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The Bitter Battle Over Sugar

Update: A couple hours ago, a judge struck down the New York City ban on large-sized sodas as arbitrary and capricious, in part because the ban did not also include other heavily sugared drinks, including juice. By coincidence, I had posted the essay below a few hours earlier, about where the arbitrary focus on certain kinds of sugar, and sugary foods, comes from, and why that arbitrary focus can be bad for our health.


     Oh our sweet love affair with sugar. It’s woven into our genes – babies are born hardwired with a preference for sweetness – and our language – Sweet Heart, Sugar Pie, the Sweet smell of success,  – and our culture – “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, “Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice”. And of course our love of sugar is woven into our diet – Americans consume anywhere between 80 pounds per year (USDA) and 150 pounds per year (Dr. Oz). No matter whose math you believe, that’s a lot of M & M’s (world’s best selling candy).  The Archies got it right when they sang, “Sugar, aww, honey honey, you are my candy girl and you got me wantin’ you”.  

     But sugar is under attack. Best-selling science journalist Gary Taubes asked “Is sugar toxic?” in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article. NY Times food columnist Mark Bittman recently answered Taubes’ question – “Sugar is indeed toxic.” Last month food and public health activists formally called on the FDA to regulate sugar consumption, calling sugar “…a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon (that causes) obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.” Sugar? A bioweapon!!??

     Whence such distaste for what tastes so good? On the surface it seems like this is part of society’s recognition that way too many of us weigh way too much. But the vilification of sugar pre-dates the recent realization of the obesity epidemic in America. New York Times science journalist Jane Brody wrote that “sugar has become the most maligned of the main components of the American diet” in 1977. In response (and to save money), in the early 1980s food manufacturers replaced a lot of sucrose (sugar from cane and beets) with high fructose sugar from corn. That reduced a bit of the growing bitterness about sugar, but it didn’t reduce any of the health problems associated with consuming too much sugar  – dental problems, obesity and the associated problems of heart disease, atherosclerosis, Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, and possibly even some kinds of cancer – because biologically, sugar-as-fructose from corn and sugar-as-sucrose from cane and beets are essentially identical in the way our bodies use them. As Taubes reported;

Luc Tappy, a researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland who is considered by biochemists who study fructose to be the world’s foremost authority on the subject, said there was “not the single hint” that high fructose corn syrup was more deleterious than other sources of sugar.

     But for reasons that have little to do with our health and much more to do with the psychology of risk perception, fructose has become the focus of this current food fight about sugar. Witness articles like The Not-So-Sweet Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup, 5 Dangers From High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Metabolic Danger from High Fructose Corn Syrup. That article warns “Americans are being poisoned by a common additive present in a wide array of processed foods… The name of this toxic additive is high-fructose corn syrup.” Dunh Dunh Dunnnhhhh!!!!!!!

     Since too high a dose of either fructose or sucrose is bad for us, producing the same health outcomes, why are many of the We Know What’s Good For You Food Police focusing on just one of them? For a clue, check out his picture, currently making the rounds on the social net.

The clue lies not in what the picture shows, but in what’s missing. Where is the orange juice, the grape juice, the apple juice, the cranberry juice, all of which may be more natural but which have as much as, or more total sugar per unit than any of the drinks shown?

grams of sugar per 100 grams of beverage

Carbonated cola beverages 10.6

Orange juice 10.2

Apple juice 10.9

Cranberry juice 12.1

Grape juice 14.9

 Prune juice 16.45

source; USDA 

     They’re not there because ‘juice’ is natural, and the processed foods that are on the chart (not the water, of course) seem to be mostly human-made. Of course, OJ and other juices for sale have been processed too, and all sorts of things have been added, like preservatives, but to our instinctive risk perception system, the more natural sounding juice feels less risky, and the more human-made industrial unnatural processed foods feel more risky. Just look at some of the language from the pieces that focus their sugar anger on fructose;

    –  In the Huffington Post, Dr. Mark Hyman warns that “High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and far from ‘natural’ or a naturally occurring substance.” “The sugars are extracted through a chemical enzymatic process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound called HFCS.”

    –  In the piece in Life Extension Magazine, Dr. Dana Flavin begins with “Americans are being poisoned by a common additive present in a wide array of processed foods…” 

    –  And here’s what the Center for Science in the Public interest says in their petition to the FDA; “As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption.” (Nothing about OJ or grape juice.) “The FDA should require the beverage industry to re-engineer their sugary products over several years…” Remember, CSPI called sugar a ‘bioweapon’. That means they think the real enemy is the industry that’s adding sugar to our food, not the sugar itself.

         These critics are focusing their concern not on sugar broadly, but on the type of sugar that allows them to attack their real target, the food industry. And this is not just my interpretation. Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, leading critic of the food industry and the author of “Food Politics”, told Taubes that high-fructose corn syruphas indeed become the flashpoint for everybody’s distrust of processed foods…” (my emphasis) And by mistrust of processed foods, Nestle means mistrust not of Spam and Velveeta but of the companies that make them.

                Mistrust of industry (many industries deserve not to be trusted) and greater fear of something human-made than natural, despite the evidence, are dishonest and dangerous bases for risk management policy. Too much sugar is undoubtedly bad for us in lots of ways, but that’s true of sucrose OR fructose, and policy that responds to public pressure on fructose may leave us less protected from another form of sugar that, in excess, is just as bad for us.

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         This is just one more example of how the Risk Perception Gap – when we’re more afraid of some things than we need to be or less afraid of some things than we ought to be – can get us in trouble. So calling out the truth about the distorted focus on fructose is offered here in the hopes that government and industry approaches to the dangers of our sweet tooth can come closer to hitting the sweet spot of doing us the most good.


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