Mmmmm ice cream (Photo: Katy Warner via Flickr)

Mmmmm a sweet treat! (Photo: Katy Warner via Flickr)

If you love your cookies and candy and can’t go a day without  your favorite soda or daily ice cream cone, then a new warning about the dangers of  sugar is bound to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

California researchers are calling for sugar to be treated like a controlled substance – similar to alcohol and tobacco – in order to protect public health.

The researchers, from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF),  assert that sugar is fueling a global obesity pandemic, contributing to 35 million deaths annually worldwide from non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The UCSF team argues  sugar is more than just empty calories which can make you fat. The team points out that sugar – taken in at levels typical of most Americans – alters a person’s metabolism, raises blood pressure, severely affects how our hormones send out signals to our body and causes substantial liver damage.

They compare the health hazards of sugar to the effects of drinking too much alcohol.

“There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” says  Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF.  “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”

The commentary, published in Nature,  suggests than just educating people about the potential toxicity of sugar is needed.

“We recognize that there are cultural and celebratory aspects of sugar,” said Claire Brindis, a public health expert. “Changing these patterns is very complicated.”

Team members assert that focusing on just individual change alone may not be enough to effectively address this issue.  Instead, the team would like to see methods similar to how public health issues with alcohol and tobacco were handled.

(Photo: Ayelie via Flickr)

(Photo: Ayelie via Flickr)

These approaches might be the same as those used to reduce the consumption of tobacco and alcohol products; such as levying special sales taxes, controlling access to the product, and tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell high-sugar products in schools and workplaces.

“We’re not talking prohibition,” says Laura Schmidt, a health policy professor. “We’re not advocating a major imposition of the government into people’s lives. We’re talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose. What we want is to actually increase people’s choices by making foods that aren’t loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get.”

As you might expect, the Sugar Association, which represents sugar manufacturers in the United States, takes issue with the commentary, calling it  “non-scientific and irresponsible.”

The organization says the report lacks the scientific evidence or consensus to justify the report’s recommended policy interventions.

(Photo: Amarand Agasi via Flickr)

(Photo: Amarand Agasi via Flickr)

The Sugar Association argues it is irresponsible for health professionals to instill public fear by using words like “diabetes,” “cancer,” and even “death,” without admitting the science in this area is inconclusive.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), an organization founded by scientists concerned that many important public health policies aren’t backed by  sound scientific evidence, agrees.

In a statement published on the organization’s website, Dr. Josh Bloom, ACSH’s director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, says, “The peg on which Dr. Lustig hangs his entire argument is flawed. Most fruits have quite a bit more fructose than sucrose. Does this make an apple unhealthy and in need of regulation? The fructose in an apple is the same fructose that is demonized in high fructose corn syrup. You can’t have it both ways.”

We’d like to know your opinion. Do you think sugar is toxic and should be controlled in ways similar to how alcohol and tobacco currently are?