The producer of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary that fundamentally changed the way many people look at climate change, has set her eyes on a new, equally ambitious target: sugar. The new film, called Fed Up, opens in theatres next week, and is an exposé of the deadly consequences of excessive sugar consumption that accuses governments and the food industry of failing to combat the problem.
For decades, many believed the only damage sugar caused was tooth decay and weight gain. But in recent years, the case against it has been building with fantastic speed, and now a growing chorus of physicians and scientists believe the dangers are comparable to those of smoking.
Study after study shows that even moderate amounts of sugar can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and premature death.
In February, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that people who get 10 to 25 per cent of their daily calories from sugar increase their risk of cardiovascular problems by 30 per cent.
The concern is so great that in March the World Health Organization said people should aim to limit their consumption of added sugar to 5 per cent of their caloric intake, which is about 100 calories for the average adult.
It’s not the sugar found in fruit or milk that has scientists and health advocates so worried. It’s the sugar that is added to cereal, condiments and sauces, packaged bread and drinks.
“Much of the sugar is hidden in our food supply, in various beverages,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the authors of February’s JAMA study. “It’s not really necessary to add too much sugar to these foods.”
But it turns out that most Canadians don’t actually know what “sugar” refers to – or that a large proportion of the sweetener that is added to the food supply is, in fact, a substance that many experts believe is even more toxic: high fructose corn syrup.
HFCS is the primary ingredient in soft drinks and can be found in everything from granola bars, canned pasta and chocolate milk to barbecue sauce and frozen desserts. Because of widespread campaigns based in the U.S., many Canadians are aware that there are concerns over its safety. But in Canada, it has a different name: “glucose-fructose” or “sugar/glucose-fructose,” which causes many label readers to mistake it for regular sugar. A 2011 industry survey found that only a quarter of respondents knew the difference.
The distinction goes far beyond semantics. Many health experts in the field say that sugar is bad, but HFCS is much worse. It appears to wreak havoc on the body, causing fat to be stored in the liver, where it can cause scarring and permanent damage. It can lead to excessive abdominal weight gain, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Studies show it causes high levels of triglycerides to be released into the blood, another cardiovascular risk factor.
Health experts say the federal government should change labelling rules to make the inclusion of HFCS transparent, arguing that, if more Canadians knew how ubiquitous the sweetener is, as well as the consequences increasingly linked to it, they would think twice about what they eat and drink.
“All sugars aren’t the same,” says Dr. Anil Nigam, director of the research program in preventive cardiology at the Montreal Heart Institute. “Bottom line: people are eating too much sugar and the sugar they’re eating is probably the worst kind.”
The use of HFCS began in earnest in the 1970s, when sugar prices rose dramatically. Corn was in abundant supply in the U.S., so its syrup, which could be processed into the even sweeter HFCS, offered a much cheaper alternative.
Soon it became the primary ingredient in items throughout the grocery store. U.S. subsidies to corn farmers continue to sustain the cost advantage.