Cutting sugar down in packaged foods could save millions of Americans from heart disease, diabetes

BOSTON, Mass. — Cutting the sugar that goes into both food and drinks may prevent nearly four million cases of heart disease and diabetes across the United States, a new study estimates. Researchers with Massachusetts General Hospital and several other organizations say they’ve reviewed a plan which would institute a major reduction of excess sugar in packaged foods. Their findings reveal that changing the recipes and sugar levels food manufacturers put in their products is a more effective strategy for keeping the public healthy than imposing controversial sugar taxes and sugary drink bans.

The U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI) is a proposed policy which would reduce sugar in packaged food by 20 percent and in drinks by 40 percent. A partnership of over 100 local, state, and national health organization created the proposal in 2018. The new study estimates that implementing such a plan across the U.S. food industry would prevent nearly 2.5 million cases of cardiovascular disease events, such as strokes and heart attacks. Cutting sugar in packaged food would also prevent 490,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 750,000 cases of diabetes.

“We hope that this study will help push the reformulation initiative forward in the next few years,” says Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH, lead author and attending physician at MGH in a media release. “Reducing the sugar content of commercially prepared foods and beverages will have a larger impact on the health of Americans than other initiatives to cut sugar, such as imposing a sugar tax, labeling added sugar content, or banning sugary drinks in schools.”

The team notes that instituting such a policy would need both government support and oversight of companies. However, they’re hopeful that their findings will help the food industry see that a reformulation of their products will benefit public health.

Saving lives and money

According to the researchers, the U.S. could expect to save over $4 billion on healthcare costs after the first 10 years of the NSSRI plan being active. Americans would also save more than $118 billion over the course of the current adult population’s lifetime (people between 35 and 79 years-old).

Study authors add that even if part of the U.S. food industry complies with cutting down sugar their model shows that there would be “significant health and economic gains.”

Additionally, the study finds the NSSRI policy would reduce health disparities for Black and Hispanic adults, Americans with less income, and those with less education.

Catching up with the world on sugar reduction

Although food manufacturers have cut down on other harmful substances such as trans fats and sodium over the years, researchers say the U.S. continues to lag behind many nations when it comes to cutting out sugar. Countries like the United Kingdom, Norway, and Singapore are at the top of the list of sugar-reformulation efforts. However, study authors believe the NSSRI’s proposed sugar-reduction plan could put America in the lead in just a few years.

“The NSSRI policy is by far the most carefully designed and comprehensive, yet achievable, sugar-reformulation initiative in the world,” says Shangguan.

Previous studies show that eating sugary foods and beverages contribute to obesity and diseases like type 2 diabetes. Sugar consumption can also lead to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide. Estimates show that over two in five American adults are obese and half suffer from either diabetes or prediabetes.

Sugar is one of the most obvious additives in the food supply to reduce to reasonable amounts,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, co-senior author and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Our findings suggest it’s time to implement a national program with voluntary sugar reduction targets, which can generate major improvements in health, health disparities, and healthcare spending in less than a decade.”

The findings appear in the journal Circulation.