Tag Archives: sugar

Sugar just got a bit CRISPR: precise gene edits can improve sugarcane resilience, reduce its environmental impact

Ayman Eid, CABBI Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Florida, displays gene-edited sugarcane with reduced chlorophyll content. Credit: Rajesh Yarra, UF/IFAS Agronomy.

Sugarcane is one of the most important plants on Earth — at least for us humans. Not only does it provide 80% of the sugar and 30% of the bioethanol consumed worldwide, but the oil in its leaves and stems is also used to make bioplastics.

But there are two big problems with sugarcane. The first is its environmental impact. It takes huge amounts of water to grow and refine sugar (around nine gallons for a single teaspoon), and the whole process produces a lot of waste. To make matters even worse, sugar takes up large portions of agricultural land, fueling deforestation in several parts of the world.

For researchers, this environmental impact is also an opportunity — an opportunity to change the plant and make it more sustainable. But there’s another, different problem with sugar: it has a complex and messy genome, which makes it very difficult to change and edit it. It often takes over a decade for a single sugarcane cultivar to be properly developed, and crossbreeding sugarcane is notoriously difficult.

But new genetic tools can finally enable researchers to edit sugarcane in desired ways, says Fredy Altpeter, Professor of Agronomy at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

“Now we have very effective tools to modify sugarcane into a crop with higher productivity or improved sustainability,” Altpeter said. “It’s important since sugarcane is the ideal crop to fuel the emerging bioeconomy.”

Altpeter and Postdoctoral Research Associate Ayman Eid used the so-called “genetic scissors” CRISPR. CRISPR is a family of DNA sequences found in the genomes of some bacteria and archaea and can be used to edit parts of the genome of both plants and animals, eliminating some sequences and replacing them with more desirable ones. This approach can be used to treat diseases in humans or animals, but also for improving crops.

In two studies, the two researchers and their colleagues did just that: edited the gene of sugarcane using the CRISPR. In the first study, they changed a few genes to change the appearance of the plant. This was more of a proof of concept, to know if it worked or not. They also turned off several copies of a gene that helps sugarcane produce chlorophyll, making the plants turn light green or even yellow. The light green ones seemed to require less fertilizers to grow while producing the same biomass and no detectable side effects, the researchers note.

In the second study, researchers replaced individual nucleotides (the individual building blocks of both RNA and DNA) with better versions that they hoped would give sugarcane more resistance to herbicides. Essentially, this meant editing the plant’s own DNA repair process and making it more resilient to herbicides.

The fact that both attempts worked offers great hope for breeding useful new varieties of sugarcane that can help reduce its dreadful environmental impact.

With conventional breeding, two different types of sugarcane would have been cross-bred to reshuffle the genetic information, hoping that the desirable trait (such as needing less fertilizer) is enhanced. The problem is that it’s not always possible to fully control this, and genes are transferred from parents to offspring in blocks, which means that the desired gene is linked to other, superfluous genes. Researchers often have to do multiple rounds of breeding, and screen the plant to see exactly what changed in the offspring. Genetic tools offer a much more elegant, cheaper, and quicker way to accomplish the same thing.

Of course, whether or not consumers will accept CRISPR-edited plants on the plates remains to be seen. Consumers are almost always wary of modifying the genes of plants, even when the scientific process has been shown to be safe.

Journal Reference: Ayman Eid et al, Multiallelic, Targeted Mutagenesis of Magnesium Chelatase With CRISPR/Cas9 Provides a Rapidly Scorable Phenotype in Highly Polyploid Sugarcane, Frontiers in Genome Editing (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fgeed.2021.654996

Mehmet Tufan Oz et al, CRISPR/Cas9-Mediated Multi-Allelic Gene Targeting in Sugarcane Confers Herbicide Tolerance, Frontiers in Genome Editing (2021). DOI: 10.3389/fgeed.2021.673566

Western junk-food diet can slow down your brain and make you eat even more junk

Switching from a healthy diet to a western diet (high fat, high added sugar) for a little as one week can significantly impair cognitive function and encourage people to eat more even when they’re full.

Disruption in the hippocampus, a region that is known to have a major role in learning and memory, seems to be the likely cause.

Credit: Pixabay.

It’s not the first time something like this has been suggested. Research in the past found that when animals are fed a Western-style diet (rich in saturated fat and added sugar), they show impairment in memory and learning tests. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the same conclusion applies to humans and that hippocampal lesions can deregulate a person’s appetite.

Psychologists at Macquarie University in Sydney wanted to put this to the test and enlisted 110 young, lean students, aged 20 to 23, who generally ate a healthy diet.

Half of the students were randomly assigned to a junk food diet for an entire week, while the other half carried on with their normal diet.

The participants in the Western-style diet group had to have a breakfast of a toasted sandwich and a milkshake, high in saturated fat and added sugar, or Belgian waffles, as well as one main meal and a dessert from a popular fast-food chain. Bearing these changes aside, the students were asked to otherwise maintain their normal diet and lifestyle.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that those on the Western-style diet had an appetite for palatable food such as snacks and chocolate even when they were full. They also scored worse on memory tests.

“When we see cake, chocolate or crisps, for example, we remember how nice they are to eat.  When we are full the hippocampus normally supresses these memories, reducing our desire to eat.  We found that lean healthy young people exposed to one week of a junk food diet developed impaired hippocampal function and relatively greater desire to eat junk food when full.  Junk food may then act to undermine self-control by increasing desire,” the researchers stated in a press release.

These results seem to indicate that junk food might cause disruption in the hippocampus, impairing memory and making it harder to resist the temptation to eat even more junk food, which in turn generates more damage to the hippocampus and triggers a vicious cycle of overeating. The more people craved for palatable food when full, the more impaired their hippocampal function was, judging from memory tests.

“More broadly, this experiment, alongside those from the other animal and human studies cited here, suggests that a WS-diet causes neurocognitive impairments following short-term exposure,” the authors concluded.

Western-style diets, characterized by foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, as well as protein from red meat (i.e. burgers, processed meat, ready meals, fries, etc), have been previously associated with the development of obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

The authors of the new study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, think that there will come a time when authorities will be pressured to impose restrictions on processed food, similarly to how some policies in place today deter smoking and drinking alcohol.

Another study published last month showed how sugar can trigger changes in the brain similarly to an addiction. After just 12 days of being on a high sugar diet, participants suffered major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems.

New sugar-based molecule rips drug-resistant viruses to death

Oh, sweet victory — a team of researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a new virus-killing substance derived from sugar.

Artist’s impression of a virus being attacked by the new molecules.
Image credits EPFL.

Viruses aren’t easy to kill, especially in a way that doesn’t affect our own cells. Most of the drugs and chemicals that can destroy viruses also come with a host of side-effects on human health, as they impact our bodies to a lesser or greater extent. So one of the most usual approaches in dealing with viruses is to not actually kill them but to disrupt their ability to infect cells or multiply.

However, a new paper describes the development of a new sugar-based molecule that will actually destroy such pathogens, but leave our own cells unaffected.

A sticky demise

“We have successfully engineered a new molecule, which is a modified sugar that shows broad-spectrum antiviral properties,” says Samuel Jones and Valeria Cagno, lead researchers on the study.

“As this is a new type of antiviral and one of the first to ever show broad-spectrum efficacy, it has potential to be a game changer in treating viral infections.”

Viricides are substances or compounds that outright kill viruses instead of the traditional approach. The time window between when a traditional antiviral first makes contact with a virus and its death gives the pathogen an opportunity to develop defenses, and this new compound is aimed at combating that exact mechanism. Most importantly, however, is that the sugar-based molecule is effective against multiple types of viruses and completely benign for human cells.

The team started from cyclodextrins, naturally-occurring molecules that are related to glucose. They then engineered these molecules to attract viruses, stick to their membranes, and tear them apart — which effectively destroys the pathogen.

Microscope image of a virus before and after treatment with the molecule.
Image credits EPFL.

The team tested their compound on several types of viruses including herpes, HIV, hepatitis C, Zika and respiratory syncytial virus; it performed very well against all of them, they report. The tests involved both laboratory trials using tissue cultures, as well as live mice. Overall, the viricide was effective and didn’t harm either cultured or live cells and tissues, and the team found that the viruses weren’t able to develop resistance to the compound.

The sugar-based viricide has the most promise in use against viruses that have evolved resistance to other treatments, the team explains. It has already been patented and the team is currently setting up a new company to market it, with the end goal of developing ointments, nasal sprays, and other treatment options based on the molecule.

The paper “Modified cyclodextrins as broad-spectrum antivirals” has been published in the journal Science Advances.


Sugar worsens high-fat diets through one-two punch

A study on mice found that having sugary drinks can affect your body in more than one way: in addition to having a lot of sugar, they also disrupt the liver’s ability to burn fat.

Image via Pixabay.

Traditionally, fat was primarily blamed for weight gain. It seems to make a lot of sense, right — fat makes you fat. But recent research has shown that sugar, not fat, is the big problem. While there is more than just one factor associated with the current obesity crisis, sugar is definitely a major part of it.

Sugar is in almost all processed foods you can find on grocery store shelves. It’s found in sugary drinks, which offer almost no useful nutrients, and all cakes and cookies. But it’s also found in remarkable quantities in products you wouldn’t expect it, like sauces and pre-cooked meals.

What this new study found is that when joined together, sugar and fat can have an even worse effect than they do separately.

Double trouble

There are several types of sugar. Glucose and fructose are simple sugars (monosaccharides) found in fruits or honey. They have an equal amount of calories, but are absorbed differently by the body. In this new study, researchers found that the two actually have opposite effects on the liver.

“Fructose makes the liver accumulate fat,” says senior study author C. Ronald Kahn, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. “It acts almost like adding more fat to the diet,” he continues.

“This contrasts the effect of adding more glucose to the diet, which promotes the liver’s ability to burn fat, and, therefore, actually makes for a healthier metabolism,” he adds.

The researchers focused on two mechanisms, one involving mitochondria (the famous powerhouse of the cell), and the other involving fatty acid oxidation — or, simply put, fat burning.

The team put six groups of male mice on different diets for 10 weeks. The diets were:

  • regular;
  • regular with high glucose;
  • regular with high fructose;
  • high fat only;
  • high fat with high glucose;
  • high fat with high fructose.

The goal was to assess how the different diets affected the mice, and, in particular, to see how the interaction between high glucose/fructose and high fat changed things.

All three groups of mice on high-fat diets became obese. Their body mass grew by 40-60%, and they also showed signs of fat buildup in the liver.

However, the mice on the high-fat diet that received fructose also developed insulin resistance and higher blood sugar — their insulin levels doubled as a result. Meanwhile, the high fat/glucose group did not develop the other symptoms, despite having the same caloric intake.

Furthermore, the fructose-rich diets had more fragmented mitochondria, suggesting that they weren’t burning fat properly. In contrast, mitochondria from the glucose mice were in good shape.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as “if I have a diet rich in fat, I should eat more glucose” — quite the contrary. The first takeaway (which is not new) is that if you’re on a high-fat diet, there is a good chance that you’ll gain weight. The secondary takeaway, which is novel, is that we still don’t understand all the interactions between different types of foods. This study would suggest that in the long-term, fructose has the potential to be even more dangerous than glucose — so you might want to cut down on some of those sweet drinks, even if they are 100% fruit juice.

The team emphasizes that more research is needed, both in mice and in humans, to fully understand the intricacies of these interactions.

“This is one of a series of studies that we’ve been doing, concerning what role high fructose in the diet plays in terms of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome,” concludes Kahn.

The study has been published in Cell Metabolism.

Sweet tooth: two-thirds of drinks sold to children are sweetened

An average half-liter bottle of soda contains the equivalent of 14 sugar cubes. While there is some variance between different sodas, virtually all sweetened drinks contain a high amount of sugar, and they rarely have any useful nutrients.

Sugary drinks are an important part of why childhood obesity has spiked in recent years, rising by over 1000% in the past 40 years. Researchers assessed the top-selling brands of children’s drinks to see just how healthy or unhealthy they are. A total of 34 sweetened drinks (fruit drinks, flavored waters, and rink mixers) and 33 unsweetened drinks (fruit juice, juice-water blends, and one sparkling water) were analyzed.

They found that 62% of the global sales of children’s drinks (a market worth $2.2 billion / year) comes in the form of sweetened, unhealthy drinks. In contrast, healthier drinks represented just 38% of all sales.

Children were also exposed to more ads for sweetened drinks. Image credits: Rudd Center

Furthermore, researchers report that companies spent $20.7 million to advertise children’s drinks with added sugars in 2018, primarily to kids under age 12 — contradicting the rhetoric used by many companies.

“Beverage companies have said they want to be part of the solution to childhood obesity, but they continue to market sugar-sweetened children’s drinks directly to young children on TV and through packages designed to get their attention in the store,” said Jennifer L. Harris, lead study author and the Rudd Center’s director of Marketing Initiatives. “Parents may be surprised to know that pediatricians, dentists, and other nutrition experts recommend against serving any of these drinks to children.

More and more companies are developing drinks that are allegedly healthier (particularly natural juices and juice-water blends that don’t contain sweeteners) — but these are still a minority, and recent research has shown that natural juices might not be a healthy option after all.

The biggest problem, however, is that parents are often duped by vague, misleading nutritional claims, as well as images of fruits on the packages of sugary drinks. Few parents bother to look carefully at the nutritional label, and they shouldn’t have to, researchers say. Instead, rules should be enforced so that labeling and packaging are accurate and clear, depicting which drinks contain sugar and which don’t.

“You shouldn’t have to be a nutritionist to figure out whether or not a product is healthy for your child,” said Maria Romo-Palafox, study author and assistant professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University.

“The fronts of the packages make children’s drinks look healthy, but there’s no way to know which ones have added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners reading the front. You have to read the nutrition facts panel on the back and you have to know the names of low-calorie sweeteners, such as acesulfame potassium and sucralose, to realize they are in the product,” she added.

The report, sponsored by the health charity Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has not been peer-reviewed.

Cut down on dairy and sweets if you’re struggling with acne, study concludes

In addition to mental stress and unsound skin hygiene, poor dietary habits are associated with acne, a team of researchers reports. In particular, sweets and acne seem to go hand in hand.

Acne is a common skin condition which affects most people at some point in their life. It commonly manifests through spots and oily skin, but it can also cause pustules and severe pain. Although acne cannot be cured, it can be controlled with treatment, and it can be influenced by lifestyle.

Acne is estimated to affect one in 10 people globally, making it the eighth-most prevalent disease worldwide. It is particularly prevalent in teenagers and young adults, with some estimates reporting that it affects up to 40% of adult females. While it is not the most harmful of conditions, it can cause significant long-term discomfort, and its high prevalence makes it important to study.

The good news is that even without medical treatment, simple lifestyle changes can reduce acne incidence. A study presented at the 28th Congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in Madrid analyzed the exposure of different worsening factors to see which exacerbates acne the most. The study followed over 6,700 participants in six countries from North America, South America, and Europe. According to researchers, this is the first study of its type.

The results showed that the most significant dietary association was dairy consumption: 48.2% of individuals with acne consumed dairy products on a daily basis, compared to 38.8% who didn’t. Sweets such as pastries and chocolate also had a similar prevalence (37% vs 27.8%). Soda juices (35.6% vs 31%) were also significant factors. All in all, it seems that there is a significant association between sweets and acne.

Acne risk factors. Image credits: EADV.

Researchers also report an unexpected association: 11.9% of acne sufferers consume anabolic steroids, vs just 3.2% without acne. Consumers of whey proteins also have a higher incidence of acne (11% vs 7%). Exposure to pollution and stress were also more frequently observed in participants with acne compared to control participants. Professor Brigitte Dréno, lead author and an associate of Vichy Laboratories comments:

“Acne is one of the most common reasons why people with skin issues contact a dermatologist. Its severity and response to treatment may be influenced by internal and external factors, which we call the exposome. For the first time, this study allows us to identify the most important exposome factors relating to acne from patient questioning prior to any treatment prescription.”

This is still a preliminary study and was not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the study analyzed association without discussing causality — but the findings are still significant. Several previous studies have signaled a connection between sugar and acne. Sugar itself does not cause acne, but it can trigger hormonal fluctuations inside the body. Furthermore, sugar’s oxidative properties can provoke acne breakouts and can cause the body’s insulin levels to spike, which triggers a burst of inflammation throughout the body.

It’s official: soda tax offers “net good” to society

Despite opposition from the soda industry, studies consistently show that sugary drinks need to be taxed.

Want a simple way to improve society? Tax soda, researchers say.

For kids and adults alike, sugary drinks (soda drinks, fizzy drinks — call them as you will) have become nigh ubiquitous — they’re just everywhere. The world loves them and can’t get enough, but there is a cost to all of this. The vast majority of such drinks are essentially devoid of any useful nutrients or fiber and are very rich in sugar, which aside from being notoriously bad for your teeth, is also one of the main culprits of the ongoing global obesity crisis.

In this regard, soda drinks are very similar to alcohol or cigarettes: you don’t drink them because they offer something useful, you drink them as a very small luxury, and an unhealthy one like that. So if cigarettes and alcohol are taxed for these reasons, why shouldn’t sugary drinks be taxed in the same way?

In recent years, economists have been arguing more and more for a soda tax. It makes perfect sense — on the one hand, you reduce the consumption of unhealthy substances, improving society’s quality of life and reducing the burden associated with being overweight, and on the other hand, you raise a lot of money which can be used to develop health programs that add further benefits. A new study analyzed that idea at a fundamental level, and found that a soda tax adds a net benefit in society, if implemented correctly.

“The research is clear that sugary drinks are bad for our health,” explain Hunt Allcott, Wharton’s Benjamin Lockwood, and Dmitry Taubinsky, the papers’ authors. “Our study takes a next step to evaluate the overall economic rationale as to whether we should impose a tax. Using an economic framework, we show that taxing soda generates net benefits to society–taking into account the health effects, the enjoyment that people get from drinking the drinks they enjoy, the value of the tax revenues, and other factors.”

Americans are aware that they drink a lot of soda, the study finds. Just over half of Americans say they drink “more often than I should,” so at least at some level, many people would like to drink less. Previous studies have shown that people with higher nutritional awareness also tend to drink less soda, which suggests that if people were fully informed, they would make better, healthier decisions.

A nationwide soda tax in the US would yield $7 billion in net benefits to society each year, and national (or at least regional) taxes work best. Currently, several cities in the US have implemented such a sugar tax, but the tax impact is limited by the fact that people can simply go outside of town and buy cheaper soda.

Much like the cars emitting pollution that harms others, sugar can cause a wide array of health issues, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. This translates into medical bills which are paid by taxpayers or (in some cases in the US) by private insurers. At any rate, having healthier people also translates into reduced costs, but the opposite is also true: unhealthy people will produce a financial cost to society. In this case, researchers estimate that drinking an average 12-ounce can of Coke will impose about 10 cents on others.

These health issues disproportionately affect low-income people, but opponents of a sugar tax have claimed that applying an extra cost will also disproportionately affect this category. This new study finds that this is not the case.

“We estimate that soda taxes benefit both low- and high-income people,” the researchers say. “While low-income people drink more sugary drinks and thus pay more in soda taxes, their health also benefits more from drinking less.”

The study also finds that taxing the actual sugar is more effective than taxing the liquid which contains sugar. A tax of 0.5 cents per gram of sugar would work much better than the 1 cent per ounce of liquid, which is often discussed in practice. This is because, although all sugary drinks are dangerous, some have much more sugar than others, and should be taxed accordingly.

Lastly, the team also discusses diet drinks. The city of Philadelphia, for instance, implemented a sugar tax that also applies to replacements of sugary drinks. While there have been concerns regarding the effects of such drinks on human health, the results are much less clear. Simply put, we’re sure sugary drinks do a lot of damage, and we’re not exactly sure how much damage replacements do. For now, the team recommends taxing sugar.

“Soda taxes should be limited to sugary drinks, where the health evidence is more clear,” the economists conclude.

The study has been published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

New ‘brain training’ game could help you wean off of excess added sugar

Researchers at Drexel University, Pennsylvania want to help you cut down on excessive sugar consumption by playing a game.


Image via Pixabay.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over half of American adults consume excessive amounts of added sugars, with detrimental effects to their health. A new study led by Evan Forman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, reports that computer games can be used to train players to wean off this sugar and help them to improve their health and manage their weight more easily.

Too sweet

“Added sugar is one of the biggest culprits of excess calories and is also associated with several health risks including cancer,” said Forman, who also leads the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) at Drexel.

“For these reasons, eliminating added sugar from a person’s diet results in weight loss and reduced risk of disease.”

The team developed and tested the efficiency of a “brain training game” that targets the brain area which inhibits our impulses. The aim was to train people to better resist the lure of foods with added sugars, specifically to decrease the consumption of sweets and sweet foods. Such systems have shown their efficiency in helping people quit other unhealthy habits, such as smoking. Forman says that this study is the first to look at how “highly personalized and/or gamified inhibitory control training” can help with weight loss using repeated, at-home training sessions.

In collaboration with Michael Wagner, a professor and head of the Digital Media department in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and a group of digital media students, the team developed a game they named “Diet DASH”.

Diet DASH is built to integrate with each player’s particular habits. It automatically customized itself to focus on the sweets each participant tended to eat and adjusted its difficulty according to how well each player was resisting the temptation to eat said sweets. To test how well it worked, the team collaborated with a randomized group of 109 participants who were overweight and reported to over-enjoy sweets. Prior to starting the game, each participant took part in a workshop to help them understand why sugar is detrimental to their health and to learn which foods to avoid and methods for doing so.

“Prior to randomization, all participants attended a 2-h workshop in which they were provided with a dietary prescription (to eat only foods without added sugar or with very low amounts of added sugar, such as certain low-sugar breakfast cereals) as well as guidance in making dietary
modifications (e.g., reading food labels, shopping and cooking substitutions). Explanatory text, figures, and tables that allowed participants to easily identify targeted foods with added sugar were distributed,” the paper explains.

“The workshop helped give participants strategies for following a no-sugar diet. However, we hypothesized that participants would need an extra tool to help manage sweets cravings,” said Forman. “The daily trainings could make or break a person’s ability to follow the no-added sugar diet. They strengthen the part of your brain to not react to the impulse for sweets.”

Game screenshot.

Image credits Evan M. Forman et al., (2019), JoBM.

Each participant played the game for a few minutes every day for six weeks and then once a week for two weeks. The game itself places players in a grocery store, with the goal of putting the correct (healthy) food in a grocery cart as fast as possible while refraining from choosing incorrect food (their preferred sweets). Players were awarded points for correct items placed in carts.

Participants were randomly assigned to a highly-gamified version of the game (with better graphics and sounds) or a less-gamified version. The team reports that the gamification level didn’t seem to matter much as far as weight loss was concerned. However, the (few) male participants in the study reacted better to the highly gamified version than the women in the study.

Over half the participants in the study showed higher preferences toward sweets. For this group, the game helped them lose as much as 3.1% of their total body weight over eight weeks. Participants also rated how satisfactory they found the daily training, whether or not it became part of their daily routine, and whether they wished to continue with the training if it becomes publicly available.

“The study’s findings offer qualified support for the use of a computerized cognitive training to facilitate weight loss,” said Forman.

The WELL Center is now conducting a new trial with the highly gamified version of this training program specifically for men and is actively recruiting participants.

The paper “Computerized neurocognitive training for improving dietary health and facilitating weight loss” has been published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Credit: Pixabay.

High-sugar diet might make food less enjoyable, promoting obesity

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

One of the reasons why people with obesity may overeat is because they don’t enjoy sweets as much as lean people. But does obesity itself alter a person’s taste buds or do certain foods cause changes in taste buds, leading to an increase in appetite and ultimately obesity? According to a new study, high-sugar diets deaden sensitivity to sweets, fueling overeating patterns and obesity — at least in fruit flies. In the future, drugs that correct dietary sweetness might one-day curb the obesity epidemic that is looming over the entire world.

A weak sweet tooth

Monica Dus, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Michigan, led a team of researchers who performed a complex investigation of the relationship between obesity and sweet receptors in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). These tiny creatures might not sound like the perfect model for studying obesity in humans, but the reality is that fruit flies have a surprisingly similar metabolism. We can never ask a fly if it “enjoys” food but we do know that both humans and fruit flies love sugar and fat, producing the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine when eating it. The fruit fly’s brain cells also use many of the same proteins and molecules. And yes, fruit flies can get obese too.

In order to isolate the effects of sugar and taste receptors, the researchers first fed genetically obese flies which were never exposed to high dietary sugar — their taste response did not change. However, when the researchers fed a lot of sugar to flies that were genetically modified not to store fat, they stayed thin but lost their ability to taste sweets.

This told the researchers that the ability to taste sweets changed due to the diet, not because of the symptoms of obesity. In another experiment, the researchers fed flies a diet similar to artificially sweetened diet soda and sugar. Only the flies eating real sugar lost their sweet-tasting ability, suggesting that sugar and not the sweet taste of food caused the changes.

“We know it’s something specific about the sugar in the diet that’s making them lose their taste,” Dus said in a statement.

Both fruit flies and humans have a sugar sensor located on the taste buds called O-GlcNAc transferase (OGT) that measures how much sugar is being absorbed by cells. When the OGT taste cells were manipulated by the researchers, a high-sugar diet no longer caused changes in taste, and those flies didn’t overeat despite copious amounts of sugar freely available to them. Previously, OGT had been associated with obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in humans.

“This means the changes in taste, at least in flies, are pretty important to drive overconsumption and weight gain,” Dus said. “Do changes in taste also play a role in the overconsumption that we see when humans and other animals find themselves in food environments high in sugar?”

Drugs that target OGT might one-day help people who are overweight or feeling addicted to sugar by correcting their sweet taste sensation. Such a solution, however, might be years away. In the meantime, the researchers recommend that people pay closer attention to the amount of daily sugar they are ingesting. Virtually all processed foods and drinks contain added sugar, which makes it extremely easy to overshoot your daily sugar allowance.

A one-hour-long presentation by Monica Dus on the effects of dietary sugar on taste perception, food intake, and obesity.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. Yet, the average American consumes 17 teaspoons (71.14 grams) every day.

“I think if you try to keep added sugars out of your diet, you’ll probably be totally fine, you won’t have problems with changing taste and overeating,” said Christina May, first author of the study and a doctoral student in Dus’ lab. “All of us try to avoid the added sugars. That’s important.”

The findings appeared in the journal Cell Reports.


Sugar rushes just aren’t a thing, researchers say

Sugar won’t get you in a rush, but it can definitely sour your mood.


Image via Pixabay.

We don’t get a mood boost from sugar — it doesn’t even make us more alert. Rather, it tires us after consumption. These are the findings of a new study from the University of Warwick, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Lancaster University which tried to determine if there is such a thing as a ‘sugar rush’.

There isn’t

“We hope that our findings will go a long way to dispel the myth of the ‘sugar rush’ and inform public health policies to decrease sugar consumption,” said lead author Dr. Konstantinos Mantantzis, from the Humboldt University of Berlin.

“The idea that sugar can improve mood has been widely influential in popular culture, so much so that people all over the world consume sugary drinks to become more alert or combat fatigue.”

“Our findings very clearly indicate that such claims are not substantiated — if anything, sugar will probably make you feel worse.”

The team analyzed data from 31 published studies, involving roughly 1300 adults to investigate the effects of sugar on our mood, including anger, alertness, depression, and fatigue. They also looked at how factors such as the quantity and type of sugar consumed can affect mood, and whether or not engaging in demanding activities made any difference in this outcome.

In broad lines, the team reports that:

  • The consumption of sugar has virtually no effect on mood. This was consistent across multiple quantities and varieties of sugar, or whether participants engaged in demanding activities after consuming sugar.
  • Participants who consumed sugar felt more tired and less alert than those who hadn’t.
  • ‘Sugar rushes’ are a myth, the team finding no evidence in favor of their existence.

The team says that the results rather suggest that consuming sugar will make you feel worse, not better. They hope that the study will help nudge people into rethinking how sugar fits into their diets and lifestyles.

“The rise in obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome in recent years highlights the need for evidence-based dietary strategies to promote healthy lifestyle across the lifespan,” says co-author Elizabeth Maylor, a Professor at the University of Warwick.

“Our findings indicate that sugary drinks or snacks do not provide a quick ‘fuel refill’ to make us feel more alert.”

The paper “Sugar Rush or Sugar Crash? A Meta-Analysis of Carbohydrate Effects on Mood” has been published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Hangry man.

Being hungry really does sour your mood, research reveals

That coworker who’ll lay into you if they skipped breakfast? New research suggests his metabolism is partly to blame.

Hangry man.

Image credits Olichel Adamovich.

Researchers from the University of Guelph have shown that a sudden drop in glucose — such as we experience when we’re hungry — can have a dramatic impact on our mood. The findings help explain why so many people bemoan getting “hangry“.

Food fight

“We found evidence that a change in glucose level can have a lasting effect on mood,” said coauthor Francesco Leri, a professor at the university’s Department of Psychology.

“I was skeptical when people would tell me that they get grouchy if they don’t eat, but now I believe it. Hypoglycemia is a strong physiological and psychological stressor.”

For the study, the team worked with a group of lab rats, following their emotional behavior after inducing hypoglycemia (low blood-sugar levels). The group was injected with a glucose metabolism blocker — which artificially induced hypoglycemia — and was placed in a special chamber. The same rats later received an injection of water and were placed in a different chamber.

At the end of the trials, the rats were allowed to enter one of the chambers — and actively avoided the one where they experienced hypoglycemia.

“This type of avoidance behaviour is an expression of stress and anxiety,” said Leri. “The animals are avoiding that chamber because they had a stressful experience there. They don’t want to experience it again.”

The team took blood samples of the rats at various stages during the experiment and report that rats showed higher blood levels of corticosterone, an indicator of physiological stress, following the first step of the trial. In other words, they were likely experiencing acute stress while their blood-sugar levels were artificially lowered to mimic skipping a meal or two.

The rats also appeared more sluggish when given the glucose metabolism blocker. While it may be argued that this effect stems from a lack of glucose in the rats’ systems — muscles use glucose as fuel — the team reports that this doesn’t seem to be the case. When the sluggish rats were given antidepressant medication, “the sluggish behavior was not observed. The animals moved around normally,” Leri explained.

“This is interesting because their muscles still weren’t getting the glucose, yet their behaviour changed.”

“This is interesting because their muscles still weren’t getting the glucose, yet their behaviour changed.”

Overall, the findings support the idea that animals (us humans included) experience anxiety and a sour mood when going hungry for too long. The results may help flesh out our understanding of the treatment dynamic for those who experience anxiety or depression. They may also shed some light on the (still poorly-understood) link between depression and diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and eating disorders.

“When people think about negative mood states and stress, they think about the psychological factors, not necessarily the metabolic factors,” said PhD student Thomas Horman, who led the study. “But we found poor eating behaviour can have an impact.”

“The factors that lead someone to develop depression and anxiety can be different from one person to the next. Knowing that nutrition is a factor, we can include eating habits into possible treatment.”

Next, the team plans to determine whether long-term hypoglycemia may be a risk factor for developing depression-like behavior. While a single missed meal may make us grumpy, doing so constantly may have a dramatic impact on our mood and quality of life:

“Poor mood and poor eating can become a vicious cycle in that if a person isn’t eating properly, they can experience a drop in mood, and this drop in mood can make them not want to eat,” Horman explains.

“If someone is constantly missing meals and constantly experiencing this stressor, the response could affect their emotional state on a more constant level.”

The paper “An exploration of the aversive properties of 2-deoxy-D-glucose in rats” has been published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Most supermarket yogurt products contain too much sugar, new study warns

As some states rightfully start to look at reducing sugar consumption from soft drinks, scientists underline another potential source of unneeded sugar: yogurt.

Organic products, perceived as healthier options, are among some of the worst offenders.

There’s a good reason to believe that yogurt is generally good for you: it aids digestive health and improves gut bacteria, while also containing protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B. But yogurt might also be a source of unrecognized sugar, researchers caution, especially as children under the age of 3 eat more yogurt than any other age group (proportionally).

In order to see how much sugar yogurts have, a team of scientists analyzed the nutritional content of 900 yogurts and yogurt products, which were available from five major UK online supermarket chains in October/November 2016. These five chains hold the lion’s share of the market (over 70%).

All the products were grouped into eight categories:

  • children’s, which included fromage frais;
  • dairy alternatives, such as soy;
  • desserts;
  • drinks;
  • flavored;
  • fruit;
  • natural/Greek;
  • and organic.

Both within and across these categories, sugar content varied enormously. But, with the exception of natural/Greek yogurts, the average sugar content of products in all the categories was well above the recommended sugar threshold. Fewer than 10% of all yogurt fell into the low-sugar category and almost none of the yogurts in the children’s category were low-sugar.

Unsurprisingly, desserts contained the most sugars, but they were followed by children’s yogurts. Considering the rising epidemic of childhood obesity, this is particularly worrisome.

“While yogurt may be less of a concern than soft drinks and fruit juices, the chief sources of free sugars in both children and adults’ diets, what is worrisome is that yogurt, as a perceived ‘healthy food,’ may be an unrecognised source of free/added sugars in the diet,” researchers write.

This is especially true of the yogurts in the organic category, which are generally regarded as a healthier alternative. However, researchers add, ‘organic’ only refers to the production mechanism, not to the overall quality of the product. So organic yogurts can trick consumers into thinking they’re a healthy option, while having more sugar than recommended.

“While the organic label refers to production, the well documented ‘health-halo effect’ means that consumers most often underestimate the caloric content and perceive the nutritional contents of organic products, including yogurts, more favourably.”

Not all products are as healthy as consumers perceive them to be, researchers say. They end with a call to reduce the amount of sugar in yogurts, or at the very least, signal it through labeling.

The study has been published in the British Medical Journal.

Soft drink.

Show people the dangers of sugary beverages and they’ll pick healthier options

Images showcasing the dangers of excessive sugar consumption help reduce sugary beverage consumption, while text labels have no effect on consumer behavior.

Soft drink.

Image credits Markus Spiske.

Don’t we just love some sugar? Of course we do. But too much of it is bad for you — and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), we’re having too much of it. This gives rise to all hosts of problems, from tooth decay and type 2 diabetes to obesity (which itself invites further health complications). According to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Business School, however, plastering soft drinks with images showcasing the dangers of sugar can help curb excess sugar consumption.

Sweet images, bro

“Warning labels have been around a long time for tobacco products, but they’re a new concept for sugary drinks,” said study co-lead author Grant Donnelly. “Text warning labels have been passed in San Francisco and are being considered in many jurisdictions in the U.S. and around the world. Ours is the first study to evaluate the effectiveness of sugary drink warning labels in the field.”

The study wanted to compare the effectiveness of graphic labels against those of text labels in helping people curb sugar intake. The research, conducted in a hospital cafeteria, found that the former reduced sugary beverage purchases by 14.8%, while text labels had no noticeable effect.

Donnelly and his team tested three types of labels: text warnings and graphic warnings regarding the health risk of sugary drinks, and lists of each beverage’s caloric value. These labels were displayed near bottled and fountain beverages in a Massachusetts hospital cafeteria. Each label was displayed alone, with a two-week period between each test when no label was displayed to “washout” any lingering effects. Over 20,000 beverage sales were recorded during the research.

During the weeks when graphic warnings were displayed, sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in the cafeteria declined by 14.8%, the team writes. Consumers generally opted for bottled water in favor of these beverages. This shift in purchasing behavior led to a decrease in average calories per sold drink from 88 to 75 while graphic ads were on display, they add. Finally, the team found that text labels had no noticeable effect on purchasing patterns.

The team followed-up their research with online studies. The first asked consumers how a warning label would influence their sugary beverage purchases. According to participants’ answers, these warnings increased their negative feelings towards sugary drinks and helped them consider health risks over taste or enjoyment.

During the second, nationally-representative online study, over 400 participants were asked whether they would support the addition of the three labels on sugar-sweetened beverages. When informed that the graphic warnings were found to be effective in reducing consumption of sugary drinks, participants were equally supportive of these, text warnings, and calorie labels.

The team believes their work illustrates both the effectiveness of and the need to include such graphic warnings on sugar-heavy beverages. Such drinks are the “largest source of added sugars in the American diet,” notes co-lead author Laura Zatz. Reducing our intake of such products would have very beneficial effects on our health, and on overall public health.

“As policymakers search for ways to reduce excess consumption of sugary drinks, graphic warning labels merit consideration as a tool that can empower consumers with salient information to encourage healthier choices,” she adds.

This isn’t the first effort to help people drop the sugary habit. Back in September 2017, a tax on sugary beverages came into effect in the UK. Drinks with a sugar content higher than 5g per 100ml will be taxed 18p ($0.25) per liter, and drinks with 8g or more will be taxed 24p ($0.34) — authorities hope this measure will help curb the rise of obesity in the island nation. It’s not a non-issue by any means. Excessive sugar can and will kill, and those of us in developed countries are most at-risk of this sweetened finale.

The graphic-label approach was used (quite successfully) with tobacco, but many people criticize them for being too gruesome and off-putting; on the other end of the stick, plain packaging also seems to have some merits in reducing tobacco sales — maybe the same approach would work for sugary beverages, too?

So, what do you think? Should we use the stick of graphic warnings or the carrot of plain packaging to steer people away from excessively-sugary drinks? Let us know in the comments below.

The paper “The Effect of Graphic Warnings on Sugary Drink Purchasing,” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Children in England are simply eating too much sugar

Sugary soft drinks, cake, and pastries are the main culprits but added sugar in all products is also a major problem.

It’s not sugar itself — but the embedded sugar inside what we eat.

We’re barely past the half of the year, but English children have already consumed their yearly sugar allocation, new figures conclude. According to a new report by Public Health England (PHE), children are munching down sweets like never before. The study estimates that children aged 4 to 10 are eating more than twice as much sugar as they should: the equivalent of 13 sugar cubes per day, or 4,800 cubes a year.

According to existing recommendations, kids shouldn’t consume more than the equivalent of 6 cubes of sugar per day.

But the problem isn’t sugar cubes.

“We’re barely halfway through the year and already children have consumed far more sugar than is healthy – it’s no surprise this is contributing to an obesity crisis,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE. “Snacks and drinks are adding unnecessary sugar to children’s diets without us even noticing. Swapping to lower- or no-added-sugar alternatives is something all parents can work towards.”

Unsurprisingly, sugary drinks are one of the main culprits, accounting for 10% of the total sugar intake. This is often in the form of empty calories in sugary drinks. Fruit juice with no added sugar can be a healthier alternative, but consuming too much of this is also unhealthy since fruits have a lot of sugar by themselves. Cakes and other pastries account for another 10% and again, this isn’t really surprising. Kids love sweets, and cakes are always among the favorites. Another 9% came from biscuits and 8% from morning cereals — often considered a healthy breakfast, they regularly contain a lot of sugar.

Sugar itself (along with sugary spreads) accounted for only 9% of the total intake.

This is already having a huge effect on the children’s health. Sugar is one of the main causes of obesity and can often lead to cavities and other teeth problems. A previous study found that over 4% of all British children are obese by the time they reach 11 years of age, and the UK is the most obese country in Europe. However, the UK has started to implement policies to tackle this issue — most notably, a sugar tax.

The sugar tax came into force in the UK in April, and already, many big brands are cutting down on the sugar in their drinks, or switching to sugar-free alternatives. Many bars and pubs have already changed their standard drinks to sugar-free options because it’s cheaper than the taxed sugar alternative. However, this is still just one step.

PHE is trying to reduce the sugar in all foods and drinks regularly consumed by kids by 20% by 2020.

These are certainly startling figures and highlight that the obesity crisis that’s threatening not just England, but the entire world, is probably here to stay for at least another generation.


Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

American toddlers are consuming more added sugar than the recommended daily intake for adults

Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

Exceeding the daily allowance of added sugars is bad for your health — and this can pose even worse consequences for children. According to a recent study, most American toddlers consume copious amounts of added sugars, exceeding the maximum recommended amount for adults.

“This is the first time we have looked at added sugar consumption among children less than 2 years old,” said lead study author Kirsten Herrick, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Our results show that added sugar consumption begins early in life and exceeds current recommendations. These data may be relevant to the upcoming 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Added sugar — the kind that is not naturally occurring, such as that found in fruits or milk — is one of the world’s biggest health risks. Almost all processed foods have added sugar in them, and it’s this pervasive nature that makes it extremely easy for people to exceed the moderate threshold.

Dietary guidelines suggest limiting calories from added sugar to less than 10% per day, but most Americans exceed this limit greatly. This is a problem because studies have associated sugar consumption to weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the number one cause of death worldwide), acne, diabetes, cancer, depression, kidney disease, negatively impacts oral health, and accelerates aging.

Americans are increasingly consuming more added sugars in their diet. Today, the average American adult consumes 152 pounds (68kg) of sugar per year, up from 123 pounds (55kg) in 1970. And according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this trend is set to continue as younger generations become accustomed to excessive amounts of sugar from a very young age.

The team of researchers examined data collected from a nationally representative sample of over 800 infants aged 6 to 23 months old who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2011 and 2014. The children’s parents were supposed to document every food item the kids ingested during a 24-hour period, based on which the researchers calculated the mean sugar intake.

The study concluded that toddlers 12 to 18 months old consumer 5.5 teaspoons of sugar per day, while older toddlers aged 19 to 23 months consumed 7.1 teaspoons. To put things into perspective, this is close or, in some cases, more than the recommended amount of daily sugar intake by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to AHA’s guidelines, adult women shouldn’t consume more than 6 teaspoons of sugar and men should limit intake to nine teaspoons per day.

[panel style=”panel-warning” title=”AHA: Limit children’s sugar consumption” footer=”Recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA).”]The AHA recommends parents watch food labels for added sugar in the form of fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, honey, lactose, and sucrose. In July 2018, they will be able to see added sugar amounts listed on the labels.[/panel]

Among children aged 12-23 months, the researchers found that added sugar consumption was highest among non-Hispanic black children and lowest among non-Hispanic white children. There were no differences in added sugar consumption by race among infants 6-11 months.

“Once kids start eating table food, they’re often eating the same types of foods that Mom and Dad have in their diet, and other research has demonstrated that adults exceed recommendations for added sugar too,” said Herrick.

The findings are worrisome because sugar is addictive and the earlier you start eating lots of it, the harder it is to kick the habit later in life. Researchers recommend that parents monitor the added sugar intake of their children and take steps to ensure their diets are healthy with minimum added sugar before they turn two.  The primary source of added sugar in Americans’ diet are sweetened beverages, accounting for 47% of all added sugars consumed by Americans. Researchers say that cutting on sugary drinks should be the first thing that parents turn to in order to have the biggest impact on their children’s health.

“The easiest way to reduce added sugars in your own diet and your kids’ diet is to choose foods that you know don’t have them, like fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Herrick.

The findings were presented at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting during Nutrition 2018, held June 9-12, 2018 in Boston.

The soda tax works: After tax, Philadelphians are 40 percent less likely to drink soda every day

After a soda tax was introduced in Philadelphia, people started drinking less sugary drinks and more water.

The world is facing an unprecedented obesity crisis and sugar is one of the main culprits. We simply eat too much sugar, and not only in its raw form — there’s plenty of sugar embedded in our foods, and especially in our drinks. The consumption of sugary drinks has increased dramatically in the past few decades, and lawmakers are finally stepping in.

In Philadelphia, for instance, a sugar tax was imposed about a year ago. Now, the effects are becoming clear.

The 1.5 cents-an-ounce tax went into effect Jan. 1, 2017, and raised $72.3 million in its first 11 months. That money went into funding pre-K and community schools, and already, there are more children attending these programs. But these are just the secondary aspects of the tax. Its main purpose was to push people to drink less soda — and that’s working too.

A survey of 900 people from Philadelphia found that 40% less likely to drink sugary soda and 60% less likely to drink an energy drink each day. At the same time, they are 58% more likely to drink more bottled water. Yichen Zhong, a doctoral student at the Dornsife School of Public Health and lead author, comments:

“If distributors fully pass the tax on to customers, it could increase the price of soda and energy drinks by about 20 percent,” said Zhong. “It is expected that a price increase of that magnitude will influence some consumers to stop purchasing non-essential items like sugary soda and possibly switch to a lower-priced beverage, like bottled water — and our results are in line with that.”

Interestingly though, not all sugary beverages dropped — the fruit flavors of Snapple and Sunny Delight, for instance, were not seen to have a decline in consumption, and it’s not yet clear why. It may be that people are willing to pay more for them, or that they mistakenly view them as healthier.

“We were not able to assess whether this was because retailers didn’t raise prices for fruit drinks or whether consumers chose to pay more for those beverages. Those drinks may be viewed as healthier than soda despite having the same amount of added sugar (about 10 packets of sugar per 12-ounces),” said Amy Auchincloss, co-author of the study.

The study is important because essentially, it shows that the sugar tax works. There is a mountain of evidence connecting sugar consumption with obesity and diabetes, as well as heart disease and tooth decay.

“Considering that 30 percent of Philadelphians have at least one sugary beverage each day, any kind of cut in consumption could be impactful,” notes Auchincloss.

Recently, the UK has also introduced a nationwide sugar tax for drinks. I’m curious to see whether effects will be similar there as well.

Where sugar comes from: a journey through its history and production

Removing sugar from our diets would prove near impossible. It is in bread, jams, cookies, yogurt, sauces, canned products, and more. However, sugar was not always such an integral part of our diets. In fact, it is only in the last few hundred years that sugar has been considered a necessity. History and industry have made sugar so accessible that we can indulge our sweet teeth at a low cost. Here is where sugar comes from:

Image credits: Oregon State University.

The history

Sugarcane is native to South and Southeast Asia. The inhabitants of those regions have been producing it since ancient times. Sugarcane was first brought to Europe in the 1st century CE but it was presented as a medicine. Sugar gained importance as the Indians figured out how to crystallize the sugarcane juice in the 5th century CE. Then it was much easier to store and more versatile to use. Sugar was called khanda in the local Indian language, which is the source of the word candy. The Chinese learned about sugar refining from the Indians and created its first plantations in the 7th century. The technology then came to Europe where sugar was imported and refined.

Sugar plantation in Indonesia circa 1900. Image credits: Wikimedia commons.

Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean, which turned out to have perfect growing conditions for the plant. Many plantations were established in Central and South America. Slave labour was in high demand to work these plantations. Because of this, sugar was cheap enough for most Europeans to be able to buy it. Sugar changed from being a luxury to a necessity and fueled the colonization of the tropical islands.

In the early 19th century, Europe was consumed by war and mainland Europe was blockaded from the ocean. Therefore, Europeans had to find a new alternative to continue to enjoy the sugar they had grown fond of. They discovered that the sugar beet has a high sugar content that can be extracted, and mainland Europe switched their main sugar source from cane to beets. Sugar cane requires tropical climates, while sugar beets can be grown in more temperate areas making it possible to grow in the temperate European climate. Europe has gotten its sugar mostly from sugar beets from that period on.

The industrialized process of sugar making has kept sugar prices low and made it an integral ingredient in any kitchen cupboard. Industrially, high fructose corn syrup is often used in food products as a replacement for sugar because it is sweeter and cheaper to produce. Starch is extracted from milled corn and enzymes are added to convert the sugars to fructose. However, table sugar is nonetheless in high demand.

A tale of two sugars

Sucrose is the typical white sugar that you have in the house. It is harvested from sugar beets and sugar cane. Other plants contain it as well, in addition to glucose and fructose, but not in quantities sufficient for harvest. One molecule of sucrose is created from the combination of one molecule each of glucose and fructose. It’s not the only sugar; lactose, maltose, fructose, galactose, and glucose are other types.

The sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is a root vegetable that contains a large proportion of sugar. It can be grown in a temperate climate. When brought to the sugar processing plant, the beets are first washed and then sliced. Water is added to create a sugary juice. The sugar is extracted through diffusion. Milk of lime (diluted calcium hydroxide) is added to the juice and carbon dioxide-enriched gas is used to carbonate the juice several times to purify it. Carbonatation causes impurities in the sugar to form a solid and that can then be easily removed. The resulting syrup is boiled to evaporate out water. It is then cooled and seeded with sugar crystals. The crystallized sugar is separated out in a centrifuge and then is dried. It takes 7 sugar beets to make a kilogram of sugar.

Sugar beets in the field. Image credits: Geograph.

Sugar cane needs to be grown in a tropical climate without any frost. Around 78 million tons of sugarcane are harvested annually. After being harvested, the sugar cane is brought to a sugar mill. The stalks are pulverized and water is added. Impurities are removed with lime and the juice is heated to destroy enzymes. The water is removed in a series of evaporation steps to make the syrup thick. It is seeded with sugar crystals and then dried. The resulting raw sugar crystals are slightly brown and sticky.

Molasses is created as a byproduct of sugar production and sugar cane molasses is usually used over sugar beet molasses because of its taste. Molasses added to refined sugar makes it into brown sugar. Raw sugar still contains some molasses in the crystals, which has not been refined out. That is the difference between brown and raw sugar; for brown sugar, the molasses is just added to the refined sugar.

Sugar cane growing. Image credits: Phil.


Raw sugar is 97.5% sucrose and also contains glucose, fructose, inorganic ash, gums, amino acids, and color. It is further purified through several steps to make white, refined sugar. The raw sugar goes through an affination process and surface impurities are dissolved off by putting the sugar crystals in a concentrated syrup that removes the sticky brown coating of the raw sugar. The sugar is carbonated by adding the base calcium hydroxide to neutralize the acidic sap. Activated carbon removes the brown color. The next step is to crystallize the sugar by boiling the syrup and seeding it with sugar crystals, then centrifuging the liquid off.

Raw sugar contains impurities. Image credits: Fritzs.

Sugar has gone from being a commodity to a necessity in a short span of time. Historically, sugar production is closely tied to colonization and slavery. Now, industrialization keeps sugar accessible. Sugar undergoes several processing and purification steps to make it into the crystallized and refined sugar that ends up in your coffee.

The sugar industry knew about negative health effects, but swept them under the rug

A worldwide obesity crisis might have been averted had we known about sugar’s negative health effects sooner. As it turns out, the sugar industry researched and learned about these effects decades ago, but decided to keep them hidden and lobby against said effects.

Not as innocent as it looks: sugar is the main culprit behind the obesity pandemic. Image credits:
Kat Bruni.

‘Big sugar’

Back in the 1960s, the leading school of thought was that fat is the main culprit for obesity, heart disease, and cancer. But another theory was starting to catch on — one that blamed sugar. The sugar industry downplayed this as much as possible, and in 1965, an industry group, the Sugar Research Foundation, carried out a review to assess the health effects of sugar. Now, a new investigation published in the journal PLOS Biology revealed that the sugar industry funded its own research project, but never disclosed the findings because it made them look bad. The study reads:

“In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) secretly funded a review in the New England Journal of Medicine that discounted evidence linking sucrose consumption to blood lipid levels and hence coronary heart disease (CHD). SRF subsequently funded animal research to evaluate sucrose’s CHD risks.”

There were two unpublished studies, called Project 259, funded by sugar lobbyists in the late 1960s. Both were rat studies and involved feeding rats extra sugar and studying the health effects. Both studies, which were on the verge of linking sugar with bladder cancer and coronary heart disease, were stopped. Although the study authors asked to continue, all funding was stopped and the project was dropped.

“The sugar industry has maintained a very sophisticated program of manipulating scientific discussion around their product to steer discussion away from adverse health effects and to make it as easy as possible for them to continue their position that all calories are equal and there’s nothing particularly bad about sugar,” said Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco, one of the PLOS Biology study’s authors.

So for some 50 years, the sugar industry has known about these effects. Yet after a study last year found that mice on sugar-heavy diets were more likely to develop breast cancer, the Sugar Association – one of the biggest sugar lobbying groups in the US – called it “sensationalised.”  It’s the same kind of manipulation we’re used to seeing from the tobacco and fossil fuel industry. Similarly, Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, knew about the negative effect of fossil fuels on climate change since the 70s, but lied and continued to lobby nonetheless.

Sugar is now known the main culprit behind the obesity pandemic. Mankind needs to drastically cut its sugar input, be it in sweets or sodas — regardless of what the industry lobby says.

Journal Reference: Cristin E. Kearns, Dorie Apollonio, Stanton A. Glantz. Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documentshttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003460

A man’s sweet tooth can increase the risk of anxiety and depression

You can add one more entry to the good old “How sugar is bad for you list.” Except this one is a bit more surprising.

Image credits: Michael Stern.

Eating a lot of sugar makes you fat — and we eat way more sugar than we need. But it’s not just that. Sugar causes cavities, increases the risk of heart disease, can lead to insulin resistance (which leads to diabetes), and is even associated with some types of cancer. As Anika Knüppel at the University College London and her colleagues found out, it can even make you more depressed or anxious.

They studied data from over 8,000 adults who were asked to fill out health questionnaires regularly since the 1980s. The participants’ weight and height were also routinely measured, and they undertook regular mental health surveys. Among other things, they had to answer things like “how often do you eat cake” or “how often do you drink fizzy drinks.”

After looking through the data, they found that men who consumed more sugary foods and drinks were 23 per cent more likely to develop depression or anxiety. Ironically, this trend was not present in women, contradicting one of the most common stereotypes.

“I had a feeling we’d see the ‘Bridget Jones-like women eat chocolate’ idea,” says Knüppel. “But it turns out people underestimate that men’s sugar intake is super high.” However, women only made up one third of the people included in the study, so it is possible sugar may have a similar effect for women that wasn’t picked up due to the smaller sample size.

It’s also interesting to note that depression and anxiety themselves did not affect sugar consumption, so people who eat a lot of sugar are more likely to develop depression or anxiety, but the reverse is not true.

It’s not really clear why this is happening, and the study didn’t aim to explain it. It’s just a correlation that was established, no causation was discussed. However, there are several mechanisms which could explain it, Knüppel says. Someone who eats a lot of sugar might be hit stronger when blood levels go low, and in the long run, this could have taxing effects. It’s also possible that sugar increases inflammation which in turn could affect depression.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sugar isn’t the main driver of depression or anything like that. But it can be significant, and it can just be that something that pushes you over the edge. It’s another reason to keep an eye on your sugar consumption.

”There are numerous factors that influence chances for mood disorders, but having a diet high in sugary foods and drinks might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is increasing evidence for the physical damage sugar has on our health. Our work suggests an additional mental health effect.”

 Journal reference: Scientific ReportsDOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7

Berkley’s penny-per-ounce soda tax paid off, a new study reports

An analysis of Berkeley’s “soda tax,” an U.S. first, finds some encouraging results about its power to influence people’s dietary habits.

The fizziest of killers.
Image credits Eddie Welker / Flickr.

Back in 2014, the city of Berkeley, California, passed a bill to issue a one penny-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages sold in the city. Five months after its implementation, lower-income residents had reduced their consumption if these items by 21% compared to pre-tax levels. The drop in consumption coincided with a period when the people of Oakland and San Francisco increased the amount of sodas and other sugared drinks that they consumed by 4%. Locals also increased their water consumption by 63% over the study period while their neighbors only drank 19% more water, the study found.

Soda taxes have worked in Mexico, they’ve been implemented in the UK, and now their efficacy has been confirmed once more. The Berkeley study proved that taxes can be used to steer people away from excessively sugary drinks, just as with tobacco or alcohol, said a public health researcher at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study Dr. Kristine Madsen.

“While Berkeley is just one small city, this is an important first step in identifying tools that can move the needle on population health,” Madsen said in a statement.

Some two dozen states have considered adding excise taxes on sugary beverages in the past, including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., reported the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. But Berkeley was the first to actually implement Measure D in 2014 after a campaign framed as “Berkeley vs. Big Soda.

An excise tax won’t show up at the register, and instead gets mixed into the full price of the item. This means higher prices for the consumer, and three months after Measure D went into effect 47% of the penny-per-ounce tax was taken out of customers’ pockets. For sodas in particular, 69% of the tax was incorporated into the price.

Madsen and her team wanted to know how the tax impacted buying habits so they sent interviewers to busy intersections in census tracts with large numbers of low-income and non-white residents. The focus was placed on these groups as they are “more likely to consume [sugar-sweetened beverages] and suffer related health consequences,” such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the researchers wrote. The interviewers asked locals in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco how often they consumed five categories of drinks:: full-calorie soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks and sweetened tea or coffee concoctions.

The first set of interviews was taken at least eight months prior to the tax coming into effect, to establish the initial conditions. The second was taken five months after implementation. Nearly 3,000 people answered the questions in either English or Spanish.

After controlling for age, gender, race, ethnicity and education level, the researchers found that Berkeley locals had strikingly different drinking habits from those in Oakland or San Francisco. They drank 26% less soda after the tax went into effect, while their neighbors drank 10% more. In the case of sports drinks, Berkeley residents cut back by 36%, while Oakland and San Francisco drank 21% more. Both of these differences are large enough to be statistically significant, the authors note. These trends held for other categories, too. Arizona Iced Tea, bottled Frappuccinos and other sweetened coffee products or teas were 13% less consumed in Berkeley but 22% more consumed in Oakland and San Francisco.

Energy drink consumption dropped all in all cities, but was more pronounced in Berkeley with 29% than in the other cities, at 14%. Fruit drink consumption was lowered by 13% in Berkeley and 12% in the other cities.

More than  20% of Berkeley residents (124 in total) reported that the tax directly affected their drinking habits. Out of these, 82% said they consumed sugary drinks less frequently, and 40% said they had reduced their portion sizes. About 5% of people who said they had purchased sugary drinks in Berkeley before the tax went into effect (18 respondents) reported they now bought these drinks in other cities, and 6 claimed that the tax caused the switch.

The team didn’t calculate what this reduction means in terms of calories, so the policy’s effect on obesity remains unknown. They also noted that the health messages discussed during the election campaign may have had an effect on the shift from sugary drinks to water.

At the same time, because this was tested in a single city, it remains unclear how the results would carry over to a wider scale of several cities or even whole states. But if a nationwide tax were to cut sugary drink consumption by a similar amount, Americans as a whole could gain about 101,000 healthy years over a decade, according to another study cited by the researchers.

“Widespread adoption of [sugar-sweetened beverage] excise taxes could have considerable fiscal and public health benefits,” the authors conclude.

The full paper, titled “Impact of the Berkeley Excise Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption” has been published online in the American Journal of Public Health.