University of Vermont

Resources and Expertise to Support People and Communities

No Sugar-Coating These Health Warnings

UVM nutritionist Rachel Johnson stands in front of a glass case at an upscale Burlington, Vermont bakery.
Confectionaries – once relegated to holidays, sweethearts and special occasions – now are a major source of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cholesterol problems. Rachel Johnson’s research helps policymakers deal with this problem that costs Vermont money, resources and its most valuable asset: its people.

For most of civilized history, sweet treats were just that – treats. Hand made with care, delicious, decadent, exquisite, colorful, lavish confectionaries of all kinds were either rare or dear enough to be reserved only for special occasions.

Somehow, for many reasons related to the industrialization of food processing, today cheap sweets dominate the American diet, edging out the three square meals a day and ruining the health of young and old alike.

Soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages, such as fruit drinks, energy and sport drinks, are the number one source of added sugars in the diet, followed by grain-based desserts, such as cakes, cookies and pies. In just the past 40 years, daily sugar consumption per person in the U.S. has risen more than 70 percent. Over the past 50 years, soft drink consumption has risen more than 50 percent, researchers say.

Americans are eating and drinking an average of 22.2 teaspoons of added sugars a day, or 355 calories, says Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont and lead author of a stricter scientific statement by the American Heart Association (AHA) released in August 2009 to the tune of 68 million media impressions. The AHA recommended that women limit added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons and men to 9 teaspoons per day. Sugar-sweetened beverages should not exceed 36 ounces per week.

Added sugars have no nutritional value other than providing calories. Research shows that high added sugars intake is inversely associated with reduced intake of several vitamins, minerals and fiber. In other words, people eat sugary foods and drinks instead of nutrition-dense foods. Other research shows that because calories in liquid form are less satiating than in solid food, they increase the total amount of calories people consume each day. But worse, consumption of added sugars is linked to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, according to Johnson.

During her nearly 20 years at UVM, Johnson gained a reputation as among the first to quantify with research and spread the word on the proliferation and health consequences of added sugars in the American diet, particularly among children. She is among the most highly regarded and quoted experts on the subject. She has been interviewed internationally via the media throughout 2010, and last March she met with Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others as part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to end obesity. Johnson’s work and the publicity surrounding them helped sound the wake-up alarm for people to change their eating habits.

VT-AES, the National Dairy Council’s Dairy Research Institute and the Vermont and New England Dairy Promotion Boards fund her research, among others.


Vermont Isn’t Perfect

Vermont, often declared among the “healthiest states in the nation,” is not immune to these issues, especially among lower income Vermonters. According to figures cited in the Vermont Attorney General’s November report:

  • Obesity-related expenses in Vermont are estimated at $615 million a year.
  • The average Vermont adult consumes 50 gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages annually.
  • A one-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in Vermont would generate approximately $30 million per year and reduce consumption approximately 20 percent.

At Dec. 3 press conference in Montpelier, Rachel Johnson was called upon to deliver sound scientific background and statistics to help inform policymakers about a controversial state proposal to levy a penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks, and she has since been quoted in articles appearing across the country on the topic.

Johnson expects the debate to continue among dieticians, nutrition scientists, policy makers, advocates and the food industry, however, as she writes in the September “Journal of the American Dietetic Association," “in the context of an American population that is predominantly overweight and obese and thus unhealthy, it is time for change.”


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