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Experts say sugar added to children’s drinks in the 1970s and 1980s have programmed their taste buds as adults. Getty Images
  • Researchers say today’s obesity crisis may be linked to the sugar added to foods in the late 1970s.
  • Sweeteners added to children’s drinks at that time may have also set their taste buds to prefer sugary items.
  • The researchers also say this phenomenon is stronger in low-income neighborhoods, where processed foods and sugar-infused items are more common.

Obesity remains a problem in the United States, and it might’ve all started when “Happy Days” was a hit show on television.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults had obesity in 2016.

That’s more than 93 million adults who carry higher risks for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

The phenomenon has been affecting Americans for two generations now.

The big change, health experts say, was how the food industry added sugars to common processed foods as well as the rapid growth of sugar and other sweeteners available in liquid form, from sodas to sports drinks to vitamin-enhanced water.

New research suggests the problem is rooted back to 40 years ago, when high fructose corn syrup was introduced into the food market.

It also suggests the inclusion of sugar into drinks and foods for small children has set our taste buds to prefer sugary beverages from our earliest of ages. This affects the way our bodies store and process fat.

And those patterns and habits seem to affect low-income neighborhoods more, as processed and sugary food is often the closest options available.

The recent study, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, traces the modern obesity epidemic back to baby formula in the 1970s.

It suggests the dietary habits learned by children 40 years ago could explain today’s adult obesity crisis.

To reach their conclusions, researchers with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville looked at data from the Department of Agriculture about how much sugar has been consumed in the United States and how obesity rates have climbed over the years.

“Consumed from a young age, sugar consumption appears to have long-lasting effects, not just habitually but also physiologically, in ways that could explain a generational delay between U.S. sugar consumption and subsequent obesity rates,” the researchers state in the study.

They found that by the mid-1970s, children under the age of 2 were consuming about 6 grams of added sugar per kilogram of body weight. This was about three times that of adults at the time, the researchers noted.

“Since the 1970s, many available infant foods have been extremely high in sugar,” Hillary Fouts, PhD, co-author of the study and cultural anthropologist and professor in the university’s department of child and family studies, said in a statement accompanying the research.

“Other independent studies in medicine and nutrition have suggested that sugar consumption during pregnancy can cause an increase in fat cells in children,” she added.

As those children grew, so did the rapid growth of sugary beverages, including mass market media ads featuring mega-celebrities, like Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Beyonce.

From the late 1970s — when “an inexpensive, domestically produced liquid sweetener” known as high fructose corn syrup hit the market — to just past the turn of the century, the researchers said sweetened beverage consumption increased by 135 percent across all age groups.

That amounted to about 278 additional calories per day.

At peak consumption in 1999, the average American was consuming 60 pounds of high fructose corn syrup per year. And that consumption, and the obesity that came with it, were more concentrated in low-income areas.

But as research started to point to sugar as a common culprit in many dietary-related issues and preventable diseases, people started getting the message.

By 2016, total added sugar intake in the United States has slowly been declining. Obesity rates in some states have been leveling off.

“If 2016 turns out to be the peak in the obesity rate, that’s coincidentally one generation after the peak in excess sugar consumption,” Alex Bentley, PhD, head of the university’s department of anthropology and lead researcher of the study, said in a statement.

The researchers concluded their study by saying it supports the notion that the rise in adult obesity after 1990 in the United States was a “a generation-delayed effect” of the extra-sweetened calories consumed by children of the 1970s and 1980s.

Nadja Pinnavaia, PhD, founder of the meal delivery service Plantable, says correlating obesity with sugar has its merits, but warns that obesity is driven by multiple factors.

She says low-income areas are dominated by calorie-dense, nutrient-starved, highly addictive processed foods that are loaded with sugar and salt. She says it makes sense that these lower-income areas would experience an even higher rate of obesity.

“Getting a child ‘addicted’ at a young age to sugar is setting them up for a lifetime of weight struggles,” Pinnavaia told Healthline.

Paul Claybrook, MBA, MS, a certified nutritionist in Washington, calls the study “interesting and compelling,” but says it restated many things experts already knew. That includes how high-sugar infant formula is strongly tied to obesity later in life.

Claybrook says the research didn’t address other factors, such as the amount of time spent in front of screens. This has increased while sugar consumption has recently decreased.

“There are many things that increase a person’s chances of becoming obese, and while sugar is clearly a big one, it’s obviously not the only one,” he told Healthline.

Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet website, agrees that the findings of the new study weren’t surprising, because research continues to point out that high-sugar diets and sugar substitutes harm our health.

But Richards supports further research into how a child’s diet and the diet of a pregnant mother can change both eating habits, and how food is processed on a genetic level.

“Knowing that children’s diet habits now can impact their future, even if they attempt a healthy diet later in life, should lead to better decisions for kids now,” Richards told Healthline.

Richards and other experts say parents can help give their children a better shot at a healthy future by modeling good behavior. That includes eating a balanced diet that’s built on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean and plant-based proteins.

“An essential step is removing or significantly reducing refined carbohydrates and added sugars, which are common in many convenience and snack foods, even among healthy foods,” Richards said.