When Good Foods Are Bad: Sweets

valentines day sweets

It’s Valentine’s Day and Americans are obsessed with giving sweets to their sweeties.

In fact, the United States is the world’s largest consumer of sweets. We need starch, which is complex sugar, and simple sugars to live. Sugar (glucose) is brain food but, unfortunately, sweets are in far too many foods. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda has about 10 teaspoons of free sugars. 1 tablespoon of ketchup is about one third free sugars and now sweets and/or sugars account for upwards of 30% of our dietary calorie intake.


  • White table sugar (glucose) is crystalized from sugarcane or beet juice
  • Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses
  • Molasses is a thick, dark liquid byproduct of sugarcane or beet refining
  • Corn syrup contains another sugar – maltose and starch or complex sugars
  • High fructose corn syrup is formed when corn starch is broken into simple sugars then enzymes are added to create fructose
  • Fructose (fruit sugar) Selected high-fructose fruits include apples, cherries, mangoes, watermelon and pears
  • Honey is 50% glucose and fructose
  • Chocolate, derived from cocoa is mixed with fat and sugar
  • Dark chocolate is cacao, fat, and 15% chocolate liquor

Sugars, Diabetes and Obesity
It is of no surprise that consumption of a diet high in sugar can cause obesity and obesity is directly linked to diabetes. In a food intake study from 175 countries, investigators found that for every 150 calorie/person/day increase in sugar consumption (about one can of soda/day) there was an increase of 1% diabetes. Diabetes is critically linked to major diseases: cardiovascular disease, strokes, kidney disease, blindness, etc.

Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease
A most oft quoted study linking CV disease with excess sugar consumption was reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association a few years ago. The authors observed a significant increased association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and risk of CVD death. In short, there was a ~ 30% adjusted increased health risk in those who consumed 7 times as much sugar.

Unfortunately, they estimated health risk ratios and estimated the demographics of population they studied but it is the best scientific evidence we seem to have. Even with its limitations, the study supports the contention that increased sugar increases heart and vascular disease. Excess sugar can be a poison to our cardiovascular system.

Sugar in Children
There is a lot of folklore, and some personal observation, that sugar revs up children. But is there evidence that it is poisoning our children? “The consumption of sugars added to processed and prepared foods, has been associated with (increased) measures of cardiovascular disease risk among adolescents, including adverse cholesterol”

Welsh JA, Sharma A, Cunningham SA, Vos MB. Consumption of added sugars and indicators of cardiovascular disease risk among U.S. adolescents. Circulation 123(3):249–57. 2011. In this study, the authors offer convincing evidence that excess sugar is poisoning our children and putting their future adult health at risk.

Beware of Honey in Infants
We love our honey bees and we enjoy the purity of honey. Consumption of honey likely helps persons with environmental allergies develop a low grade immunity. But unfortunately, honey has been found to carry botulism in tiny quantities and in rare cases. It is because of this that honey is not recommended for infants under one year of age. Honey is about 80% sugar and is higher calorie count than table sugar. Whether it is a “healthier” sugar as it relates to the diseases above is yet unproven but we do know that honey can be a poison to infants.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS has been heavily criticized as an unnecessary and risky food additive contributing to our consumption and addiction to sugar. However, the FDA offers this, “We are not aware of any evidence…that there is a difference in safety between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners.” In short, their statement does not say that HFCS isn’t a risk for any of the above diseases but it does say it isn’t any worse than any other source of sugar.

If You Are Allergic to Milk, Beware of Chocolate
Unfortunately, you can’t always tell if dark chocolate contains milk by reading the ingredients list. FDA researchers found that of 94 dark chocolate bars tested, only six listed milk as an ingredient.

“The FDA has not set a standard of identity for dark chocolate even though there are FDA standards for milk chocolate and white chocolate. Consumers are being deceived into thinking they are eating healthy dark chocolate, while actually consuming fake chocolate made from vegetable fats (usually palm oil).” This is disappointing information and has made me check the labels more closely.

Take Home Points

  • Our bodies and especially our brains need some sugar.
  • In excess, sugar can be a poison to our bodies.
  • In March 2015, the World Health Organization issued a guideline recommending “adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake.”



Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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