TIME Cancer

Sitting Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer By Up to 66%

For a change, the cancer-promoter isn't something you eat or breathe, but something you do every day

By now we’re pretty familiar with the biggest cancer-triggers in our lives – processed meats, smoking, and tumor-causing pollutants in the air, to name a few. But it turns out there’s another hidden cancer contributor that occupies much of our daily lives: sitting.

In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers report that people who spend more hours of the day sitting have up to a 66% higher risk of developing certain types of cancer than those who aren’t as sedentary.

MORE: Get Up! Sitting Less Can Add Years to Your Life

These results go beyond the advice by most health professionals for everyone to become more physically active. In reviewing 43 studies in which volunteers were asked about their daily activities and their cancer incidence, the investigators found that the link between sitting and cancer remained strong no matter how physically active the participants were. In other words, even people who worked out regularly but who spent more hours on the couch watching TV, for instance, showed higher rates of cancer than those who didn’t sit as much.

Sedentary behavior was associated with a 24% greater risk of developing colon cancer, a 32% higher risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21% increased risk of lung cancer. When the researchers delved deeper into different types of sedentary habits, they found that watching TV was linked to a 54% higher risk of colon cancer and a 66% greater risk of endometrial cancer. For every additional two hours that participants spent sitting during the day, their risk of colon cancer rose by 8%, and their risk of endometrial cancer went up by 10%. They didn’t find a link between sedentary behavior and other types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The findings, says Dr. Graham Colditz, of Washington University School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, highlight the difference between being physically active and being sedentary. It’s not enough to just be active—it’s also important to sit less. But most public health messages aren’t stressing the distinction. “People are not talking about sitting time in the same way as physical activity,” he says. “Guidelines say limit the time spent sitting without drilling into how long or what types of sitting they are talking about.”

MORE: Now There’s Another Reason Sitting Will Kill You

The difference is important, especially since the latest research suggests that sitting too much may have its own, independent harms on our health. A recent study, for example, found that people who got up and did light to moderate walking after lunch had lower blood sugar levels and less of a peak in blood sugar than people who didn’t get up after eating.

Part of sitting’s adverse effects, especially on endometrial cancer, which is strongly tied to obesity, may be through weight gain. Obesity can promote cancer-causing processes such as inflammation and may enhance certain hormones that are linked to tumor formation. Weight gain can also lead to lower levels of vitamin D, and that can contribute to higher risk of colon cancer.

The authors also point out that TV viewing in particular may be associated with higher rates of certain cancers since TV watchers tend to drink more sugared sodas and unhealthy, processed snack foods that can both contribute to obesity and increase exposure to potential food-based cancer-causing agents.

MORE: Watching TV: Even Worse for Kids Than You Think

Cutting back on sitting time may not be easy, however, since most office workers tend to sit at a desk in front of computers. But Colditz says there are ways to be less sedentary, either at home or at the office. Try to take breaks every couple of hours, to take a quick walk around the halls or to step outside (bathroom breaks don’t count). And not eating lunch at your desk can also be a way to schedule a physical break in your day. What you don’t want to do, he says, is to make a habit of sitting (in a car or bus or train) to work, sitting at your desk for most of the day, eating lunch at your desk (again, while sitting), and then finally getting up to go home, where you may spend several more hours sitting in front of a TV.

TIME Heart Disease

Processed Meats May Hurt Your Heart, Study Finds

It can be harmful to the heart on a couple of levels

Red meat isn’t at the top of anyone’s heart-healthy list, but few studies have investigated the difference between processed red meats, such as ham, salami, sausage, bacon and hot dogs, and unprocessed ones, such as cuts of steak.

To find out if there’s a meaningful health difference, researchers at Warsaw University and the Karolinska Institute analyzed data from 37,035 middle aged men who answered questions about their diet and were followed for nearly 12 years. After adjusting for things such as their age, other health conditions and their consumption of fruits and vegetables, the scientists found that the men who ate the most processed red meat had a 28% higher risk of having heart failure than those who ate less. And those who ate the most sausages, hot dogs and hams were two times as likely to die of heart failure than those who ate less.

Over the study period, that breaks down to a 38% increased risk of dying from a heart-related event for every one to two slices of ham. Many processed meats are also smoked, cured and treated with salt, which can add potentially harmful chemicals—and possibly be more dangerous to the heart.

Men who ate more unprocessed meat—which included things such as pork, beef and hamburger—did not show the added risk of heart problems. But overall, those who ate more red meat (both processed and unprocessed) did have a higher rate of heart disease. That’s consistent with previous studies that linked high consumption of red meat with heart disease. So the best option for the heart may be to bypass the deli counter altogether, but for meat lovers who can’t give up their meat, choosing unprocessed cuts might be a better option. “Unprocessed meat is free from food additives and usually has a lower amount of sodium,” said Alicja Wolk, senior author of the study from the Karolinska Institute, in a statement.

 

TIME Heart Disease

A ‘Vaccine’ for Heart Disease Could Mean No Pills, Lettuce or a Gym

It’s the latest in gene therapy, and it’s lowered cholesterol and heart attacks in mice. People are next

Doctors, and especially doctors who do research, don’t like to use the words cure or eradicate. They know how dangerous that can be, since the human body is so unpredictable. But Dr. Kiran Musunuru is showing some uncharacteristic swagger about his latest success in lowering heart attack risk among some lucky mice.

Taking advantage of advances in genetic engineering, a team lead by Musunuru, who holds positions at Harvard University’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have edited the genomes of mice and successfully protected them from heart disease. The results, published in the journal Circulation Research, hint at an entirely new way of avoiding the leading killer of Americans by possibly cutting heart attack risk by up to 90%. “What has me excited as a cardiologist is that my goal is eradicating disease,” says Musunuru. “There is no bolder way I can put it. I want to eradicate the disease and this offers one potential way to do it.”

MORE: Experimental Cholesterol-Lowering Drug Shows Promise

He admits that it may be 10 years or more before the technique is ready for testing in people, but these first results are enough to justify the research that could make that happen. “This approach in general will be a game changer,” says Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of cardiovascular disease and stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the Gladstone Institutes, who was not affiliated with the study.

Here’s how they did it. In 2003, genetic information was gleaned from a French family that carried a genetic mutation giving them low LDL cholesterol, the kind that, when it’s high, can lead to heart disease. Using a new genetic engineering technique that allows scientists to splice more efficiently into specific locations on a genome, Musunuru was able to essentially bestow the genetic advantage from the French family onto his mice, slowing down production of a protein that normally keeps LDL circulating in the blood. With less of the protein around, less LDL remains in the blood; those with the PCSK9 mutation showed as much as an 88% lower risk of heart disease compared to people without the genetic change.

The genetic monkeying was accomplished with the help of a virus, which has a remarkable ability to get into cells. The virus was injected, along with the DNA-disrupting machinery, into the liver of the mice. Within days, more than half of the liver cells had been genetically edited and the mice showed 35% to 40% less cholesterol in the blood.

So far, says Musunuru, there have been no negative effects of the genetic disruption. But he says more research needs to be done to make sure that introducing the changes won’t come with unforeseen consequences. “When we go in there we want to make sure we are not introducing new spelling errors in the genome,” says Srivastava, who is also using the technique for stem-cell based therapies to treat heart disease. Says Musunuru, “I think I can confidently say that with this tool, this technology will work on live, breathing human beings, but we need to figure out the safety; that’s the barrier to overcome before we can test these therapies.”

MORE: Who Really Needs To Take a Statin?

Drug companies are also working on drug-based ways to interfere with PCSK9, and lower LDL levels, but those therapies are antibodies that bind to the protein that the gene makes and need to be injected, at a doctor’s office, regularly. The genome editing strategy would be a one-stop therapy that could permanently protect against excessively high cholesterol levels.

“The way I think about it, it’s about how to make the average person like that person who won the genetic lottery and is protected against heart disease,” says Musunuru. “We want to extend the benefits the fortunate few have to the entire population. That would be the dream.”

TIME fertility

Guys, Your Smartphone Is Hurting Your Sperm

It may be time to take the phone out of your pants pocket, gents. A new study found that the low-level electromagnetic radiation (EMR) that mobile devices emit lowered sperm motility by 8%, and viability by 9%

Even while the debate over whether cell phones cause cancer rages on, researchers are starting to explore other potentially harmful effects that the ubiquitous devices may have on our health. Because they emit low-level electromagnetic radiation (EMR), it’s possible that they can disturb normal cell functions and even sleep.

And with male infertility on the rise, Fiona Mathews at the University of Exeter, in England, and her colleagues decided to investigate what role cell phones might play in that trend. In their new research, they analyzed 10 previous studies, seven of which involved the study of sperm motility, concentration and viability in the lab, and three that included male patients at fertility clinics. Overall, among the 1,492 samples, exposure-to-cell-phone EMR lowered sperm motility by 8%, and viability by 9%.

(MORE: Frozen Assets)

Previous studies suggested several ways that the magnetic fields might be wreaking havoc on sperm — they could be generating DNA damage by promoting more unstable oxygen compounds, or because most men carry their phones in their pants pockets, the fields, which can cause up to a 2.3°C temperature increase on the skin, could be raising the temperature of the testes enough to suppress and interfere with normal sperm production.

(MORE: Why the Latest Study on Cell Phones and Brain Cancer Won’t Be the Last Word)

Exactly how much the cell phones are contributing to lower-quality sperm isn’t clear yet — the researchers note that how long the phones are kept in pockets, as well as how much EMR the phones emit (most are legally required to stay below 2.0 W/kg) are also important things to consider when figuring out an individual’s risk. But the lab-dish studies do show that sperm are affected by the exposure, and that provides enough reason to investigate the possibility that cell phones may be contributing to lower-quality sperm and potentially some cases of infertility. More good reason to keep cell phones away from your body when you’re not using them — easier in theory than in practice, however.

TIME Cancer

Six Diet Guidelines for Preventing Cancer

No food is guaranteed to keep cancer away, but even without conclusive evidence, researchers say it makes sense to follow these guidelines for avoiding major cancers

Sticking with a plant-based diet is a good way to avoid cancer, according to scientists at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which just released six dietary guidelines for cancer prevention, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. More fruits and vegetables, and less alcohol, dairy and processed meats, could lower the risk of cancers in the mouth, lung, breast and colon. Ready for a cancer-fighting diet? Here’s what the group recommends, from its press release:

  1. Limit or avoid dairy products to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

Findings: Consuming thirty-five grams of dairy protein each day, the equivalent of one and a half cups of cottage cheese, increases risk of prostate cancer by 32 percent. Drinking two glasses of milk each day increases risk of prostate cancer by 60 percent.

Note: Calcium supplements appear to have the same effect as milk intake. Men who supplement with more than 400 milligrams of calcium per day increase risk for fatal prostate cancer by 51 percent.

 

  1. Limit or avoid alcohol to reduce the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, and breast.

Findings: One drink per week increases risk of mouth, pharynx, and larynx cancers by 24 percent. Two to three drinks per day increase risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.

Note: The alcohol itself (rather than additives) appears to be the cause of cancer, and all types of alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, and spirits) are problematic.

 

  1. Avoid red and processed meats to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum.

Findings: Each 50-gram daily serving of processed meat, equivalent to two slices of bacon or one sausage link, increases risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. Each 120-gram daily serving of red meat, equivalent to a small steak, increases risk of colorectal cancer by 28 percent.

Note: The heme iron, nitrites, heterocyclic amines, and overabundance of essential amino acids in red and processed meats are all believed to contribute to cancerous cell growth in the body.

 

  1. Avoid grilled, fried, and broiled meats to reduce the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum, breast, prostate, kidney, and pancreas.

Findings: Four types of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are associated with cancer of the colon and rectum. HCAs form from creatine and amino acids in cooked skeletal muscle, increasing with higher cooking times and higher temperatures. When ingested, HCAs can disrupt DNA synthesis.

Note: In addition to the cancers listed above, HCAs are also associated, to a weaker extent, with cancers of the breast, prostate, kidney, and pancreas.

 

  1. Consume soy products to reduce risk of breast cancer and to reduce the risk of recurrence and mortality for women previously treated for breast cancer.

Findings: Evidence from Asian and Western countries shows that soy products are associated with reduced cancer risk. Chinese women who consume more than 11.3 grams of soy protein, equivalent to half a cup of cooked soybeans, each day during adolescence have a 43 percent reduced risk of premenopausal breast cancer, compared with women who consume 1.7 grams. Research in Shanghai shows that women with breast cancer who consume 11 grams of soy protein each day can reduce mortality and risk of recurrence by about 30 percent. U.S. populations show similar findings: the higher the isoflavone intake from soy products, the less risk of mortality and recurrence in women with breast cancer.

Note: When choosing soy products, opt for natural forms, such as edamame, tempeh, or organic tofu, as opposed to soy protein concentrates and isolates, common in powders and pills.

 

  1. Emphasize fruits and vegetables to reduce risk of several common forms of cancer.

Findings: Fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, help reduce overall cancer risk. A high intake of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, and cabbage, is associated with an 18 percent reduced risk of colorectal cancer and reduced risk of lung and stomach cancers. Women who consume the most carotenoid-rich vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, lower their risk of breast cancer by 19 percent. Overall, women who consume the highest quantities of any kind of fruit or vegetable reduce breast cancer risk by 11 percent. A high intake of tomato products has been shown to reduce risk of gastric cancer by 27 percent. Garlic and other allium vegetables, such as onions, significantly reduce risk for gastric cancer, while a Western diet (high amounts of meat and fat with minimal amounts of fruits and vegetables) doubles therisk.

Note: Some components in soybeans, green tea, turmeric, grapes, tomatoes, and other plant foods have the ability to regulate apoptosis (a natural process for destroying unhealthy cells), an important pathway for cancer prevention.

TIME Developmental Disorders

The Lifetime Cost of Autism Tops $2 Million per Person

In addition to medical costs, autism takes a financial toll in hidden ways as well, according to the latest tally

U.S. and U.K. scientists have completed the most comprehensive analysis of the costs associated with supporting a child with an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) over a lifetime and found that those whose ASD is linked with intellectual disability can accrue up to $2.4 million while those without intellectual disability require about $1.4 million in medical, nonmedical and indirect costs. And that’s on top of the average $241,000 that it takes to raise a child to age 18 in the U.S.

(MORE: Using Movement to Diagnose and Treat Autism)

About 79% of that cost is due to services such as medical care, home health care, special education and after-school care — and 9% is due to wages that caregivers give up to tend to an autistic family member. The latter came as a surprise, says the paper’s senior author, David Mandell, director of the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research at the University of Pennsylvania, who points out that not enough of the debate about autism’s toll includes consideration of the indirect consequences of the condition. But, he says, “I think these costs are avoidable by having much better, comprehensive intervention systems and workplace policies that are much friendlier to families with children with disabilities.”

These estimates, published in JAMA Pediatrics, are higher than previous ones, and highlight how diverse the costs of autism can be, from the more obvious medical fees to the hidden economic, social and even less tangible psychological ones.

(MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children)

By comparison, here is how the lifetime cost of autism compares with costs for other conditions (note that figures come from different studies published with data from different years and have been adjusted for inflation. They are for general comparison only).

Lifetime cost
Raising child to age 18 years $241,080
Raising child with ADHD + $1,291,000
Raising child with Down syndrome
+ $533,000
Raising child with asthma + $26,000
Raising obese child
+ $19,000 (medical only)

Sources: USDA, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, EPA, Partnership for America’s Success, Pediatrics

TIME Nutrition

The Pros and Cons of Food Stamps At Farmers’ Markets

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Ben Bloom—Getty Images

We know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, but they can be expensive. How do families on the WIC program find the best deal on fresh produce?

As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), low-income moms are provided with vouchers to purchase healthy, nutritious food for their families. Farmers’ markets have become part of this program as well, in order to expand the fresh produce options that low-income families have.

But the latest study of WIC families in Illinois highlights the fact that the exact benefits of farmers’ market vouchers are hard to figure out. The latest research finds that the amounts of farmers’ market vouchers don’t contribute to a meaningful increase in fruit and vegetable intake, and that prices for produce were lower at grocery stores than at the markets. But price isn’t everything.

“Where farmers’ markets really shine is getting people more interested and having a more positive attitude about fruits and vegetables,” says Karen Chapman-Novakofski, senior author of the paper, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.. “Those are positive psychosocial values associated with healthy eating that we want to promote.”

And price seems to vary from place to place. In a Seattle study, products were cheaper, pound for pound, at the farmers’ markets than at grocery stores—ditto in North Carolina and California, which has the longest growing season. In the Midwest, where the current study was conducted, the decreased access to fresh produce and the shorter growing season may contribute to higher prices at the markets over the stores, which can take advantage of volume pricing.

The amount of the vouchers also may not be enough to make a difference in how much nutritional benefit the families get from the food. Most mothers come in for WIC appointments once every three months and receive two vouchers, each worth about $6. That results in about six cups of vegetables or fruits over three months. According to the USDA, children should be eating up to 2.5 or 3 cups of vegetables a day, while women should be consuming up to 2 cups daily. “Now you know why it didn’t have an impact [on their nutrition],” she says.

But Chapman-Novakofski isn’t ready to ditch the farmers’ market vouchers yet. She found that the farmers’ markets have additional benefits such as seeding more long-term healthy eating habits that could eventually lead to better nutrition. In her study, half of participants went to farmers’ markets to use their vouchers, while half did not. Those that went ended up eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and were more likely to have them as snacks. The mothers also reported being more open to incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables into their daily meals, and being more confident in their ability to do so.

The fact that the prices of produce was cheaper at grocery stores in Illinois is also a lesson, she says, for WIC programs to increase the allowances for purchasing these foods at stores. In February, the USDA finalized changes to the WIC program that increased by more than 30% the dollar amount for fruit and vegetable purchases for children, to encourage families to purchase more than canned or frozen produce.

That could be especially helpful in Midwestern states with shorter growing seasons, says Chapman-Novakofski, so that eating habits begun during the summer, possibly at farmers’ markets, can continue in the winter. She is planning more research into the farmers’ market effect. “It would be nice to know what’s contributing to people going to farmers’ markets, and to replicate that during the winter months or at the grocery store.” “As a nutritionist,” she says, “I don’t care if they get fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market or at the grocery store, as long as they get them.”

TIME Nutrition

41 Superfoods, Ranked By How Healthy They Are

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Alasdair Thomson—Getty Images

We know that dark green vegetables and citrus fruits are good for us, but if we had to choose among them, which ones pack more of a nutritious punch?

Jennifer Di Noia, associate professor of sociology at William Paterson University, did the work for us and reported her results in the Centers for Disease Control’s Preventing Chronic Disease. We’re told to add powerhouse fruits and vegetables to our diet, but we don’t have much guidance on which ones are really potent and which are coasting by on their color alone. Nutritionists point us toward anything dark green and leafy, for example, but it turns out that they can vary by as much as 70 points on how many nutrients they contain.

Di Noia focused on 17 nutrients considered by the food experts at the United Nations and the Institute of Medicine to be important to good health and to lowering risk of heart disease and cancer: potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.

She then combed the scientific literature to calculate how many nutrients they contained per calorie of energy they provided (based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet); the higher the value, the more of a powerhouse food it was. “It gives people a way of thinking how to maximize the nutrients per calorie,” she says.

She admits that the list doesn’t include all the phytochemicals, or compounds that could add to a food’s nutritional profile but, she says, “now that we have a list of foods it can help consumers know what are the powerhouse fruits and vegetables, and maybe choose the more nutrient-dense foods over less nutrient dense ones.”

Here’s the list. And since this list is all fruits and veggies, it stands to remind you that you can’t really go wrong with anything listed here. That said: Who knew watercress was such a power-veggie?

Item Nutrient Density Score
Watercress 100.00
Chinese cabbage 91.99
Chard 89.27
Beet green 87.08
Spinach 86.43
Chicory 73.36
Leaf lettuce 70.73
Parsley 65.59
Romaine lettuce 63.48
Collard green 62.49
Turnip green 62.12
Mustard green 61.39
Endive 60.44
Chive 54.80
Kale 49.07
Dandelion green 46.34
Red pepper 41.26
Arugula 37.65
Broccoli 34.89
Pumpkin 33.82
Brussels sprout 32.23
Scallion 27.35
Kohlrabi 25.92
Cauliflower 25.13
Cabbage 24.51
Carrot 22.60
Tomato 20.37
Lemon 18.72
Iceberg lettuce 18.28
Strawberry 17.59
Radish 16.91
Winter squash (all varieties) 13.89
Orange 12.91
Lime 12.23
Grapefruit (pink and red) 11.64
Rutabaga 11.58
Turnip 11.43
Blackberry 11.39
Leek 10.69
Sweet potato 10.51
Grapefruit (white) 10.47

 

TIME

Sleep Helps You Remember Things If You’re a Mouse

That’s the technique that worked best for mice in an intriguing study on how sleep helps the brain to create and store memories

It’s hard to tell how much a mouse remembers, but by peering at the activity of nerve cells in animals’ brains while they sleep, researchers have found some clues. That’s how Wen-Biao Gan, a neuroscientist and physiologist at New York University, learned some interesting things about what happens when mice snooze.

By tagging nerves cells in their brains, Gan and his colleagues report in the journal Science that sleep is actually a very active time for the brain, in which connections between buzzing nerve cells are made in order to consolidate memories. The researchers had mice run on a rotating and accelerating rod, then allowed them to sleep. Some of the mice got to slumber undisturbed, while others were handled to keep them from getting quality sleep. The animals who slept undisturbed showed signs of new neural connections forming during just the first phases of sleep, known as non REM sleep.

“My feeling is that sleep is important to the process of forming long term memory,” says Gan. During REM, not only are the same nerve connections that the mice made while they ran reactivated, but new connections were also made. When he blocked the reactivation of nerves, no new connections were made, suggesting that learning, or making long term memories, is a two part process in which sleep plays an important role.

How applicable are these findings to helping people? Hopefully some of same principles apply, says Gan, although more studies will be needed to confirm that. So don’t underestimate how much work your brain is doing while you catch some z’s. Most of what you remember could be thanks to getting a good night’s sleep.

TIME Soda

There’s Even More Sugar In Soda Than You Think

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Jennifer Smith—Getty Images/Flickr RF

And you’d never know, because sugars aren’t broken down on food labels like fats are. The latest study shows just how much sweet stuff is hiding in sodas and fruit juices

Sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose—can you tell the difference? Probably not, even if you’re a careful reader of food labels. Unlike fats, which are broken down on nutritional labels as saturated, trans, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, sugars are listed as “sugar.” If you read the full ingredient list you may find clues as to what kind of sweetener is in there, such as high fructose corn syrup or dextrose or maltose. But when it comes to figuring out exactly how much of each is there, you’re on your own.

Michael Goran, professor of preventive medicine and the director of the childhood obesity center at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California, analyzed popular sodas and found that they contained more fructose—a form of sugar that essentially behaves like fat in the body and has been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes—than their labels suggest. In Goran’s analysis, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola, Arizona Iced Tea and 7-Up contained more than 58% fructose. These results were consistent across three different ways of analyzing their chemical makeup. “What was surprising was the consistency across the methods and the consistency across beverages,” he says. “We saw a consistent ratio of fructose to glucose of 60-40.”

He also found that some drinks that don’t list fructose as an ingredient also contained detectable amounts of the sweet stuff. Pepsi Throwback and Sierra Mist, which do not list HFCS as an ingredient, still contained 37% and 7% of fructose, respectively. Mexican Coca-Cola, which lists only sucrose, also showed higher concentrations of fructose than glucose; sucrose, even if it’s broken down, should lead to equal contributions from both. “If fructose is damaging, then we need to know how much fructose is in our food and beverages,” says Goran.

MORE: 7 Not-So-Sweet Lessons About Sugar

There’s a lot that scientists still don’t know about how the various forms of sugar work in the body, but here’s what they do know. Sucrose, or table sugar, is made up of two carbohydrate molecules paired together: glucose and fructose. Once in the body, the couple splits up and goes two very separate ways. Glucose is the body’s main form of energy, so those molecules are immediately used by cells or stored as fuel for later.

Fructose, on the other hand, can only be processed by the liver, where it behaves like fat. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a staple of processed foods and drinks, is glucose that is treated with enzymes so it produces various proportions of fructose; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows for HFCS42 and HFCS55, which contain 42% and 55% fructose, respectively, with the remainder made up of other sugars, primarily glucose.

MORE: 12 Breakfast Cereals That Are More Than 50% Sugar

Why does all this matter? Since fructose isn’t used by the body for energy, it simply contributes to weight gain and diabetes—not exactly a desired effect. Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at University of California San Francisco, admits that there aren’t any studies showing how higher ratios of fructose greater than 50% may influence health. Still, that doesn’t mean that people should continue to be in the dark about how much fructose they’re consuming. Fats are more clearly labeled, and since research links trans fats to unhealthy outcomes, people can now see on labels how much trans fat foods contain. Likewise, he says, sugars should be broken down into fructose and glucose, so consumers have a better sense of how much of those sugars can potentially be burned off as energy, and how much will turn immediately into fat.

In response to TIME’s questions about the report, PepsiCo referred us to the International Society of Beverage Technologists (ISBT), a technical group of beverage industry professionals, which happened to publish a report on their own analysis of the fructose content of sweetened beverages on the same day. Not surprisingly, in their analysis of the same drinks, the results were very different. HFCS content in their analysis was right around 55%.

MORE: This Is What Happens When You Give Up Sugar for One Year

So who’s right? Larry Hobbs, co-author of the ISBT study, says that the method Goran and his team used is more appropriate for assessing honey, and not HFCS. Bela Buslig, a former research scientist with the Florida department of citrus who was not involved in either study, says that isn’t necessarily true—and that Goran’s methods were suitable to determine actual fructose content in these drinks. The fact that Goran’s group consistently found 60-40 ratios of fructose to glucose using three different analytical methods, Buslig says, suggests that the results are reliable.

MORE: WHO: Only 5% of Your Daily Calories Should Come From Sugar

Still confused? Until the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture start mandating labeling requirements for sugar as they do for fats, you might stay that way. “My advice to consumers is to reject anything with HFCS,” says Goran. “That would be the first line of defense.” And as Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University adds, “The bottom line: everyone would be healthier eating less sugars of any kind.”

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