This week's New York Times Magazine wants you to know that sugar is toxic. In 6,500 words or less, you can learn how your liver deals with fructose, why sugar fuels tumor growth, and when scientists made the breakthrough dicoveries that should've thrown up red flags. This stuff has been in scientific circles for decades, and yet it seems one lone evangelist named Robert Lustig is the only one to crusade on the issue. What the article fails to describe, however, is identify who's been keeping this science under wraps for so long. (HINT: See this post's headline.)
Before tackling the accountability question, let's do a quick summary of why sugar is so bad for you. Most people stay away from dessert because they're worried about putting on weight. But according to Gary Taubes who penned the Times Magazine piece, it's not just the fact that you're consuming empty calories, it's what your body does with them. Unlike the glucose sugar in bread or potatoes that are metabolized by every cell in your body, the sugar found in juice and desserts is a dangerous cocktail that includes both glucose and fructose, which heads straight to your liver:
In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.
Don't worry, though, because the government says it's no big deal. When a federal agency last looked into the health effects of sugar in 2005—and once before in 1986—they acknowledged the link between sugar, heart disease and diabetes but ultimately deemed the research ambiguous. Taubes points out that that the author of the 1986 report also happens to be a paid lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Association, who represent the interests of high fructose corn syrup producers as well as corn farmers.
In fact, scientists began connecting high sugar consumption to the rate of heart attacks and diabetes for decades. Even the scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for discovering insulin warned that high sugar consumption could be linked to diabetes. Dueling nutritionists Ancel Keys and John Yudkin further connected sugar and fat to heart disease in 1970s, but the scientific community eventually focused on the role of fat and consumption of fatty food. (It makes great sense: fat clogs your arteries so you should stop eating fat.) The low-fat fad followed in the 1980s. Fast forward to the 1990s and scientists discover that fructose makes the liver produce fat which causes the body to resist insulin which leads to diabetes and heart disease. And lately cancer researchers are focusing on how insulin resistance leads to more insulin production, and insulin promotes tumor growth.
Scared yet? You should be says Mother Jones writer Kiera Butler who references Taubes' book Good Calories, Bad Calories in a recent comparison on the difference between high fructose corn syrup and sugar. In a decades-long marketing odyssey, the Corn Refiners Association spent millions first convincing you that high fructose corn syrup was better than diabetes-related real sugar and helped convince beverage companies like Coca-Cola to switch over to high fructose corn syrup. That 1986 study conducted by now-lobbyist Walter Glinsmann concluded that sugar didn't play a role in obesity. The tables turned on that theory, and now the fight against childhood obesity led by Michelle Obama points to high fructose corn syrup-rich soft drinks as a primary villain. The lobbyists' response was first to spend about $30 million on this much-ridiculed ad campaign:
And then last year, the lobbyists spent another $30 million in an attempt to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar." Their petition to the Food and Drug Administration ultimately failed, but if Lustig and Taubes' crusade against all things sugar-related continues to receive attention it might not matter.
Nevertheless, what's held back the more conclusive reports that sugar is indeed toxic boils down to a line the corn lobby can deliver over and over again: "The evidence is inconclusive." Despite the consistent correlation drawn between sugar consumption, heart disease, and now cancer, industry-employed scientists (read: lobbyists) can always argue that correlation does not equal causation.
It's the same line that the tobacco industry used to use.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.