Sugar is so toxic that it should be taxed and slapped with regulations like alcohol, some U.S. researchers argue.

In a commentary published in Wednesday's issue of the journal Nature, doctors from the University of California, San Francisco, say that rising global rates of major killers such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes aren’t caused by obesity as commonly thought.

Instead, obesity is a marker for those health problems, and sugar is the true culprit, Dr. Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis said.

P.O.V.

Should pop be regulated like alcohol and tobacco? Take our survey.

"We recognize that societal intervention to reduce the supply and demand for sugar faces an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby," they wrote.

Measures such as smoking bans in public places, the use of designated drivers and the addition of condom dispensers in public washrooms were also battlegrounds that are now taken for granted for public health, the authors said in calling for sugar regulations.

They suggested:

  • Taxing "added sugar" — any sweetener containing fructose that is added to food in processing, including sugar-sweetened beverages and sugared cereal.
  • Controlling the location and density of fast-food outlets and convenience stores around schools and offering incentives to open grocery stores and farmers' markets.
  • Limiting sales during the school day or designating an age limit to buy drinks with added sugar.

The researchers said sugar meets four criteria for regulation that are largely accepted by public health experts and that were first applied to alcohol. Those criteria are pervasiveness in society, toxicity, potential for abuse and negative impact on society.

si-pop-drink-220-cp-is

It has been suggested that sales of sugary foods and drinks be limited during the school day. (iStock)

The American Beverage Association responded to the article by saying there's a drink and portion size for every occasion and lifestyle.

"We believe providing more options — not taking them away — is a better solution to help parents and individuals choose beverages that are right for them and their families," the beverage group said on its website.

Dietitians generally encourage people to eat a healthy diet without focusing on a single nutrient.

There are several toxic substances, such as salt and trans fat, that affect health if you eat too much of them, said Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

"I don't think we can bring the whole question about obesity down to a simple substance like people eating too much sugar," Sharma said in an interview from Lethbridge, Alta.

The discussion is valuable, but no one knows what the unintended consequences of regulating sugar might be, Sharma said.

"Changing lifestyle is more about changing your life than your style," Sharma said. "We have to ask ourselves, are we prepared to change our lives? Which means spend less time on the road, perhaps less hours working, perhaps start cooking again, perhaps bring home economics back into school."