Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm not making it easier for you with this picture

In my last post I wrote about how children think junk food is tastier when there’s a cartoon on the package. As adults, we may be wiser to such blatant marketing schemes, but we still love our junk food, Shrek or no Shrek. Take pop for example: as of 2006, the production value for carbonated soft drinks in Canada was $2 billion. We also like our donuts: one of the biggest sources of added sugars in our diet is bakery goods. While it’s sometimes nearly impossible to resist the enticing aroma of fresh cinnamon buns baking at the coffee shop, think twice before you splurge: a new study suggests that added sugars in the form of fructose is positively linked to high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects over 5 million Canadians, and is increasingly affecting teenagers. It’s a direct risk factor for many nasty conditions, like heart failure and stroke. Interestingly, the increase in the prevalence of hypertension mirrors the increase in our consumption of fructose. And while technically, fructose is a type of sugar found in fruits, it is not thought that the increase in fructose consumption is due to eating more apples. The culprits are sweetened drinks, processed foods and those deadly cinnamon buns.

To address this question directly, American researchers analyzed the data from the very, very large (>4500 participants) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Not surprisingly, the more fructose you consume, the higher your risk of hypertension. This fructose intake/high blood pressure relationship holds even when you control for a number of other factors, including demographics, physical activity, other diseases, calorie intake, alcohol intake, salt intake, and others.

This study highlights what we call an “independent association”, which is not to be confused with a cause-and-effect relationship. There is not enough data to say that eating a lot of fructose leads to hypertension, only that those two things seem to occur together. However, the study has some strong features, namely that it is looking at a very large sample of people, and that it controls for many possibly confounding factors (an important one being salt intake, as it can lead to hypertension).

On the plus side, it’s very easy to limit your fructose consumption by decreasing the amount of pop you drink and the amount of processed foods you eat. On the downside, cinnamon buns are oh-so-very-tasty.

Reference: Increased fructose associates with elevated blood pressure. (2010) Jalal DI et al. J Am Soc Nephrol [Epub ahead of print].

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