Study: Added Sugar Increases Heart Risk

New research indicates that diets high in added sugar — the kind in processed foods — may also increase a person's risk for heart disease. Americans are eating more and more sugar. How do you figure out how much you're getting, and how do you keep that number down?

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A new report says Americans are eating way too much salt. We're consuming about one and a half teaspoons a day, according to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. The recommended maximum is a good deal less. It can be hard to cut down because salt is added into so many foods we eat.

And, of course, we have a similar problem with sugar, according to another study. Your waistline is not the only reason to watch your sugar intake. Too much sugar can also put your heart at risk. NPR's April Fulton explains.

APRIL FULTON: Lots of sweet foods contain natural sugar, and then there's added sugar. It's in everything from barbecue sauce to breakfast cereals, yogurt and of course, soda. And Americans are eating more products with added sugar. Just walk down the cereal aisle of any supermarket.

At Snyder's in Silver Spring, Maryland, the cereal aisle is just past the healthy fruit. Looking at the labels can be frustrating. It's just not clear how much of the sugar is natural, and how much is added. Take Raisin Bran, for example. That's got 19 grams of sugar. But some of that sugar is naturally found in the raisins. The label doesn't have to distinguish.

Over in the dairy aisle, Amanda Wah(ph) is reading the yogurt labels. She tries to keep her family's sugar levels down.

Ms. AMANDA WAH: Well, I try to make sure that I and my family have a healthy diet. And I know that too much sugar is a risk factor for gaining weight. It's a risk factor for diabetes. And it's just generally not healthy.

FULTON: And according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, added sugar may be bad for your heart. Jean Welsh is a registered nurse and a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta. She looked at how much added sugar people consumed.

Ms. JEAN WELSH (Registered nurse, Emory University): So what we found in our study was that the higher consumers had higher levels of the bad cholesterols and lower levels of the good ones.

FULTON: Higher levels of bad cholesterol mean greater risk of heart disease. How much added sugar Americans are consuming surprised her.

Ms. WELSH: That almost 15 percent of calories among U.S. adults are from these added sugars. So it's a substantial contributor to our diet.

FULTON: That means, roughly, that the average American adult eats 21 teaspoons of added sugar a day. People who ate the most added sugar in the study consumed about 46 teaspoons. That's like drinking five cans of soda a day. People who ate the least amount of added sugar, those who consumed less than seven teaspoons, had the lowest risk of heart disease. Welsh says they zeroed in on added sugars for a reason.

Ms. WELSH: We were interested in added sugars because we see that as a potentially modifiable component of our diet.

FULTON: The U.S. Department of agriculture recommends that people cut down on their added sugar, but doesn't say by how much. Welsh says more consumer guidance is needed.

Ms. WELSH: We hope that there can be some improved labeling that can help consumers understand what is added versus natural.

FULTON: Food companies generally oppose separating the two kinds of sugars on the label. They say they have reduced added sugar in many of their products.

Shopper Amanda Wah says she allows some sugar in the house to encourage her family to eat better.

Ms. WAH: But I know that to get them to eat like, granola or shredded wheat, they're going to eat frosted shredded wheat. They're just simply not going to eat plain shredded wheat.

FULTON: And when it comes to healthy eating versus realistic eating, families make tradeoffs like this every day.

April Fulton, NPR News.

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