accounts for about one-third of the added sugar in American diets, according to government scientists. The rest comes from processed foods, some of which don’t even taste obviously sweet (think chicken broth, spaghetti sauce, baked beans and salad dressing).

One of the reasons added sugars are so abundant in the American diet is that high fructose corn syrup is abundant and cheap, and food manufacturers rely on it to make their products tastier. But that’s not to say that the corn syrup is inherently worse for the body than table sugar, Wylie-Rosett said.

Both sweeteners are made of a combination of fructose and glucose. Table sugar contains equal amounts of both, while high fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose and 45% glucose.

Rachel Johnson, a University of Vermont nutritionist who also wasn’t involved in the JAMA study, said the survey wasn’t designed to compare the effects of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Her own hunch, she said, was that “although we need more evidence, at this point, I am not convinced we would see a difference” between the two sweeteners.

-- Karen Kaplan

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