Though candy hearts and chocolate boxes are traditional gifts of love, these Valentine’s goodies aren’t as sweet as they taste. In addition to memory problems, obesity, and addiction, research now shows eating excess sugar may wreak havoc on your heart. A recent paper in the journal Open Heart found added sugar (the kind found in processed foods, desserts, and packaged snacks) could be even more harmful for heart health than salt.

Heart disease is the top cause of death in the United States and a health concern worldwide. Hypertension (high blood pressure) has long been named the number one suspect in heart-related illness, and salt reduction has generally been the primary concern for disease prevention. The majority of salt in the diet comes from packaged foods like bread, frozen pizza, and snack foods – foods that tend to pack in added sugars, too. Americans eat anywhere from 77 to 152 pounds of sugar per year, and 13% of the country is getting at least 25% of their total caloric intake as added sugar.

Researchers now believe the added sugar in food has more to do with heart disease than the salt. Studies using rats found sugar stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which ultimately results in increased blood pressure. Excess sugar can also lead to insulin resistance, which may increase risk of hypertension. High sugar intake can significantly increase levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, body weight, and fat mass, all factors that contribute to increased risk of heart disease. Consuming 10% to 25% of calories from added sugar daily can increase risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 30% – eating more than that can increase risk threefold. The biggest culprit might be high fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener used in candy, sodas, and processed foods.

Importantly, researchers note added sugar is the real culprit, not the natural sugar found in fruit. That’s because natural sugar in fruit is less concentrated and is buffered by water, fiber, and other components of the whole fruit. Whole fruits contain lots of important nutrients for health like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In fact, eating fruit every day could cut risk of cardiovascular disease by 40% and risk of death by 32%.

Researchers suggest adding in whole fruits in place of sweetened snacks as the best solution for eliminating added sugars from the diet while keeping your sweet tooth pleased. Instead of your typical afternoon cookie, elevate the flavor of whole fruits to get your fix. Kick fresh pineapple up a notch with a dash of cayenne pepper, or sprinkle cinnamon on apple slices to spice up your snack. A piece of dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day is a special treat, but sticking with fruit year round will show your heart you care.

Published February 1, 2015