Sweet relief: Reducing the amount of sugar added to processed foods and drinks could prevent millions of Americans from getting heart disease or diabetes, according to a study published in the journal Circulation. 

A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts University, Harvard and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, largely funded by the National Institutes of Health, created a model to simulate the health and economic impact of a sugar-reduction policy proposed by the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative. The NSSRI, which is made up of more than 100 local, state and national health organizations, drew up a policy proposal finalized in February that calls on the food and beverage industries to voluntarily reformulate their sweetened products over time so that they contain less sugar. 

And according to the model, reducing 20% of the sugar from packaged foods, and 40% of the sugar from beverages, could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular events (such as strokes, heart attacks and cardiac arrests) in the U.S. over the lifetime of the adult population (ages 35 to 79.) What’s more, cutting this much sugar from processed food and sweetened drinks could prevent 490,000 cardiovascular deaths and 750,000 cases of diabetes. 

The study was published just days after U.S. Preventive Services Task Force urged Americans to start getting screened for diabetes earlier — at age 35 instead of 40 — due to rising rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Some 14% of U.S. adults have diabetes, and 33% have prediabetes. 

Read more: Experts say Americans should start getting screened for diabetes earlier, now at age 35

“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,” said Dr. Siyi Shangguan, the lead author and an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement

The average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day — that’s an extra 350 calories — according to the American Heart Association. Previous studies have found a correlation between sweetened soft drinks and weight gain, as well as between sugary beverages and health problems related to weight gain, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A 2019 report also published in Circulation found that drinking two or more sugary drinks a day was associated with a greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease, especially among women.

But the new National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative model also found that cutting sugar doesn’t just save lives — heading off these chronic conditions related to sugar consumption could also save the U.S. billions of dollars. Ten years after these proposed sugar caps go into effect, the research model predicts that the country could expect to save $4.28 billion in total net healthcare costs, and $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current adult population (ages 35 to 79.) 

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And when the model factored in the societal costs of lost productivity from Americans suffering chronic diseases like diabetes that are linked to consuming too much sugar, the total cost savings rose to $160.88 billion over the adult population’s lifetime. And this could be a conservative calculation, the researchers noted. 

What’s more, even partial industry compliance with the policy could see “significant” health and economic gains, particularly among Black and Hispanic adults, and Americans with lower income and less education, according to the report. These groups tend to consume more sugar as a result of historical inequalities that give them less access to affordable and nutritious fresh food. About 2.3 million Americans live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car, according to federal data

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The researchers write that the U.S. “lags” other countries like the U.K., Norway and Singapore in implementing sugar-reduction policies. And in order for one to work here, American companies making packaged foods and sweetened beverages would need to be willing to gradually reformulate their sugary products. And for such a national policy to stick, the government would need to monitor companies as they work toward these targets. 

“Sugar is one of the most obvious additives in the food supply to reduce to reasonable amounts,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, co-senior author and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a statement. “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.”

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