Food News and Facts

A brief history of the sugar industry and coronary heart disease

by Alexandra Williams, MA

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    How many licks does it take to get to the center of a food conspiracy? One? Two? Three? In reality, it took plenty of research and thorough review of historical documents by some determined sleuths.

    A September 2016 article in JAMA Internal Medicine reports the results of a University of California, San Francisco study: that the Sugar Research Foundation “sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in coronary heart disease.” Researchers led by Cristin Kearns reached this conclusion after examining SRF internal documents, historical reports and statements “relevant to early debates about the dietary causes of CHD.” They then assembled the findings into a narrative case study, which allowed them to do a detailed historical analysis.

    In 1954 Henry Hass, then-president of SRF, delivered a speech that laid out an opportunity to gain market share by convincing Americans to eat a lower-fat diet. This may have served as the inspiration for the sugar industry, which went on to spend $600,000 to teach people “that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems.” By 1962, research was suggesting that a low-fat diet high in sugar could elevate serum cholesterol level. To counter this, the SRF began funding studies (e.g., in the New England Journal of Medicine) supporting the position that “the only dietary intervention required to prevent CHD was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the American diet,” while also challenging studies that offered a different perspective.

    While industry and nonindustry funding was disclosed, the SRF’s funding and participation was not, as that was not required in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1984 that the New England Journal of Medicine instituted a policy of disclosing conflicts of interest. To this day, the SRF (now known as The Sugar Association) denies any link between added sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease risk.

    Regardless of what was said in the past...the American Heart Association recommends limiting intake to 6 teaspoons or less per day, and the new Nutrition Facts food labels will be listing the amount of added sugars, which can help clients and trainers keep tabs on their intake.

Duckweed May Soon Be in Your Protein Bars

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The February 2017 issue of Food Chemistry will discuss research in Germany and India that analyzed the nutritional value of duckweed for human consumption. The study’s authors discovered that “owing to the amino acid composition, the total protein of duckweeds qualifies as a high-quality protein source for human nutrition.”

    An aquatic plant that doubles its biomass in 24–36 hours, duckweed goes from seed to full harvest in less than 3 weeks, making it an easily accessible source of nutrition for millions of people. Six duckweed species were analyzed, and their amino acid distributions were found to be comparable to those of other plant proteins recommended by the World Health Organization. Of those six, two were pronounced most desirable for human consumption due to their high growth rates: Wolffia microscopica and W. hyalina. Average protein content for the six species ranges from 20% to 30% per dry weight.

    Only a few companies are developing food products based on duckweed protein, though they are prepared to quickly ramp up production. The main issue will be whether this unusual protein source will be widely accepted outside of Southeast Asia.

Sweet Science: Taking the Edge Off Coffee

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"If java is your preworkout go-to, here's some satisfying news."

    “Cultured” coffee may soon be here—referring, of course, to microbes rather than something from an English 19th-century social gathering. First-generation fermented foods such as beer and sauerkraut (see the Sauerkraut with Fennel recipe) have been around for thousands of years, while second-generation options such as artificial sweeteners and animal-free dairy proteins are fairly new. (Aspartame comes from fermented corn and soy, while animal-free milk is created with yeast, plant nutrients and cow DNA.)

    Now a third wave may be on the way as scientists research ways to remove the bitter notes in coffee. Eliminating certain microbes during a controlled fermentation process and adding other microbes that tackle digestive discomfort may soon make it possible to market a smoother coffee that’s less astringent, less bitter and more aromatic.

Nordic Countries Look for Link Between School Lunches and Learning

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    With an eye to developing school lunches that benefit pupils’ classroom learning behavior, researchers in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland have begun a cross-sectional, multidisciplinary study of over 800 students born in 2003 (Food & Nutrition Research, August 2016), titled “ProMeal - Prospects for promoting health and performance by school meals in Nordic countries.” Noting that the Nordic countries are a “global health lab” due to their many similarities in culture, dietary habits and diet-related diseases, the authors want to help guide school lunch policy in the hopes of adding data to the fairly limited research available on the subject.

    Over 3 weeks, parents/caregivers filled out questionnaires that covered their own education, occupations, ethnicity and family constellation, as well as their child’s health, physical activity and diseases or health conditions. In the first week of the study, during school hours, the students were measured for height and weight, given cognitive tests and asked to write empathy-based stories about school meal situations. In week two, the children took photographs of their school lunches before and after eating—almost 4,000 images total. The researchers also did structured observations of learning-related classroom behavior in the lesson right after lunch. Some students also took a test to measure their ability to concentrate and remain focused. In week three, children were put into groups to discuss their experiences and beliefs about school meals.

    With the large number of children participating and a low dropout rate, the researchers hope to expand upon what was learned during a previous study in poor areas of England. There, once school lunches were improved, students showed a decrease in absenteeism, as well as substantial improvement in literacy and science.

Beliefs About Meat Origins Influence the Eating Experience

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    The mind has a powerful influence on our senses, at least when it comes to meat eating. An August 2016 PLOS ONE article shared the results of three studies that tested whether beliefs about how animals are raised would influence people’s experience of eating meat—specifically, roast beef. In the studies, identical samples of meat were paired with descriptions noting that the animal came from a factory farm, from a humane farm or from a store (with no indication as to the farm conditions) or had no description at all.

    The results will probably not surprise those who eschew meat eating. In all three studies, participants rated eating the meat as a less pleasant experience overall if they thought the meat came from a factory farm, finding that it smelled, tasted and looked less pleasant than if it came from a humane farm. They also ate smaller portions of the proffered samples. In addition, the tasters were willing to pay for the meat only if it cost less, and they reported being less likely to eat factory-farmed meat again.

    Notably, negative beliefs (factory-farmed meat) reduced people’s enjoyment, yet positive beliefs (humane farms) did not increase enjoyment. In other words, when paired with the control description (listing only the store where the meat was sold) or no description, the humanely farmed description did not increase people’s enjoyment of the roast beef. Conversely, when people believed the animals had been raised in “small cages,” their enjoyment decreased.

    This finding differs from the results of similar tests using labels such as “fair trade” and “local,” in which the pleasantness was increased when these labels were used, leading the researchers to wonder if affective responses to perceived animal suffering are likely to be more powerful than affective responses to nonanimal products such as chocolate, coffee or juice. This dichotomy will have implications for marketing and future research.

    The study authors concluded that “experience is not determined solely by physical properties of the external world—experience is also shaped by beliefs.”

Lower Risk of Depression in Women Who Regularly Eat High-Fat Yogurt

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    A longitudinal study looking for a link between depression and consumption of yogurt and prebiotics was published in the September 2016 issue of The Journal of Nutrition. Using a Mediterranean cohort, researchers set out to discover whether a diet that includes prebiotics and yogurt would decrease the risk for depression.

    Participants were obtained via the SUN (Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra) Project. Using data from 14,539 male and female Spanish university graduates who were initially free of depression (mean age 37 years), the study authors flagged participants’ intake of full-fat yogurt, low-fat yogurt and prebiotic fiber.

    At baseline and after a 9.3-year follow-up, the study participants filled out validated food frequency questionnaires, which were then used to assess prebiotic (fructans and galacto-oligosaccharide) intake and yogurt consumption (<0.5, ≥0.5 to <3, ≥3 to <7, and ≥7 servings/week). During follow-up, 727 cases of depression were identified, based on a previously validated clinical diagnosis of depression given by a physician.

    Based on the diagnoses and the food questionnaires, the authors found whole-fat yogurt intake to be associated with reduced depression risk. Study participants who ate 7 or more servings per week were 22% less likely to be depressed than those who ate less than half a serving weekly. Interestingly, and definitely a basis for further research, this association was significant only in women. Also of note was the finding that consuming low-fat yogurt was associated with a higher incidence of depression during the first 2 years of the study, but not after the full follow-up, perhaps due to reverse-causation bias. Prebiotic consumption did not show a significant association with risk of depression.

Italy Updates Laws to Limit Food Waste

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Estimating that it costs the Italian economy more than $13.3 billion annually (about 1% of gross domestic product), Italian senators passed new laws in August 2016 aimed at reducing food waste.

    The goal is to cut a million tons from the estimated 5.1 million tons of food wasted each year. The government plans to update laws that once required restaurants and supermarkets to declare any food donations 5 days in advance, and by allowing private citizens to donate food after it has reached its expiry date.

    One of the biggest hurdles, though, will be to encourage use of “doggy bags” (renamed “family bags”) in a culture that historically has frowned upon it. With its longtime acceptance of taking home restaurant leftovers, perhaps the United States will be the next country to update laws to make better use of food.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Williams Alexandra Williams, MA, A writer and editor, as well as a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara in the department of Exercise Studies, Sport and Recreation. She is a vegetarian who cooks and bakes from scratch. Find her at FunAndFit.org.

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