The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes
Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-
Sanjay Basu1*, Paula Yoffe2, Nancy Hills3, Robert H. Lustig4,5
1Stanford Prevention Research Center, Department of Medicine, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, United States of America, 2Department of Integrative Biology,
University of California, Berkeley, California, United States of America, 3Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco,
California, United States of America, 4Department of Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, United States of America, 5Philip R. Lee
Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, United States of America
While experimental and observational studies suggest that sugar intake is associated with the development of type 2
diabetes, independent of its role in obesity, it is unclear whether alterations in sugar intake can account for differences in
diabetes prevalence among overall populations. Using econometric models of repeated cross-sectional data on diabetes
and nutritional components of food from 175 countries, we found that every 150 kcal/person/day increase in sugar
availability (about one can of soda/day) was associated with increased diabetes prevalence by 1.1% (p ,0.001) after testing
for potential selection biases and controlling for other food types (including fibers, meats, fruits, oils, cereals), total calories,
overweight and obesity, period-effects, and several socioeconomic variables such as aging, urbanization and income. No
other food types yielded significant individual associations with diabetes prevalence after controlling for obesity and other
confounders. The impact of sugar on diabetes was independent of sedentary behavior and alcohol use, and the effect was
modified but not confounded by obesity or overweight. Duration and degree of sugar exposure correlated significantly with
diabetes prevalence in a dose-dependent manner, while declines in sugar exposure correlated with significant subsequent
declines in diabetes rates independently of other socioeconomic, dietary and obesity prevalence changes. Differences in
sugar availability statistically explain variations in diabetes prevalence rates at a population level that are not explained by
physical activity, overweight or obesity.
Citation: Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig RH (2013) The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-
Sectional Data. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57873. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057873
Editor: Bridget Wagner, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, United States Of America
Received November 8, 2012; Accepted January 29, 2013; Published February 27, 2013
Copyright: ? 2013 Basu et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted
use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: The authors have no support or funding to report.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Global diabetes prevalence has more than doubled over the last
three decades, with prevalence rates far exceeding modeled
projections, even after allowing for improved surveillance. Nearly
1 in 10 adults worldwide are now affected by diabetes . This
striking statistic has led to investigation into the population drivers
of diabetes prevalence. Most of the worldwide rise is thought to be
type 2 diabetes linked to the ‘‘metabolic syndrome’’ – the cluster of
metabolic perturbations that includes dyslipidemia, hypertension,
and insulin resistance. Obesity associated with economic develop-
ment — particularly from lack of exercise and increased
consumption of calories — is thought to be the strongest risk
factor for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes [2–5].
At a population level, however, obesity does not fully explain
variations and trends in diabetes prevalence rates observed in
many countries. As shown in Figure 1, several countries with high
diabetes prevalence rates have low obesity rates, and vice versa.
High diabetes yet low obesity prevalence are observed in countries
with different ethnic compositions, such as the Philippines,
Romania, France, Bangladesh and Georgia, although there are
likely surveillance quality differences between nations [6,7].
Trends in diabetes and obesity are also dyssynchronous within
some nations; while Sri Lanka’s diabetes prevalence rate rose from
3% in the year 2000 to 11% in 2010, its obesity rate remained at
0.1% during that time period. Conversely, diabetes prevalence in
New Zealand declined from 8% in 2000 to 5% in 2010 while
obesity rates in the country rose from 23% to 34% during that
decade. Similar trends of declining diabetes rates despite rising
obesity rates were observed in Pakistan and Iceland. There are not
obvious ethnic or socio-demographic commonalities between these
countries to explain these observations. This population-level
puzzle is accompanied by individual-level data. About 20% of
obese individuals appear to have normal insulin regulation and
normal metabolic indices (no indication of diabetes) and normal
longevity , while up to 40% of normal weight people in some
populations manifest aspects of the ‘‘metabolic syndrome’’ [9–12].
These findings direct attention to determining additional risk
factors for development of diabetes. One controversial hypothesis
is that excessive sugar intake may be a primary and independent
driver of rising diabetes rates . Sugars added to processed food,
in particular the monosaccharide fructose, can contribute to
obesity , but also appear to have properties that increase
diabetes risk independently from obesity . For example, liver
fructose metabolism in the fed state generates lipogenic substrates
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org1February 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 2 | e57873
in an unregulated fashion, which drives hepatic de novo lipogenesis
and reduced fatty acid oxidation, forming excessive liver fat and
inflammation that inactivates the insulin signaling pathway,
leading to hepatic insulin resistance [16,17]. Sugary foods have
been significantly associated with the development of insulin
resistance in laboratory-based studies [18,19]. Reactive oxygen
species are produced by the Maillard reaction [20,21], damaging
pancreatic beta cells, and leading to a subcellular stress response
(the ‘‘unfolded protein response’’ in the endoplasmic reticulum)
that drives insulin inadequacy [22,23]. In concert, insulin
resistance and reduced insulin secretion lead to overt diabetes.
Fructose is often consumed as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS;
42% or 55% fructose) in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and some parts
of Europe, while the rest of the world primarily consumes sucrose
(50% fructose). Globally, countries have experienced a rise in
sugar supply from an average of 218 kilocalories/person/day in
1960 to over 280 kilocalories/person/day today, with an acceler-
ation in the rate of supply over the past decade. Assuming a 30%
food wastage rate , these sugar calories exceed the recom-
mended daily upper limit of 150 kilocalories per man and
100 kilocalories per woman suggested by the American Heart
The issue of whether added sugars may be a population-level
driver of the diabetes pandemic is of importance to global health
policy. If obesity is a primary driver of diabetes, then measures to
reduce calorie consumption and increase physical activity should
be prioritized. However, if added sugar consumption is a primary
driver, then public health policies to reduce sugar consumption
warrant investigation as diabetes prevention proposals—especially
for developing countries where diabetes rates are rising dramat-
ically, irrespective of obesity.
In this study, we conducted a statistical assessment of panel data
(repeated multi-variate data from multiple countries over a time
period) to empirically evaluate whether changes in sugar
availability, irrespective of changes in other foodstuffs, can in part
account for the divergence in diabetes prevalence rates worldwide.
We used United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization
food supply data  to capture market availability of different
food items (sugars, fibers, fruits, meats, cereals, oils, and total food)
in kilocalories per person per day in each country for each year of
the analysis. The dependent variables in the analysis were
International Diabetes Federation estimates of diabetes prevalence
among persons aged 20 to 79 years old from 2000 through 2010
. We controlled for gross domestic product per capita (GDP
expressed in purchasing power parity in 2005 US dollars for
comparability among countries), percent of population living in
urban areas, and percent of population above the age of 65 for
each country in each year of the analysis from the World Bank
World Development Indicators Database 2011 , and the
prevalence overweight and obesity (percent of the population aged
15 to 100 years old with body mass index greater than or equal to
25 kg/m2and 30 kg/m2, respectively) from the World Health
Organization Global Infobase 2012 edition . Data sources and
summary statistics are further described in the Supporting
Information (Text S1 and Table S1).
Data monitoring and quality was assessed through several
approaches. First, a Hausman test  was performed to test
whether factors that differ across countries such as the differing
strength of diabetes surveillance systems would systematically
affect our results, ensuring the available data were suitable to
answer our research questions. This assesses for how reports of
diabetes rates and food consumption may systematically differ
between countries, so that such differences can be incorporated as
controls in the statistical models. Selection bias may be an
Figure 1. Relationship between obesity and diabetes prevalence rates worldwide. Obesity prevalence is defined as the percentage of the
population aged 15 to 100 years old with body mass index greater than or equal to 30 kg/meters squared, from the World Health Organization
Global Infobase 2012 edition. Diabetes prevalence is defined as the percentage of the population aged 20 to 79 years old with diabetes, from the
International Diabetes Federation Diabetes Atlas 2011 edition. Three-letter codes are ISO standard codes for country names.
Sugar and Diabetes
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additional issue for assessing the effect of sugar on diabetes
prevalence rates. Having greater sugar available in a country, for
example, may be an artifact of overall economic development and
increased general food importation, which could temporally
overlap with rising diabetes prevalence irrespective of higher
sugar intake (e.g., due to increased sedentary living or higher
calorie intake leading to obesity). We controlled for this possibility
using a lag of the change in log GDP per capita in our models. We
also modeled the hazard of having high sugar availability rates in
each country, and used this constructed hazard variable to
explicitly control for potential unobserved selection bias (a
‘‘Heckman selection model’’, see Text S1) . We also used a
set of period effects to control for secular trends in the diabetes and
sugar data that may have occurred as a result of changes in
countries’ diabetes detection capacity or sugar importation
We conducted explicit model selection procedures using
Generalized Estimating Equations (see results in Text S1) to
ensure the model was an optimal choice for the given data .
The following regression model was specified, incorporating the
leading factors believed to be related to diabetes prevalence, in
addition to the sugar exposure variable:
In Equation 1, i is country and t is year; GDP is logged per
capita gross domestic product; GDPc is the lag of GDP change;
SUGAR is the number of kilocalories per person per day of sugar
availability (the sum of sugar, sugar crops, and sweeteners); FIBER
is the number of kilocalories per person per day of fiber
(constituting pulses, vegetables, nuts, roots and tubers); FRUIT,
CEREALS, MEAT and OIL are the kilocalories per day per
capita availability for each of these food categories; TOTAL is the
total number of kilocalories per person per day of overall food
availability; URBAN is the percentage of the country’s population
living in urban settings; ELDER is the percentage of the
population that is age 65 or above; OBESE is the obesity
prevalence rate; and g is the set of dummy variables which controls
for period-effects, as described above; and epsilon is the error
We subsequently added additional variables to test the
associations of the percentage of total calories derived from sugar
or other food components with diabetes prevalence, the duration
of exposure to high calorie availability from sugar, and the effect of
reduced sugar availability. We further tested the impact of
introducing a measure of sedentary behavior, the estimated
percentage of the population aged 15 years and older that is
physically inactive from the International Physical Activity
Questionnaire (defined as not meeting any of three criteria:
(a) 5630 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week; (b)
3620 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week; (c) an
equivalent combination achieving 600 metabolic equivalent-
minutes per week). Further control variables were the percent of
persons above age 15 years who currently smoke tobacco, from
the WHO Global Infobase , and the percent who engage
heavy episodic alcohol drinking (at least 60 grams or more of pure
alcohol on at least one occasion weekly), from the WHO Global
Information System on Alcohol and Health .
We also performed Granger-causality tests, which use the
temporal nature of the data to test whether high sugar availability
preceded an increase in diabetes (‘‘precedence’’) or whether high
diabetes prevalence preceded high sugar availability  (see Text
S1). Data were analyzed in STATA v10.1. In all analyses, food
availability data were age-adjusted, regressions were population
weighted, and robust standard errors were computed to ensure
stability of the results in the face of heteroskedasticity and
Correlates of diabetes prevalence
Table 1 presents the results of the cross-national model from
2000 to 2010. Each 150 kilocalorie/person/day increase in total
calorie availability related to a 0.1% rise in diabetes prevalence
(not significant), whereas a 150 kilocalories/person/day rise in
sugar availability (one 12 oz. can of soft drink) was associated with
a 1.1% rise in diabetes prevalence (95% CI: 0.48–1.7%; p,0.001)
after all control variables were incorporated into the model. These
controls included current income, changes in income, urbaniza-
tion, aging, obesity, and the consumption of other foods as well as
period effects (secular correlations that may have occurred simply
due to surveillance changes or economic development). Diabetes
prevalence rates rose 27% on average from 2000 to 2010, with just
over one-fourth of the increase explained by a rise in sugar
availability in this model. In countries like the Philippines,
Romania, Sri Lanka, Georgia and Bangladesh, where high and
rising diabetes rates were observed in the context of low obesity
rates, sugar availability rose by over 20% during the study period.
(It is possible that weight gain, rather than overt obesity, might
account for some of the changes in diabetes, hence our models
were repeated with overweight prevalence rather than obesity in
Table S3, and with measures of physical inactivity rather than
BMI in Table S4, but the results did not change).
Several of the main control variables in the model had
important effects. The coefficient of log Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) per capita was 1.07, which means that a 1% increase in
GDP levels corresponded to a 1.07% rise in diabetes prevalence
(p,0.05), consistent with the notion that economic development is
a powerful correlate to diabetes prevalence [35,36]. Similarly,
variables capturing urbanization and aging populations were
associated with diabetes prevalence; however these variables fell
from significance as total food availability and obesity were
incorporated into the model (Table 1), suggesting that calorie
consumption and obesity are among the pathways by which these
other factors may contribute to diabetes, consistent with cross-
sectional studies .
A potential criticism of the basic finding is that, given the effect
of obesity on the risk of diabetes and the high prevalence of both
obesity and sugar availability in developed countries, our results
are not due to sugar per se but rather confounded by rising obesity
rates. In Table 1, we see that sugar availability remained a
significant correlate to diabetes prevalence independent of obesity
and total calorie consumption. When obesity was removed from
the model, the effect size of sugar was not significantly amplified
(beta = 0.0081, p,0.001), suggesting that obesity does not appear
to account for the major part of the impact of sugar on diabetes.
We additionally tested whether sugar availability alone was a
significant predictor of obesity rates independent of the other
control variables (total consumption, urbanization, aging, income,
other foods and period effects), and found the expected
relationship between total calories and obesity, but not individually
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between sugar and obesity when total calories was accounted for—
consistent with the hypothesis being tested (see Table S5).
None of the other food categories — including fiber-containing
foods (pulses, nuts, vegetables, roots, tubers), fruits, meats, cereals,
and oils — had a significant association with diabetes prevalence
rates. We tested the hypothesis that low-carbohydrate fibers (nuts
and vegetables) might be protective against diabetes by individ-
ually including them in the regression (as opposed to all fiber-
containing foods) but they had no significant effect, and did not
change the impact of sugar on diabetes prevalence. We initially
separated fruit from other vegetables/fibers given the potential
glucose burden of fruit; when repeating the analysis combining
fruits with vegetables and other fibers, the results did not change.
Tests of sugar exposure
As opposed to absolute sugar availability in kilocalories, the
fraction of sugar in the available food market (the percent of total
available calories composed of by sugar) may also be a critical
factor in diabetes. As shown in Table 2, the fraction of total
calories arising from sugar was the only significant food fraction
correlated with diabetes, with a 1% rise in the fraction of total food
calories as sugar corresponding to a 0.167% rise in diabetes
We also tested whether the number of years a country was
exposed to ‘‘high sugar availability’’, which we defined as at least
300 kcal/person/day (twice the upper recommended daily limit
for men, ) had a relationship with diabetes prevalence, by
introducing a count variable for the number of years exposed to
high sugar. Under the hypothesis being tested, longer exposure to
sugar would correspond to greater effects on diabetes risk. We
found that each extra year of exposure to high sugar availability
was associated with an increase in diabetes prevalence of 0.053%
(p,0.05) after all other control variables were included (Table 3).
Table 1. Effect of sugar availability on diabetes prevalence rates worldwide.
Log GDP per capita0.94**
Change in log GDP1.022.081.77 0.46 1.88
(0.97) (1.26)(2.39) (2.59) (2.54)
(0.015)(0.013) (0.011) (0.011)
0.11 0.039 0.049
Total kilocalories 0.00100.000310.00079 0.00075
Countries 173 160 152141137
0.27 0.310.44 0.54 0.55
Food components are expressed in kilocalories/person/day, such that each row displays the impact on diabetes prevalence of a 1 kilocalorie/person/day increase in the
availability of the given food category (e.g., a 1 kilocalorie/person/day rise in sugar relates to a 0.0072% rise in diabetes prevalence). Urbanization refers to the
percentage of the population living in urban areas. Aging is the percentage of the population 65 years of age and older. Obesity is the percentage of the population
with BMI at least 30 kg/m2.
Robust standard errors in parentheses.
*p , 0.05,**p , 0.01,***p , 0.001
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Additional robustness checks
To further test whether influence runs from sugar availability to
higher diabetes prevalence, and not vice versa (that is, to confirm
that sugar availability did not increase as a result of whatever other
factors associated with economic development or other unob-
served variables may have raised diabetes prevalence), we tested
the effects of lowering sugar availability. We found that in the
periods after a country lowered its sugar availability (typically in
the context of changes in trade agreements, discussed at length
(p,0.05), after correcting for changes in all other controls
including the economic variables, socio-demographic variables,
and changes in consumption of other food products as well as total
calories and obesity prevalence (see Table S1).
We subsequently used Granger temporal causality tests (see
Text S1) to test the robustness of this finding. We identified a
significant relationship between high sugar availability and
subsequently higher diabetes prevalence rates, not vice versa.
Hence sugar availability did not violate criteria for temporal
We conducted a series of additional robustness checks and
regression diagnostics to test the sugar-diabetes relationship (see
Tables S3, S4). Figure 2 shows the plot of sugar availability and
diabetes rates among all countries in the sample after control
variables were introduced into the regression. First we removed
potential outlying countries from this regression, liberally defined
as countries having standardized residuals in the main model
greater than the absolute value of 2. The results were strength-
ened: a 150 kcal/person/day rise in sugar availability correspond-
ed to a 1.2% rise in diabetes prevalence (p,0.001) as opposed to a
1.1% rise when outliers were included. We also used other
estimation approaches, including a time-series model that accounts
for how earlier years in the regression may predict trends in later
years and thereby throw off common regression models (an
autoregressive time-series model using Stata’s xtregar module to
explicitly estimate serial correlation), and the results remained
significant: each 150 kcal/person/day rise in sugar availability
related to a 0.4% rise in diabetes prevalence (p,0.001). We also
re-ran these robustness checks with controls for country-specific
factors (fixed effects) and without period effects, as well as using
only direct diabetes survey data rather than some of the diabetes
data that were imputed estimates by the International Diabetes
Federation, and without the U.S. in the sample given a lower ratio
of food consumption to supply in the U.S. than in other nations
(higher food waste) . In all cases, the sugar variable maintained
a similar association with diabetes prevalence.
Table 2. Fractional food composition and diabetes prevalence.
Diabetes prevalence (%)Diabetes prevalence (%) Diabetes prevalence (%)
Fraction of total calories from sugar18.1**
Fraction of total calories from fiber 3.971.001.70
(2.98) (3.24) (3.37)
Fraction of total calories from fruit –0.58–1.98–1.64
Fraction of total calories from meat 3.979.317.82
Fraction of total calories from cereal0.96 2.272.73
Fraction of total calories from veg oils1.932.80 4.85
Log GDP per capita 1.03*
Change in log GDP2.03 1.85
Urbanization refers to the percentage of the population living in urban areas. Aging is the percentage of the population 65 years of age and older. Obesity is the
percentage of the population with BMI at least 30 kg/m2.
Robust standard errors in parentheses.
*p , 0.05,**p , 0.01,***p , 0.001
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Additional control variables
There are many additional epidemiological correlates to
diabetes prevalence, and any econometric study is subject to
limitations of data quality. We attempted to minimize any such
potential confounding by introducing additional data measures
and sources to test the robustness of our primary model. First, we
reassessed our models using overweight (BMI $ 25 kg/m2) instead
of obesity (BMI $ 30 kg/m2) in case obesity was a late-stage
predictor of diabetes. We also incorporated physical inactivity,
which has also been related to diabetes . Lastly, a high
prevalence of smoking and heavy alcohol use have been associated
with diabetes . Incorporation of these factors (see Table S4) did
not affect the sugar variable and did not themselves reach
statistical significance as independent correlates of diabetes when
the other control variables were included in the model.
Controlling for selection bias
These results may have been driven by another aspect of the
changing environment for which we have not controlled. We
addressed the issue of unobserved selection bias directly by
constructing, and conditioning upon, a variable of the risk a
country has of having high sugar availability (a first step bivariate
probit model known as a ‘‘Heckman-type’’ selection model, see
Text S1). Once we added controls for potential selection bias
associated with high sugar availability, the association of sugar
availability with diabetes prevalence magnified to 1.2% rise in
diabetes prevalence for each 150 kcal/person/day increase in
sugar availability (p,0.001). The coefficient on the variable for the
risk of high sugar availability was non-significant, suggesting that
selection bias was unlikely to impact our results.
The worldwide secular trend of increased diabetes prevalence
likely has multiple etiologies, which may act through multiple
mechanisms. Our results show that sugar availability is a
significant statistical determinant of diabetes prevalence rates
worldwide. By statistically studying variation in diabetes rates, food
availability data and associated socioeconomic and demographic
variables across countries and time, we identified that sugar
availability appears to be uniquely correlated to diabetes
prevalence independent of overweight and obesity prevalence
rates, unlike other food types and total consumption, and
independent of other changes in economic and social change
such as urbanization, aging, changes to household income,
sedentary lifestyles and tobacco or alcohol use. We found that
obesity appeared to exacerbate, but not confound, the impact of
sugar availability on diabetes prevalence, strengthening the
argument for targeted public health approaches to excessive sugar
consumption. We also noted that longer exposure to high sugar
was associated with accentuated diabetes prevalence, while
reduced sugar exposure was associated with decline in diabetes
prevalence, and that the sugar-diabetes relationship appeared to
meet criteria for temporal causality without being the result of
selection biases or the effect of secular trends that may be artifacts
of economic development or changes in surveillance.
Despite the robustness of our findings to a broad set of
socioeconomic and epidemiologic variables, there are several
important limitations to this analysis. First, as with all cross-
country analyses, the potential exists for ecological fallacies. The
observed associations are biologically plausible, given the numer-
ous mechanisms by which sugar foments pathophysiologic
processes leading to diabetes [19,40]. They are also complemented
by individual data, but unfortunately such individual analyses
cannot identify what factors are most prominently affecting
diabetes rates at the population level in the setting of multiple
other concurrent economic and social changes. Hence, we add
value to the discussion about diabetes prevention strategies by
conducting an ecological statistical analysis that incorporates
broad social change variables to assess the international signifi-
cance of recent laboratory and clinical studies. An ecological
analysis at a population level can also help decipher drivers of
change from small associations found at the individual level. As an
example, while not wearing bicycle helmets is found to be an
important risk factor for traumatic brain injury in cohort studies, it
is not an important driver of all traumatic brain injuries in general
at a population level, since the latter is dominated by motor vehicle
accidents. Similarly, in our analysis, many foods did not have
significant correlations to diabetes prevalence at the population
level, even though they are associated with diabetes in cohort or
Table 3. Years of sugar exposure and diabetes prevalence
Diabetes prevalence (%)
Log GDP per capita1.26**
Change in log GDP0.79
Years of high sugar intake0.053*
Food components are expressed in kilocalories/person/day. Urbanization refers
to the percentage of the population living in urban areas. Aging is the
percentage of the population 65 years of age and older. Obesity is the
percentage of the population with BMI at least 30x kg/m2.
Robust standard errors in parentheses
*p , 0.05,**p , 0.01,***p , 0.001
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clinical trial studies. This is because at a population level the
significance of these other foods may be not be driving population-
level diabetes rates. Our population-level data do not allow us to
assert mechanistic understandings of relationships between risk
and outcome, but do afford us a sense that the effect size is large
enough to affect the population rates of disease.
Second, we utilized an international food database that tracks
caloric availability, as there are no direct measures of actual
human consumption that can account for food wastage and
provide precise measures of food consumption internationally.
Exclusion of the United States from the data—an outlier-country
in terms of food wastage—did not change our results. In other
countries, supply and consumption are more closely aligned ,
and differential wastage among foodstuffs does not appear to occur
. Another potential limitation is that we cannot track specific
foods with accuracy, hence further analyses should investigate and
differentiate different types of sugars, or foods like dairy products,
to which sugars are frequently added, as well as other nutritional
components such as proteins and fats. For instance, a recent
ecological analysis correlated high-fructose corn syrup with
diabetes prevalence . Our assessment was also ecological in
nature and cannot identify specific longitudinal causation among
individuals; however, unlike the prior assessment, the correlations
detected here were subjected to several tests to assess relationships
across time, the potential effects of other foodstuffs, the potential
for selection biases, and a larger number of potential confounding
Third, while considerable debate exists as to what forms of
sugar may be most relevant to this relationship (for example,
whether high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is different than sucrose
), our analysis cannot distinguish between any specific added
sugars, such as HFCS or sucrose, or between any specific vehicle,
such as soda or processed food. Our study merely suggests that the
aggregate indicator of added sugar availability statistically predicts
changes in diabetes prevalence over time.
Fourth, our ecological approach limits statistical power as one
makes inferences about individuals based on aggregates; age, sex,
and racial predictions are lost. Important work at the individual
level suggests that certain populations, such as South Asian groups,
may develop metabolic syndrome and diabetes at lower levels of
obesity as assessed by BMI than other populations such as
Caucasians. Environmental factors such as sugar consumption
should be investigated as potential factors in this interaction. A
BMI . 25 kg/m2rather than 30 kg/m2may a more appropriate
indicator of obesity in Asians. Substituting overweight for obesity
in the models did not change the effect size or significance of our
findings with regard to sugar, and high sugars with low obesity
rates were observed in countries outside of East and South Asia,
suggesting that ethnic factors alone are unlikely to explain our
observations. Other societal factors associated with diabetes were
those classically associated with metabolic syndrome; including
income, urbanization and aging. All three of these were associated
with dietary and physical activity changes.
Finally, the International Diabetes Federation database contains
diabetes prevalence data based on multiple surveys of varying
quality; as many diabetics go undiagnosed, these are likely
underestimates, and do not distinguish between Type 1 (approx-
imately 10%) and Type 2 diabetes (90%), which would tend to
produce regression towards the mean (underestimating the
relationship between sugar and diabetes). Furthermore, we used
the best available population-wide international data available to
date for this assessment, but these data are known to be highly
imperfect. It is thought that much of the FAO data on foods and
nutrients in the food supply have limits to their reliability, and that
IDF data and WHO data on obesity prevalence are difficult to
validate independently. Hence, any of the findings we observe here
are meant to be exploratory in nature, helping us to detect broad
population patterns that deserve further testing through prospec-
tive longitudinal cohort studies in international settings, which are
only now coming underway.
The observed relationship between dietary sugar exposure and
diabetes in this statistical assessment was not mitigated by
adjusting for confounders related to socioeconomics, aging,
physical activity, or obesity. This suggests that sugar should be
Figure 2. Adjusted association of sugar availability (kcal/person/day) with diabetes prevalence (% adults 20–79 years old).
Regression line is adjusted for all control variables listed in Table 1, including time-trends (period-effects).
Sugar and Diabetes
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org7 February 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 2 | e57873
investigated for its role in diabetes pathogenesis apart from its Download full-text
contributions to obesity.
In summary, population-level variations in diabetes prevalence
that are unexplained by other common variables appear to be
statistically explained by sugar. This finding lends credence to the
notion that further investigations into sugar availability and/or
consumption are warranted to further elucidate the pathogenesis
of diabetes at an individual level and the drivers of diabetes at a
population level .
Lowered sugar availability and diabetes
stead of obesity.
Replication of results using overweight in-
tobacco and alcohol.
Incorporating controls for physical inactivity,
Testing sugar as an explanatory variable for
Additional model information.
Conceived and designed the experiments: SB RL. Performed the
experiments: SB PY RL. Analyzed the data: SB PY NH RL. Contributed
reagents/materials/analysis tools: SB PY NH. Wrote the paper: SB RL.
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Sugar and Diabetes
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 8February 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 2 | e57873