Today, Americans, on average, each eat 57 pounds of sugar a year—but it wasn’t always that way. It’s not that people in, say, the 1800s didn’t have a taste for sweets—humans have craved ripe, sugar-rich fruits since the caveman days—but the way they ate was far, far different. Early Americans had to make meals out of meats from animals they hunted and fresh fruits and veggies grown nearby. Dessert was usually dried fruits or homemade puddings sweetened with maple syrup or molasses.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that most Americans began to buy processed and packaged foods, like ready-to-eat cereal. And it was even later—in the 1940s—that food scientists began to understand how to make those foods even more delicious: by pumping them full of extra sugar.
But food manufacturers weren’t just tucking the sweet stuff into those sneaky sources like cereal and bread. They also began mass-producing sugary sodas and snacks, making them easier to buy and consume.
So what’s the big deal? Nutritionists call the sweeteners put in during the food production process added sugars, and they warn that these sugars affect our bodies differently than the natural sugars found in the fruits enjoyed by our ancient ancestors. When you eat an orange, for example, you’re not only getting a rush of sweetness; you’re also getting fiber and complex carbohydrates. It takes your body time to break down these nutrients, which means that the sugar gets released into your blood slowly. This process also keeps you fuller longer.
When you chug an orange soda, on the other hand, you send a concentrated load of sugar straight to your liver. An overload of sugar can, over time, lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.