Sweet and sour!

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Sugar: A Bitter flavor?
 A box of donuts
Photo: Phil King
Get your minimum daily requirement of extra sugar in one delicious “meal”!

In a study designed to give a more realistic measurement of the health effects of food, University of Utah researchers have found that a sugary diet seriously harms mice.

Although the diet contained the same calories as a standard mouse chow, the sugar-eating females died twice as fast as the controls, and the males sired 25 percent fewer offspring.

The experimental mice ate a version of standard mouse chow in which 25 percent of the calories came from a mixture resembling high fructose corn syrup.

Graph shows fructose/glucose-fed female mice experienced a death rate twice that of females in control group.
Courtesy Wayne Potts/University of Utah
Female mice eating chow containing glucose and fructose died twice as fast as control animals; this phenomenon did not appear among males.

That dose of sugar is equivalent to about three daily cans of soda for a person, according to authors James Ruff, a recent Ph.D. in biology, and Wayne Potts, a professor of biology at Utah.

For 26 weeks after weaning, the mice ate the standard or sugar-tainted chow. Then they were transferred to a large “mouse barn” intended to simulate the social interactions and stress of genuine rodent-hood. Mice, says Potts, “are really competitive for resources, territory, food, water and nesting sites, and I think this competition is one reason the assay is so sensitive” in detecting various kinds of toxicity.

Photo: Wayne Potts, University of Utah
Biology professor Wayne Potts, right, and his former Ph.D. student James Ruff used a “mouse barn” to test sugar’s toxicity. The blue bins are sheltered territories with separate nesting cages. The green planters are less desirable territories where mice must nest in the open. When house mice competed for food and territory, a diet containing 25 percent sugar doubled the death rate among females and left males one-quarter less able to hold territory and reproduce.

That approach, says Ruff, gives a better picture of how nutrients and environmental chemicals may affect the animals. “By almost every metric, they are perfectly fine in cages,” he says, “but in the semi-natural environment, with competition between experimental and control animals, we see this large difference.”

Not concerned yet? Then consider: each day, 13 to 25 percent of the American population swallows as much added sugar as the experimental rodents, Potts says.

Territorial terrors

Potts attributes the reproductive trouble for the experimental males to turf issues. “Males have 25 percent lower reproductive success, and occupy 26 percent less territory, and territory is a major part of male mouse success, because they are not able to obtain social dominance without it.”

But what explains the high death rate among females? Although many metabolic measures did not change significantly, the sugar-fed females were slow to eliminate glucose from the blood, suggesting a disruption in glucose metabolism. “Female mice are in an energetic crucible in the semi-natural enclosure,” says Ruff. “They are pregnant and nursing the previous litter … which may make them more sensitive to changes in energy metabolism.”

The experiment was not designed to root out causes, Ruff adds, so these explanations are “educated speculation.”

A can of Pepsi next to a small pile of white sugar. respectively.
Photo: Shardayyy
One can of soda contains about ten teaspoons (40 grams) of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that men limit their daily intake to about 9 teaspoons of sugar per day, and women to about 6 teaspoons.

Mice are nice … but what does it mean?

Recognizing that cancer has often been “cured” in mice using techniques that then failed in humans, why should we pay attention? “Three reasons,” Ruff said. “We used a human-relevant dose, which is not usually done in animals; we did a lifelong study, which is also not usually done in animals, and we looked in a semi-natural environment, and we know that environment is really important for manifesting human disease.”

The study “is one more in a series of valuable papers on the subject,” says Dale Schoeller, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is an expert on diabetes and obesity. “Human feeding trials of weeks to a few months in length are now offering strong evidence that sugar, especially sugar offered in the form of a beverage, are causal for weight gain,” although of course, “Data from feeding trials on mortality in humans obviously cannot be obtained for both ethical and time reasons.”

The biggest hole in the study, clearly, “is that mice are not humans,” Schoeller says.  “There are metabolic differences,” particularly in fructose metabolism.

Calories from added sugars among U.S. adults, 2005-2010

Bar chart shows men consume 335 kilocalories per day from added compared with 239 kilocalories for women. Men and women aged 20 to 39 consume the most calories, 397 and 275 respectively.
Men have the sweet tooth, consuming an average of 335 kilocalories (kcals) from added sugars, compared to 239 kcals for women. Although the researchers did not survey children, the caloric intake due to added sugar decreased linearly with age for men and women.

But there’s no ignoring corpses, even though they are mice, not men. “The increase in early deaths among the female mice reported here are to my knowledge novel and add to the concern over the large sugar intake among humans,” Schoeller says. “The more important work to be done by these authors is to now understand the underlying biochemical mechanisms to determine why and better determine if the same mechanisms are seen in short term human trials or cross sectional human studies.”

In the pen

Finally, we had to ask: If the amount of sugar being added to processed foods has increased 50 percent since 1970, where are the bodies? If the 25-percent sugar diet is so harmful to female mice, what does the evidence say about female humans?

As Ruff notes, “There is epidemiological evidence linking sugar consumption with obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which all lead to decreased longevity.”

But it’s impossible to be sure. For people, “it’s very difficult to separate out those components,” says Potts, “and we don’t even have lifetime data on average sugar consumption in the United States.” Although added-sugar consumption has been going up since the 1950s, the human guinea pigs from the era are only 60 years old. “My grandkids will know what sugar did to us.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Yilang Peng, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Human-relevant levels of added sugar consumption increase female mortality and lower male fitness in mice, James S. Ruff et al, Nature Communications, 6 August 2013.
  2. How much sugar and calories are in your favorite drink?
  3. The American diet in one chart
  4. What are added sugars?
  5. Is sugar really toxic? Sifting through the evidence
  6. How much sugar should you eat per day?