Reducing the Sugar in Packaged Foods Could Save Lives

By Iva Fedorka

According to a study published in the journal Circulation in 2021, reducing the sugar content of packaged foods by one-fifth and in beverages by 40 percent could prevent 2,480,000 strokes, heart attacks, and cardiac arrests; 490,000 cardiovascular deaths; and 750,000 cases of diabetes in the United States over the lifetime of living adults (ages 35 to 79).

About the Study

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOH) collaborated to create a simulation model to explore the effects of these changes.

The model was designed to quantify the health, economic, and equity impacts of a sugar-reduction policy proposed by the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI). In 2018, this partnership of over 100 local, state, and national health organizations released targets for reducing sugar in 15 categories of packaged foods and beverages.

Voluntary Compliance or Policy

In February 2021, the policy for voluntary product reformulations by manufacturers was finalized. The study participants hope that the model will help create more awareness of and lay the groundwork for the production of foods and beverages that contain significantly less sugar.

Of course, an official national policy would require legislation that specified ways to monitor and report on the progress of food and beverage companies. Nevertheless, reducing sugar in commercially prepared foods and drinks is expected to have more health impact than a tax on sugar, sugar content labeling, or even barring sugary drinks in schools.

Potential Outcomes and Benefits

If the NSSRI policy remains in effect for 10 years, the model projects savings of $4.28 billion in total net healthcare costs and $118.04 billion over the adult population’s lifetime. Add in the costs of lost productivity from sugar-related diseases, the savings rise to $160.88 billion.

Achieving the NSSRI targets could increase quality-of-life years (QALYs) by 6.67 million and save $160.88 billion in societal net costs. Projections predict cost-effectiveness in six years and cost-savings starting at nine years. In fact, the use of more conservative figures may be underestimating the potential financial benefits.


The regular consumption of high-sugar foods and beverages is linked to weight gain, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other cardiovascular issues. Almost a third of U.S. adults are obese, half are diabetic or prediabetic, and almost half have some type of cardiovascular disease.

The United Kingdom, Norway, and Singapore have led the sugar-reformulation efforts to date. Product changes in the U.S. have successfully reduced trans fats, sodium, and other harmful ingredients from foods, but no specific sugar-reduction efforts have been made.

Implementing and achieving the NSSRI sugar reformation targets could produce substantial health gains, equity gains, and cost-savings in less than a decade.

Iva Fedorka is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.