The Great Sugar Conspiracy

Is the overconsumption of sugar the cause of chronic metabolic disease? 

Consider this scenario. Due to protectionist trade policies, you pay 41 percent more for sugar than the rest of the world, and yet you tend to consume it not as the kind of natural sugar that is found in breast milk, but in the form of processed sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup. You make a New Year's resolution to eat healthier, but your choices as a consumer have already been co-opted. Of the 600,000 items in the U.S. food supply, 80 percent are laced with added sugar


When you consume fructose, it stimulates the same reward centers in your brain as cocaine or heroin. It is true that humans evolved to reward ourselves for things that are necessary for survival, but this becomes a problem when your brain doesn't register that you are full. So you keep drinking and eating more added sugar that is found in the processed foods and beverages that are so ubiquitous in the American diet. You gain more weight. You then turn to the services of the multibillion-dollar weight-loss and pharmaceutical industries. 

Is this some far-flung conspiracy theory or an accurate diagnosis of the global pandemic of chronic disease?

What's the Big Idea?

Most experts agree that excessively processed sugar is bad for you. Forty years ago, high-fructose corn syrup was introduced to the American diet. Obesity rates have since gone through the roof. No study has directly linked the two, but recent studies suggest that excess fructose "is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles."

In other words, not all sugar is bad. Or is it?

According to the pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, sugar should be considered toxic. Lustig laid out his argument in a 90-minute lecture that went viral on Youtube. It also attracted plenty of criticism. Let's not toss out the the strawberries with the soda, responded David Katz, director of Yale's Prevention Research Center. Others have criticized Lustig's use of unreliable survey data to make his case that the overconsumption of sugar causes chronic metabolic disease. 

And yet, Lustig is uncompromising in his war on sugar. Sugar is "a poison by itself," he argued last February, and it should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. Lustig is now out with a highly anticipated book called Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, which documents the science and the politics that has led to the pandemic of chronic disease over the last 30 years.

What's the Significance?

Fat Chance promises to be one of the most talked about books of the year because of the charismatic Lustig's skills as a communicator, and for the way he is able to frame the significance of this complex problem. 

Lustig lays out the stakes of our obesity pandemic as follows:

There is real science behind our worldwide obesity catastrophe. And science should drive policy, but as you will see, the politics get in the way. This is the most complex issue facing the human race this side of the Middle East conflict. And it has become incrementally more complicated over time, with multitudes of stakeholders with set agendas, and bigger than the individual parties involved. Devoid of simple solutions, it has destroyed families and claimed the lives of countless people. 

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

Related Articles

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less