Over at Mother Jones, in Is Sugar as Addictive as Alcohol, we learn some interesting news. A recently published UCSF commentary in the journal Nature titled Public Health: The Toxic Truth About Sugar comes to some conclusions that back up a lot of what I’ve been reading in the last year. Sadly the full article is behind a paywall (scientific publishing hasn’t quite embraced the Internet yet), but the Mother Jones article does a good job of highlighting the major findings.
If UCSF researcher Robert H. Lustig and his team had their way, sugar would be regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, and would be knocked off of a USDA list of foods “Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS),” which allows food manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food. Using four criteria established in 2003 to justify regulating alcohol, these scientists make a case for why sugar is a public health concern and should be regulated.
And what exactly are their reasons? Here’s a quick list:
- Sugar is unavoidable and ubiquitous. The average American eats 5x what the FDA suggests (and we we know they were probably lobbied by sugar producers). In other words, consumption is way, way too high.
- It’s toxic. The damage caused by sugar goes way behind added weight. Gary Taubes wrote about this for New York Times Magazine in Is Sugar Toxic? (Hint: it is.)
- It’s addictive. Seriously.
- It is a net negative for society, especially when you total up all the heath problems it contributes to: metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, liver problems, and so on.
So what do the original authors suggest? Taxation, for one.
How can we reduce sugar consumption? After all, sugar is natural. Sugar is a nutrient. Sugar is pleasure. So too is alcohol, but in both cases, too much of a good thing is toxic. It may be helpful to look to the many generations of international experience with alcohol and tobacco to find models that work. So far, evidence shows that individually focused approaches, such as school-based interven- tions that teach children about diet and exercise, demonstrate little efficacy. Conversely, for both alcohol and tobacco, there is robust evidence that gentle ‘supply side’ control strategies which stop far short of all-out prohibition — taxation, distribution controls, age limits — lower both consumption of the product and the accompanying health harms. Successful interventions share a common end-point: curbing availability.
While the Mother Jones article concludes on a positive note, I’m a bit skeptical. The food industry will fight tooth and nail to keep their cheap sweets in their products and in our “food”, so it’s ultimately going to be up to us. Like with many aspects of our health, we can’t expect the government to protect us until the evidence is so dramatic that arguing against it is a futile effort.
Lustig and crew liken sugar to other major social changes that have taken place to improve public health and wellness over the years. They close with:
Regulating sugar will not be easy — particularly in the ‘emerging markets’ of developing countries where soft drinks are often cheaper than potable water or milk. We recognize that societal intervention to reduce the supply and demand for sugar faces an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby, and will require active engagement from all stakeholders. Still, the food industry knows that it has a problem — even vigorous lobbying by fast-food companies couldn’t defeat the toy ban in San Francisco. With enough clamour for change, tectonic shifts in policy become possible. Take, for instance, bans on smoking in public places and the use of designated driv ers, not to mention airbags in cars and con- dom dispensers in public bathrooms. These simple measures — which have all been on the battleground of American politics — are now taken for granted as essential tools for our public health and well-being. It’s time to turn our attention to sugar.
In case you’re wondering who this anti-sugar crew is, Robert H. Lustig is in the Department of Pediatrics (lots of other relevant stories on their web site) and the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment at the University of California, San Francisco. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to sugar’s detrimental effects. Laura A. Schmidt and Claire D. Brindis are at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California, San Francisco.
I, for one, applaud their willingness to come out strongly in favor of arguing for what’s right for our health. And I hope that this, along with the work of dozens and dozens of other respected health professions, helps to keep pushing the country (and the world) in a more sane direction.
In the meantime, do the right thing for yourself. Back off the sugary snacks and drinks. And then kick the habit all together. After you’ve been off sugar for a while, you’ll find that even mildly sweetened recipes start to taste far sweeter to you.
Oh, and you’ll have more energy, less fat, and a happier life. As me how I know!
Finally, check out the image below for some scary stats…