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A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but not much else

A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but not much else
27 Jun 2014

A high intake of sweet foods in postmenopausal women and sugar-sweetened beverages in premenopausal women is associated with increased breast density according to research published in open access journal BMC Public Health. Increased breast density is one of the risks in developing breast cancer.

Though the results only suggest a small increase in density, this factor is strongly linked to breast cancer risk, and the study was done on a population with a low sugar intake. The researchers believe that additional studies are needed to verify if their finding would be stronger in populations with higher intake.

This finding adds to the debate about global increase in sugar consumption and related health problems. The study suggests that a high intake of sweet foods may lead to higher breast density in postmenopausal women and eventually a higher breast cancer risk. The same can be said of premenopausal women who drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Breasts that have a lot of glandular tissue, which is involved in milk production, and the shape-giving fibrous tissue are considered dense. Having dense breasts is not related to size or firmness. It has been well-established in other studies that increased density acts as a marker for breast cancer risk.

Researchers from Laval University recruited 776 premenopausal and 779 postmenopausal women from regular mammographic screening at two in clinics in Quebec, Canada. Breast density for each participant was assessed by a trained technician by examining their mammograms. The women from both groups then answered a questionnaire about the frequency of their consumption of sweet foods, such as chocolates, cakes and ice cream; sugar-sweetened beverages, such as carbonated drinks with sugar and sweet fruit juice; and spoonsful of sugar added to beverages or food.

The results of the questionnaire found a correlation between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and breast density in premenopausal women. The same association with breast density was noted for sweet foods consumed by postmenopausal women. In all women that had more than three servings on sugar-sweetened beverages in a week there was a 3% difference in density compared to those who did not consume this type of beverage. The participants in this study did not have high sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, hence the low number of drinks per put them in the higher category. The researchers suggest that this may be different in populations with higher intake.

Senior author of the study, Caroline Diorio, says: “We found that higher consumption of sweet foods among postmenopausal women and higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among premenopausal women are associated with breast density, one of the strongest breast cancer risk indicators. The difference in breast density found in our study might not be very high, but it may not be neglected in a global strategic plan to prevent breast cancer by reducing breast density.”

The researchers say that more studies need to be carried out, particularly longitudinal studies. Further research would need to clarify the effect of sweet foods as although they contain a lot of sugar that also contain other nutrients, such as fat, which could have a confounding effect.

Caroline Diorio says: “Considering the worldwide increase in sugar consumption, it is important to continue research on this subject. Further studies should investigate other nutrients might play a role, particularly the intake of fat since the group of sweet foods we looked into is composed in majority of items that have a lot of sugar but also a lot of fat, and the consumption of fat has been positively associated with breast cancer risk and breast density among postmenopausal in some studies.”


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Notes to editor:
1. Research article
Consumption of sweet foods and mammographic breast density: a cross-sectional study
Caroline Duchaine, Isabelle Dumas and Caroline Diorio
BMC Public Health 2014, 14:554

Article available at journal website.

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community.

3. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.

4. This study was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. Through our generous donors and gold standard peer-review process, the Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada. Our funded researchers work in universities, hospitals and research centres across the country and are mapping new ways to change cancer forever. For more information, please visit or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939 3333; TTY, 1 866 786-3934.