Sun, Jan-01-17, 01:49
Good to see that it's being promoted in the UK by the British media
From The Sunday Times
1 January, 2017
How sugar got us in a sticky mess
Addictive, fattening, deadly... a new book says it’s sugar, not overeating, that is causing the obesity crisis
It is January 2037 and your children are watching an old TV show on their floating screen. Two of them are screeching with horror, one is weeping uncontrollably.
“Mum,” cries the oldest, “these people are making funny shapes out of sugar and then eating them!”
It’s exactly like those quaint old ads for cigarettes from the 1950s you used to watch on YouTube. Nobody smokes now and nobody has eaten sugar since it was reclassified as a toxin in 2025. Nobody, thank God, would ever again make a show like The Great British Bake Off.
“People in those days,” you explain, “were incredibly stupid. They thought it was safe to eat sugar …” the children groan, “… and they all caught horrible diseases. Now eat up your fatty bears and fun-sized steaks, it’s nearly bedtime.”
It could happen, but it probably won’t. The sugar-making and sugar-using industries would fight it every step of the way. Their customers are addicted to their daily sugar hits, their muffins, buns, sweets and fizzy drinks. A Martian walking into Starbucks would think humans could only be induced to eat by the addition of sugar in terrifying quantities.
Furthermore, as yet there is no general agreement that sugar is toxic. Yes, it’s fattening and yes, it’s just empty calories, containing nothing that we actually need. But toxic? Surely not.
Then again, maybe it is. Gary Taubes thinks so and since 2002 he’s been sugar’s most powerful and convincing critic. In that year he published an article in The New York Times Magazine headed What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? “It was,” he says, with a mildly self-deprecating air, “the most controversial article in that magazine in a decade.”
The roof fell in and the next 15 years of his life were determined. He was to write a sugar trilogy — the third book, The Case Against Sugar, is just out.
The lie his article spoke of was the one that said eating too much fat was implicated in many of our contemporary woes — most obviously heart disease, but also diabetes and everything that came under the heading of “metabolic syndrome”. Every year 610,000 Americans die of heart disease. In 2012 7% of them had diabetes, an 800% increase since 1960; this was a disease that, not long ago, was incredibly rare. Two in three American adults are overweight or obese (the figure in the UK is much the same, we are the fattest nation in Europe).
Nutritionists said fat was the problem; Taubes said sugar was. It was a life-and-death struggle and it still is. Three books on the subject later, he is as committed as ever to the fight, though he admits he was partially wrong in that article.
“I still believed that people got fat because of energy balance — there were too many calories going in and not enough going out. I now know that can’t be right.”
This, if true, represents an overturning of almost everything you’ve ever been told about diet and nutrition. The truth according to Taubes is that if you eat properly, you can eat as much as you like (within reason) and you will never get fat. Calories in versus calories out is irrelevant, a gross scientific error.
Before I explain that, I’d better explain Taubes, who, even if he didn’t write about sugar, would be quite a character. He lives in North Oakland, California. He and his wife, Sloane, and their two children partially occupy a lovely 1908 house built by a middle-class family fleeing across the bay from San Francisco after the terrible earthquake of 1906.
Standing outside the house, I was slightly dreading the encounter. I worried that he might be one of those appallingly efficient American writers; literary cyborgs who know their market better than their adverbs. In fact, I meet a sweetly tentative man with overtones of a hapless Larry David and an anxious Woody Allen. His man cave at the top of the house is almost as chaotic as my own.
He is 60 years old, 6ft 2in, 15st 9lb, muscular, and his features, though anxious, look fresh — important factors when discussing diet. He was born in New York state and studied physics at Harvard, but it did not turn out to be his thing and he took a degree in journalism at Columbia.
What physics did teach him was how the scientific method should work — doubt, testing, retesting, peer review and, above all, not fooling yourself. His first two books, Nobel Dreams and Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion, were both sharply critical stories of what goes wrong when this method is abused. They also demonstrated Taubes’s formidable and relentless talent for research.
“I’m a compulsive reporter. After Bad Science I had a lot of people in the physics community say to me that if I was interested in bad science — what they called pathological science — I should look at this stuff in public health because that is really bad.”
Nutritional science, in particular, seemed to be a mess beneath its surface confidence. Ever since the 1970s, a consensus had hardened into a dogma that attempted to explain the evidently interconnected pandemics of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity.
The explanation was dietary fat and overeating. Even to the layman, it seemed plausible. Fats are more calorie-dense than carbohydrates, so they must make people fat, and being fat — it was thought — caused diabetes. Fats also contain cholesterol, an excess of which in the blood stream had been implicated in heart disease. There was even an evolutionary underpinning — our ancestors ate mainly the plant food they foraged and only seldom managed to kill and eat an animal.
Everybody took it as an established truth, but it was actually rather an exotic and implausible idea. Before the Second World War in Europe, most dietary thinking was focused on carbohydrates as the cause of obesity. Sugar is a carbohydrate and refined carbohydrates — white flour, pasta, refined grains of any kind — rapidly turn into sugars when consumed. So a high-carb diet is likely to be a high-sugar diet.
In the 1960s, a great British nutritionist, John Yudkin, was looking at the same evidence as the fat freaks and coming to a quite different conclusion — that sugar was the real culprit. Yudkin, a mild-mannered soul, was mocked, derided and eventually ignored. In 1972, his book Pure, White and Deadly implicated sugar not only in tooth decay, but also in obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. It was a big hit, but it was buried by the dogmatists.
For the next 40 years we were told to cut down on fat and eat plenty of carbs. But people just got fatter, the diabetes pandemic grew worse and people continued to die of heart attacks. Enter Taubes. Sensing bad science, he looked at what was happening rather than what dogma said should be happening.
“I was asking what is the fundamental trigger of these diseases? We have pandemics of obesity and diabetes, it shows up in every population in the world when they transition to western lifestyles and diets. The conventional thinking is still that this transition goes along with too much food and not enough physical activity. But there is this alternative hypothesis that it’s the change in the carbohydrate content and specifically the sugars.”
He started out with two views that he later had to modify — first that the primary issue was a compound of too many refined grains and sugar, and second that it was still true that eating too many calories made you fat. The first idea ran up against what he calls the Southeast Asia Problem. People there eat vast quantities of refined rice grains, but they didn’t seem to be as afflicted as those in the West.
“A huge proportion of the world were, to a large extent, living on refined grains and not getting fat. The problem with that kind of observation is that it’s not a randomised controlled trial and you can imagine any number of hypotheses to explain it. The most likely is that southeast Asians were historically very low sugar consumers. Japan in the 1960s was consuming the same amount of sugar as we were in the 1860s and their diabetes rates were probably very similar to ours in the 1860s.”
Over the course of his sugar trilogy — he laughs at the literary grandeur of the phrase — Taubes closed in on the prime suspect.
Meanwhile, he was being abused and disparaged by the fat camp. Sometimes he responded with long and dazzlingly detailed rebuttals, but mostly he shrugged and carried on. The forces ranged against him were formidable.
The 1970s saw the apparent abandonment of sugar by the fizzy-drinks makers in favour of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Look, was the message, it’s got fructose in the name, it comes from fruit. It must be good for you. Actually, it’s worse. Fructose in fruit is released relatively slowly into the bloodstream, but in fizzy drinks sweetened with HFCS, the higher fructose content subjects your liver to an instant sugar bath. This promotes fat deposits and, in excess, causes fatty liver disease, common in alcoholics and potentially fatal.
“The biochemistry of how fructose is metabolised in the liver had been worked out in the 1960s. There’s evidence that fat accumulation in the liver is a fundamental cause of insulin resistance.”
Taubes does not commit himself on the effects of anything other than sugar. Other sweeteners such as agave or maple syrup may be just as damaging, but that would require other research. The same applies to artificial sweeteners, though he does think they would be less damaging as their high sweetness means they are used in much lower doses.
Insulin resistance is the heart of the matter. Insulin’s functions are complex, but its primary role is to promote the absorption of blood glucose into body cells. If you consume lots of sugar, your pancreas has to release ever more insulin and, at some point, your cells will resist. Type 2 diabetes may follow, as will getting very fat and thereby putting yourself at risk from — well, you name it.
For a time both the anti-sugar lobby and the fat freaks were able to agree on one thing: if you ate more calories than you burnt, you would get fat. But that idea came from a time when little was known about the reactions of hormones, especially insulin, to the type of food we eat. In reality, different types of food produce an elaborate hormonal dance designed to keep you fit, efficient and sleek. If Taubes is right, then the introduction of sugar disrupts this dance and, to simplify, makes your body lay down fat irrespective of your calorie intake. By any reasonable standards, that would make sugar toxic, very toxic.
As Taubes puts it in his latest book: “Sugars like sucrose and HFCS are the fundamental causes of diabetes and obesity, using the same simple concept of causality that we employ when we say smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. It’s not because we eat too much of these sugars … but because they have unique physiological, metabolic and endocrinological (ie, hormonal) effects in the human body that directly trigger these disorders.”
Bizarrely, sugar also helped to create cigarettes. Taubes tells the story of how Big Tobacco wanted to increase addiction by getting people to inhale cigarette smoke, something they couldn’t do with cigars and pipes. It did this by treating the tobacco with a sauce made of — you guessed it — sugar.
So how much sugar is safe? Taubes answers the question by pointing out that nobody ever asks how many cigarettes are safe. A toxin is a toxin. He eats hardly any sugar or carbohydrates himself, but insists, “I am no zealot.” This means, in essence, he gives in to his children. One cold morning in a northern California safari park, he let them drink hot chocolate “for the joy on their faces”.
Fruit, which is full of sugar, is a problem — he says he eats about two apples a week. But he adds that modern fruit is cultivated to be sweet and bears no relation to the fruit our ancestors ate. His big point, however, is that if we ate healthy diets — which hardly any of us do — then we could safely eat fruit.
Such a diet would exclude any added sugar and refined grains such as white flour, white pasta and rice. It would be very low in the carbohydrates found in bread and root vegetables such as potatoes. These would be replaced by proteins in meat and fish, and in non-root vegetables such as broccoli.
So should sugar be classified as an addictive drug? “There is no point when I am eating a sweet that I am satiated. I imagine alcoholics are like this with alcohol. One of the things I am implicitly arguing is that sugar addiction has to be treated with the same seriousness as you would treat nicotine or drug addiction. One of the ideas behind these low-carb diets is that you are replacing carbohydrates with fat. Animal studies from the 1930s show that if you do that, you mute the cravings for the carbs.”
Over and over again he insists he is open to any independently sourced evidence that proves sugar is safe, but it is now 15 years since that magazine article and nobody has yet come up with anything. And, meanwhile, the fat dogma is crumbling.
There is one strong hypothesis that seems to stand in opposition to the sugar theory and that is the case of the microbiome. The friendly bugs in our gut are under assault from diet change and antibiotics. Many point to this as the source of the diabetes epidemic and all our other modern woes. Taubes is sceptical. But it may not matter, both could be true.
We leave the man cave and he drives me in his battered Lexus to the nearby Claremont Club for lunch. Bathed in cool sunshine, we eat giant salads on the terrace looking out across San Francisco Bay. To the east lies the entire continent, gorging itself on the pure, white and deadly. Dying for the love of sugar.
With his starter, Taubes eats half a slice of white bread soaked in some sauce.
“I shouldn’t,” he says, “but it’s so delicious.”