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A pair of economists wants the US government to go after the food industry in the same way it went after tobacco companies because early childhood sugar consumption can influence lifelong health and wage outcomes.
Two economists from the University of California, Berkeley and the RAND Corp. used the end of sugar and candy rationing in the UK in 1953 to study what would happen later in life if kids under the age of five ate too much sugar. The researchers published their preprint results with the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“Most of the research now looks at contemporaneous effects of excess sugar consumption,” said Paul Gertler, the study’s co-author and economics professor at the University of California. “We wanted to look at this long term life perspective.”
Researchers were able to compare the outcomes of people who were born just a few years apart but had very different amounts of sugar in their diets. This was possible because people quickly started eating sugar and sweets after rationing ended, but they didn’t change consumption of other foods.
The researchers looked at children whose parents had similar health profiles and came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The post-rationing adults were more likely to develop chronic inflammation, diabetes, arthritis, and other long-term illnesses.
In addition to the effects on health, too much sugar early in life had an effect on how well the children did in school and how much money they made as adults. Adults born after rationing ended were 18.5% less likely to go to college and 16.6% less likely to have a job that required a high level of skill than adults born into sugar rationing. This also meant that adults who were born after rationing were less likely to accumulate wealth than their older peers.
The economists recommended the government step in to stop pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children from eating too much sugar, especially as sugar-rich foods are increasingly marketed for toddlers and infants.
“In the last 10-to-15 years, the food industry has introduced this massive number of new sugar laden foods and drinks, and there’s this new product category called toddler drinks,” Gertler said. “At this age—below two—the recommended sugar intake is zero, and here you’ve got foods that are 20% to 40% sugar.”
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