Study Reveals Potential Impact of Proposed Sugar-Reduction Policy

Cutting 20% of sugar from packaged foods and 40% from beverages could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular disease events, 490,000 cardiovascular deaths, and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. over the lifetime of the adult population, according to a micro-simulation study published in Circulation.

A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created a model to simulate and quantify the health, economic, and equity impacts of a sugar-reduction policy proposed by the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI), according to a press release.

The NSSRI is a partnership of more than 100 local, state, and national health organizations convened by the NYC Department of Health, which released a finalized policy this past February for sugar-reduction targets in packaged foods and beverages. The goal is to get industry to voluntarily commit to reformulate sugary products. Implementing a national policy would require government support to monitor companies as they work toward the targets, but the researchers hope their model will build consensus on the need for a national sugar-reformulation policy.

“We hope that this study will help push the reformulation initiative forward in the next few years,” says Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH, lead author and attending physician at MGH, in the press 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.”

If the NSSRI policy were to go into effect, according to the simulation, within ten years, the U.S. could expect to save $4.28 billion in total net healthcare costs, and $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current adult population. Adding the societal costs of lost productivity, the total cost savings rises to $160.88 billion over the adult population’s lifetime. The researchers found that the NSSRI policy became cost-effective at six years, and cost-saving at nine years. The press release notes that these calculations were conservative, and therefore are likely to be an underestimate.

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The policy could also reduce health disparities, with Black and Hispanic adults getting the greatest estimated health gains, along with Americans with lower income and less education.

Product reformulation efforts have successfully reduced other harmful nutrients, such as trans fats and sodium. Countries like the U.K., Norway, and Singapore have taken the lead on sugar-reformulation efforts, proving that this issue, too, can be tackled. And, the press release says, the U.S. could take the lead in this area: “The NSSRI policy is by far the most carefully designed and comprehensive, yet achievable, sugar-reformulation initiative in the world,” says Shangguan.

Sugary foods are linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of mortality in the U.S., according to the press release.

“Sugar is one of the most obvious additives in the food supply to reduce to reasonable amounts,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, co-senior author and Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “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.”

Major funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health.