TUESDAY, April 20, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- The added sugars in prepared and processed foods are threatening Americans' cardiovascular health, lowering levels of protective HDL cholesterol, raising levels of potentially dangerous triglcerides and possibly making people fatter, a new study finds.
"We looked at a group of people representative of the U.S. population and found a very strong correlation between cardiovascular risk factors and the amount of sugar that people are consuming," said Dr. Miriam B. Vos, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and a member of a group reporting the finding in the April 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study, based on interviews and measurements of 6,113 adults in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study from 1999-2006, found a significant increase in sugar consumption -- from 10.6 percent of daily calories in 1977-78 to 15.8 percent now. The average American adult now consumes 3.2 ounces of added sugars a day -- equivalent to 21.4 teaspoons, or 359 calories, the study found.
About half of that sugar is in soft drinks, but they are "all over the place, in cereals, baked goods and more," Vos said. One reason for the increase is the growing concern about high-fat diets, she said. When manufacturers reduce fat content in food, they often add sugar to make it taste better, Vos said.
The effect on cholesterol and other blood lipid levels, which are major factors in the risk of stroke, heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, was plain in the study. For adults who got 10 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar, the odds of low HDL cholesterol levels -- the good cholesterol -- were 50 percent to 300 percent greater than for those getting less than 5 percent of their calories from sugar.
Higher consumption of sugar was also associated with higher levels of triglycerides, and a link between sugar consumption and levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol was seen for women but not for men.
People in the study who got 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar reported gaining an average of 2.8 pounds in the previous year, while those whose sugar intake accounted for less than 5 percent reported an average weight loss of about a third of a pound.
The study "adds further support for the American Heart Association recommendations about sugar," said Rachel K. Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and lead author of a 2009 scientific statement on the issue.
"We now have evidence from a large, nationwide survey that added sugar intake is associated with the risk factors for heart disease," Johnson said.
The heart association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories of added sugars a day -- about one ounce, or six teaspoons -- of sugar, and that men limit their intake to 150 calories a day, or about nine teaspoons.
That sugar is best taken in a food product with other nutrients, such as flavored yogurt or a whole-grain breakfast cereal, Johnson said.
Food manufacturers could help by providing more informative food labels, listing sugar content in terms of teaspoonfuls rather than calories, Vos said.
On a personal basis, Americans should read food labels more carefully to know how much sugar they might be eating, she said.
The Sugar Association, an industry group, responded with a statement saying it "disputes the notion that sugar consumption has increased." It cited a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that claimed consumption of caloric sweeteners, including sugar, has decreased 9.7 percent over the past decade.
"All-natural sugar has been a healthy part of diets for 2,000 years," the association said in the statement. "We urge Americans to consume sugar, as well as all foods and beverages, in moderation."
Recommendations on sugar and other dietary carbohydrates are offered by the American Heart Association.