When I first saw the New York Times headline, my fingers dragged like heavy feet at the outset of a run. I didn’t want to click “The Case Against Sugar.” But my reluctance to read the story was ultimately the thesis of the entire thing. Doctors, scientists and researchers have increasingly been telling us that sugar is poison, and we don’t want to hear it.
You’ll find one character bobbing and weaving his way through this narrative: Gary Taubes. He’s the author of a book by the same name, those four dirty words: The Case Against Sugar. In it, he explores the corrupt past of sugar and how and why it has, in some ways, enjoyed a free pass from proper scrutiny for so long.
Writes Dan Barber in his Times Book Review: “Taubes begins with a kick in the teeth. Sugar is not only the root cause of today’s diabetes and obesity epidemics (had these been infectious diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have long ago declared an emergency), but also, according to Taubes, is probably related to heart disease, hypertension, many common cancers and Alzheimer’s.”
Barber cites Taubes’ long history of trying to pull the wool off our eyes in regards to sugar, including his 2002 New York Times cover story wherein he sought to debunk the myth about fat: “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” He wrote, “If the members of the American medical establishment were to have a collective find-yourself-standing-naked-in-Times-Square-type nightmare, this might be it.”
Turns out he was right. Just this past September, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco unearthed documents that proved Big Sugar — the biggest corporate player in the candy and soda industries — paid off Harvard scientists in the 1960s to downplay sugar’s link to heart disease and instead place the blame on saturated fat. This ideology took off. “For many decades, health officials encouraged Americans to reduce their fat intake,” wrote the Times, “which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.”
Not only is sugar bad for your health, it’s also addictive. I, for one, will do or say almost anything so that I don’t have to stop. (A quick read through the NCADD’s signs and symptoms of addiction draws ominous parallels for me.) I’ve even gone so far as to say people who eat less sugar are boring. Taubes draws some of the same comparisons, saying that asking how much sugar is too much sugar is like asking how many cigarettes are too many cigarettes.
It’s hard to hear. Sugar is deeply ingrained in our culture. We eat it to celebrate, to cheer up, to socialize, to enjoy ourselves. And then there’s the dependence factor. “Sugar stimulates brain pathways just as an opioid would,” wrote the Times back in 2014, “and sugar has been found to be habit-forming in people. Cravings induced by sugar are comparable to those induced by addictive drugs like cocaine and nicotine.”
In 1972, Jon Yudkin claimed that the rise of sugar in the West coincided with the rise in heart disease, diabetes and obesity in his book Pure, White and Deadly. It’s a bold claim and has been hard to prove. “Then, as now, there was no decisive test of his idea — no perfect way to make the case that sugar kills,” wrote Daniel Engber in The Atlantic. “It’s practically impossible to run randomized, controlled experiments on human diets over many years, so the brief against sugar, like the case against any other single foodstuff, must be drawn from less reliable forms of testimony: long-term correlations, animal experiments, evolutionary claims, and expert judgments.”
Long-term correlations aren’t sexy. But, if we’re smart, we’ll start listening.
For more sugar buzzkills (sorry) read about when we asked a doctor about sugar.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.