Demonizing sugar isn't the most effective way to combat obesity

Wednesday , January 18, 2017 - 5:00 AM2 comments

ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group

CHICAGO — The buzz about activist journalist Gary Taubes' new book "The Case Against Sugar" is that it's both a muckraking expose detailing how the processed food industry has hushed research about sugar's threat to our health and a call to arms against the nutrient that Taube considers a "toxic substance."

This is accurate. But if, as Taubes puts it, "this were a criminal case, 'The Case Against Sugar' would be the argument for the prosecution," then this juror would have a difficult time agreeing to a guilty verdict on his premise that sugar is "the principal cause of the chronic diseases that are most likely to kill us, or at least accelerate our demise, in the 21st century."

In stark contrast to Nina Teicholz's "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet," another recent book that sought to tell the unknown history of how an individual dietary nutrient became demonized by a potent combination of pop science and media frenzy, Taubes' crusade falls short of convincing via fact, relying instead on persuading through passion.

"The Case Against Sugar" is full of compelling citations of sugar in literature, reams of scientific facts, fascinating history and behind-the-scenes narratives of the politics of food.

What Taubes cannot offer, however, is certainty.

The theme of his book seems to be impossibility. Taubes is upfront about it being impossible to know just how much sugar we really consume annually; impossible to know what actual percentage of this consumption directly contributes to rising obesity rates and metabolism-related illnesses; impossible to know how much slimmer or healthier we would be if there were no added sweeteners in our food.

And, he concludes, if we wished to eliminate sugar from our diets, except that which is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, it would be nearly impossible, since sugar is so ubiquitous at a grocery store. It would also be troublesome to determine which part of increased well-being was linked to lower sugar consumption and which was attributable to taking in less processed food — and, therefore, fewer calories — overall.

This is in combination with a flawed and, ultimately, off-putting insistence on comparing sugar to nicotine, heroin, cocaine and alcohol. Taubes seems skeptical even of breast milk, which, he notes, all babies know is sweeter than water or cow's milk. He pathologizes sugar, inadvertently comparing parents to drug peddlers because, "Sweets have become the currency of childhood and of parenting."

Obviously, overconsumption of sugar is bad for us. Does anyone out there really still think otherwise?

It's true that I don't need to be terrorized into watching my sugar intake because the cruel hand of Type 2 diabetes has already touched my family. I firmly believe we need to teach people, especially children, how to get consistent exercise and eat balanced meals that include all the essential nutrients in moderation, so maybe I'm not the prime target for this book.

However, if we've learned nothing else from the past hundred or so years of health research, isn't it that we'd be wise to never pinpoint foods as either saintly silver bullets for optimal health or demons that must be banished lest we die from their mere presence in our supermarkets?

At least Taubes includes a definitive debunking of the pervasive myth that artificial sweeteners are carcinogenic — though he remains skeptical that they aren't potentially harmful since they still taste sweet.

Taubes writes that since sugar consumption is "relatively benign compared with those of nicotine, caffeine and alcohol — at least in the short term and in small doses — [sugar has] remained, as Sidney Mintz says, nearly invulnerable to moral, ethical or religious attacks." It appears Taubes wants to lead that charge, though this argument seems like the least effective way to combat an obesity epidemic.

Without a doubt, we all need less sugar in our diet. But, as even Taubes admits, "overconsumption" varies based on age, gender, weight, race/ethnicity, environmental issues like air and water pollution, daily levels of physical exertion and a host of other factors.

Considering its many charms, white-knuckled fear of sugar isn't likely the best preventive. We need public health policy that helps individuals determine how much is too much sugar and helps promote moderation in addition to affordable access to whole grains, fresh foods and walkable communities with clean water and air.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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