Opinion: Don’t Blame “Added Sugars” in Food for Obesity


photo: mindbodygreen.com

This is a guest blog post by Richard Perlmutter, MS

It has been on my mind to write a rebuttal to the charge that ‘added  sugars’ consumption from food is a major cause of America’s obesity epidemic.  I wish to thank Fooducate for the opportunity to publish this opinion piece, which is contrary to most commentary on the subject.

Sugars in food come two ways–natural sugars and added sugars.

Natural sugars are the sugars in milk, most fruit, and some vegetables.   Added sugars, usually sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup, are commonly used ingredients in processed foods and beverages.  They are found mostly in carbonated beverages, other sweetened beverages, baked goods, dairy desserts, and candy.

Added sugars contribute a number of desirable characteristics.  Among them; they confer sweetness, mouth feel, texture, and act as preservatives.  They do all of these at relatively low cost.

However they only contribute carbohydrate and calories to the diet.  They lack protein, vitamins, minerals, and other necessary nutrients.  These are reasons why it is advisable to not have too much.


According to federal government surveys, in the late 1970’s Americans consumed about 59 grams of added sugars, per person per day.  Of this amount, 17.5 grams was in sugar-sweetened beverages.  This survey was conducted before the start of the obesity epidemic which began around 1980.

(Please realize that amounts that are cited in this article are estimates.)

In the period 2005-2006, a similar survey found that Americans were consuming about 84 grams of added sugars a day.  Of this 84 grams, 41.5 was in sugar-sweetened beverages.

In the approximately thirty years between the two surveys, added sugars from all sources increased by about 25 grams per day-from 59 to 84 grams.  Added sugars intake from sweetened beverages increased by about 24 grams per day- from 17.5 to 41.5 grams.  Through the entire thirty years, consumption of added sugars from all food sources increased by only one gram.

Beginning about 1980, the prevalence of obesity began increasing.  It has increased from about fifteen percent of the adult population to about thirty-two percent of the adult population.

The results from the surveys implicate sugar- sweetened beverages as a probable cause of increasing obesity.  They absolve food from the same charge.  Added sugars from all food stayed almost constant during the years that obesity was increasing.  Only for beverages has there been a significant increase.

A similar comparison of late 1970’s data and data from a 1995-1996 government survey reinforces these observations.  About eighty percent of the total increase in added sugars consumption as documented by these surveys was in sugar- sweetened beverages.

Many researchers have studied the relationship between weight gain and sugar-sweetened beverage intake.  Most have found that those who drink more of these beverages tend to weigh more than those who drink less.


Differences in satiety may explain why beverages, but not food, stimulate sugars intake and weight gain.  Satiety describes the sensation of being satisfied after having food and/or beverage.  One consumes less food when it has a high satiety, compared to consuming a lower satiety food.

Some researchers who study what characteristics affect satiety believe that nutrients in the form of solid food have greater satiety than nutrients consumed as liquid.

An interesting experiment compared sugars as food and as beverage.  Test subjects consumed an equal amount of sugars, either as jelly beans or as  sugar-sweetened beverage.  Those eating jelly beans consumed fewer calories overall (from the jelly beans and from all the other food and beverage in their diet) compared to those consuming sugar-sweetened beverage.

In another study based on diet surveys, it was discovered that those who regularly eat more candy weigh less than those who eat less candy.  The results suggest that sugary food is not inherently fattening.

The conclusion, based on all that has been presented, is that added sugars in beverages may be a cause for obesity, but added sugars in food are not a cause for obesity.

Public health officials don’t seem to be aware of the difference.  They are implicating sugars from both food and beverage as causes of the obesity epidemic.  The federal Food and Drug Administration is even considering adding a line for added sugars in the Nutrition Facts panel of packaged foods and beverages to highlight their presence.

By targeting added sugars from all sources, public health officials are (A) unfairly criticizing many very large segments of the food industry, and (B) recommending that individuals cut back on foods that most likely have little or no effect on their weight.

(References to this article are available on request from the author.)
Richard Perlmutter, MSRichard Perlmutter is the owner of Abington Nutrition Services LLC which prepares nutrition labeling for products manufactured by food and beverage companies. He also takes an interest in seeing that government nutrition policy is in line with nutritional science.


  • Helen

    hmm: this isn’t much help to people like me, who are overweight despite never, ever drinking sweet drinks of any kind. I don’t think one can blame the whole obesity epidemic on soda.

    • Jan

      Or people like me who not only never drink any soda at all, or ANY food with sugar in it, but still get fat on less than 1400 calories a day.

  • lasciviouslynn@hotmail.com

    Nor does it talk about high fructose corn syrup which is added to both food and beverages. This sugar is linked to fatty liver disease.

    • James Cooper

      Sugar is sugar, and HFCS is just another form or sugar, so it definitely encompasses it. I am not aware of a link to fatty liver disease, please provide a reference.

    • carol

      See 2nd/3rd paragraph: ” Added sugars, usually sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn
      syrup, are commonly used ingredients in processed foods and beverages.
      They are found mostly in carbonated beverages…”

  • Yo

    What? I got lost at the end and the final conclusion! So people who eat more candy weigh less than those who eat less candy? Maybe that is based on their whole diet and not precisely on their candy intake? I’m definitely not buying the conclusions on this article!

    • carol

      Here’s the concept restated: Sugared drinks don’t fill you up as much as a solid food that contains the same amount of sugar/calories, so people tend to consume more calories from sweetened beverages (i.e., keep drinking longer/more) than from sweetened foods, so you end up getting more calories and therefore gaining more weight. Part of the reason is that foods contain more than just sugar (protein, fat, fiber… in fact traditional jelly beans contain pectin, which is soluble fiber, which will fill you up more than sweetener+water beverages).

      • yo

        Still, that doesn’t explain that people that consume candy weigh less than those who don’t, unless you add that those who don’t tend to drink more sugary drinks… which was exactly my point! Is not the candy consumption (or luck of it) but their whole diet that makes them fatter. And then, unless they proof that people with healthy diets eating candy are thinner than people with healthy diets who don’t eat candy, that still proofs that YES, added sugar (in no matter which food) is a big problem!

  • katja

    Our focus on nutrients and food, rather than the process of eating leads to the reductionistic notion that sugar or other nutrients are to blame for obesity. We have a process problem, which is eating too much because food is all around us all the time tempting us to eat. We are surrounded by ads and food is super accessible. It would be like noticing that there is an epidemic of knife killings and blaming the knives for the problem when the actual problem is the behaviour of what is being done with the knives by certain knife weilding people. We can argue til we are blue in the face which nutrients are the cause of obesity but it is in my opinion barking up the wrong tree. What we need to do is address our environments and our culture of eating whenever and where ever. 30 years ago people didn’t walk around with portable coffee cups full of cream/sugar and caffeine. They didn’t find that they needed to carry “vitamin” water or anything because they hadn’t yet bought into the idea that being thirsty leads to horror of horrors, mild dehydration. They didn’t eat at their desks in front of computers or find food at every meeting they went to and they certainly weren’t assailed by 48,000 different items in a grocery store, unlimited food choices in a gas station, the dog park, the ballet ,etc. It’s time to think about our relationship with eating, why we eat, why we don’t say no even when we aren’t hungry, and how we can engineer our lives so we can make the decisions about eating that we want to make rather than falling back onto defaults. Like Emily Dickinson once said “temptation usually comes in through a door that’s been deliberately left open” We need to close the door on temptation through changing our environment, not on blaming a nutrient.

    • yo

      I agree with you, still the quality of the food available remains an issue! So less tackle the environment that makes are eat too much together with the quality of the food we are being offered!

  • Jensen_G

    I think he’s saying that it’s easier to have “too many” calories through drinks than through food since even high-calorie drinks like full-sugar soda don’t make you full like eating (for example) a candy bar with the same number of calories. Certainly not a conclusion that affects everyone, but if we’re talking legislation and broad strokes, it seems that it’s easier to “overeat” when consuming beverages than food, though of course plenty of us do that with food too!

  • http://twitter.com/Verdi_Michael Michael Verdi

    I am confused, what am I missing? The article states:

    “In the approximately thirty years between the two surveys, added sugars from all sources increased by about 25 grams per day-from 59 to 84 grams.”
    Then a sentence later states:
    “Through the entire thirty years, consumption of added sugars from all food sources increased by only one gram.”
    What am I missing? It would appear that added sugar from both food and beverage increased by 25 g like the author first stated.

    • Leslie

      I noticed that too. This article isn’t very well written.

    • Amanda

      Very poorly written…but the first statement is all sources (25 g), the second statement was all FOOD sources. He’s making the point that of the 25 g overall increase, only 1 gram was from FOOD sources as opposed to beverages. I had to read it about 5 times before I noticed the difference.

  • lasciviouslynn@hotmail.com

    Duke University has done several studies on the effect of high fructose corn syrup and increasing the rate of non alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is estimated it may affect up to 30 percent of the population

    • Leslie

      I’ve read about this, too. It makes sense to me that the body would process HFCS differently from other forms of carbohydrates. Has Fooducate ever done an article on HFCS from this angle?

  • Anna

    I was very surprised by the claims; then I saw his ties to the beverage industry. LOL.