Reducing the sugar content of packaged foods and beverages could substantially limit cases of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes — and save lives — according to a new study published in the journal Circulation.
Researchers were interested in examining the potential impact of proposed voluntary targets for sugar reduction, drafted by a group called the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative — a partnership of local, state, and national health organizations led by the New York City Department of Health. These reductions were first proposed in 2018, and finalized earlier this year, with the goal of major food and beverage companies gradually and voluntarily reformulating their products . The researchers were interested in not just the potential population-wide health benefits of widespread sugar reduction, but also the costs and overall economic impact.
In the model they created for the study, the researchers assumed that 50% of the food and beverage industry would follow the recommended 20% cut in sugar from packaged foods and 40% cut in sugar from bottled or canned beverages. The model followed a simulated national representative U.S. population until age 100 or death, starting in 2019.
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Various benefits of widespread sugar reduction
The researchers found that in their model, 10 years after 50% of the food and beverage industry followed the recommended sugar reductions, the United States could expect to see a $4.28 billion reduction in health care costs. Over the lifetime of the current adult population ages 35 to 79 — not even counting any benefits in other people — there would be over $118 billion in health care savings due to lower rates and severity of chronic diseases. When lower productivity due to chronic diseases was factored in, the total economic benefit climbed to over $160 billion. Since the calculations they made were conservative, the researchers pointed out that these results most likely actually underestimate the benefits of widespread sugar reduction.
Purely in terms of health benefits, the researchers found that sugar reduction in their model would lead to 2.48 million fewer cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes, 490,000 fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease, and 750,000 fewer cases of diabetes over the lifetime of the current population. There would be a gain of 6.67 million quality-adjusted years of life. The researchers also found that the greatest gains in health would be seen in Black and Hispanic, lower-income, and less educated Americans — but that nearly every segment of the population would see improved health.
In evaluating the cost-effectiveness of the sugar reduction policy — after all, reformulating products isn’t free — the researchers found that the sugar reductions would become cost-effective after six years, highly cost-effective after seven years, and cost-saving after nine years, based on the industry cost balanced against gains in quality-adjusted life years.
“We hope that this study will help push the reformulation initiative forward in the next few years,” said study author Siyi Shangguan, MD, an attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a news release. “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.”