Media outlets give conflicting messages about “toxicity” of sugar


Note on possible conflict of interest: I keep several types of sugar in my pantry. Worse still, at the time I came across one of these stories, I was actually in the process of making a pie with 2/3 cup of the golden brown variety. Obviously I did not want to believe I was poisoning anyone.

Two media outlets, Men’s Journal and Chemical and Engineering News ran stories with different messages about sugar last week. One of them led off with “Sugar is toxic”, the other led with “You already know that eating too much sugar causes your teeth to rot and can lead to diabetes and obesity. But could it also trigger high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and possibly even cancer?” The latter story included a quote form a nutritionist saying, “The notion that sugar is toxic is silly.”

The better lede was the second one, which was from Men’s Journal. The more dramatic “toxic” lede went on the Chemical and Engineering News story. Even though people use the term toxic to describe everything from losing investments to miserable relationships, the term as applied to substances conjures up images of emergency rooms and stomach pumps or even of college students with acute alcohol poisoning. And as we learn in both stories, the toxicity of sugar is not a consensus view.

Both stories come to the same conclusion, which is that the overeating of sugar is a greater culprit in chronic disease than overeating of fat. That’s interesting, if not new to those of us who follow the writings of Gary Taubes.

Both stories relied on the same primary source, endocrinologist Robert Lustig, who is quite adamant that sugar is killing us slowly

The story from Men’s Journal ran in the Huffington Post under the headline, Is Sugar the New Tobacco? The author, Elizabeth Svoboda, gives us a sense of why the experts differ and where they agree. Lustig calls sugar, “The number one public health threat” and yet another expert says it’s not poison unless you overwhelm your body with the stuff. It seems the worst thing about sugar is that most Americans eat way too much of fit.

There’s also some interesting science about the different fates of fructose and glucose once they get into the liver. The story says fructose is the most harmful form of sugar, but then failed to answer an important question – does high fructose corn syrup contain more fructose than table sugar? Many people assume this is the case. But the story doesn’t say.

I got a little help here from the Chemical and Engineering News story, The Case against Sugar, by Stephen K. Ritter. It says glucose and fructose are both present in approximately equal amounts in the much-maligned high fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar. In table sugar the two components are chemically bound into a disaccharide. That would lead a reader to assume there’s no difference, but discord erupted in the comments section over whether the bonded nature of table sugar changes the way it affects the body.

The most interesting part of this story details the food industry’s research into new and better fake sweeteners or ways to make the existing ones more palatable. Some are trying to use knowledge of our sensory receptors to find solutions that eliminate or reduce sugar without the bitter unpleasantness associated with artificial sweeteners:

About a decade ago, when scientists began to better understand these receptors, they started to use high-throughput screening techniques to identify new sweetener additives that might block the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. They’ve used the same methods to find additives that might enhance the sweetness of sugar and HFCS. The technology is allowing scientists to come up with sweetener taste packages that optimize the desired sweet taste with fewer calories.

And there’s a section on newer sugar substitutes, such as Stevia, which I first learned about from the TV series Breaking Bad (though the way it was worked into the plot might leave an unpleasant aftertaste.) Turns out it’s from a plant that grows in South America.

This story was full of information but left me without a solid understanding of the safe dose of sugar. There’s no evidence presented that small quantities of sugar are in fact toxic. It’s not ricin. We’re told in both stories that sugar is fine when it occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables because the quantities are small.

All we get are guidelines from the American Heart Association:

Lustig coauthored a paper providing the basis for the American Heart Association’s recommendation that men consume less than 150 calories (37.5 g or about 9 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. That’s about the amount in one regular 12-oz soft drink. For women, the recommendation is less than 100 calories (25 g or about 6 teaspoons).

Fine, but is this a guess or something backed by studies? The amounts are presented as an impossibly small threshold that can’t be met without loading ourselves with artificial stuff.

Let’s do some math. The Epicurious and Eating Well websites are chock full of cake and pie recipes with between ½ and 2/3 cup of sugar. If you make one of these cakes or pies and divide it into generous pieces (1/8 of your cake or pie) your guests get about 3 or 4 teaspoons of  added sugar. If you skipped all the soda, sweetened drinks, processed food and chocolate granola (it exists) you can eat a home-made dessert every day and still be within these allegedly strict guidelines. And so you are not in fact going to poison your friends if you make a pie for a potluck. – Faye Flam


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