Is Sugar Toxic? A Reply to Gary Taubes.

April 27, 2011 at 10:55 am 8 comments

You have probably seen the alarming story by now: front page of the NYTimes Magazine on April 17, titled “Sweet and Vicious: The Case Against Sugar. The article is by Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, a gripping book that examines the evidence for the dangers of refined sugar and flour.

By the time you got to the end of the NYTimes article, it is likely that you swore off candy forever. But don’t panic! Here at Candy Professor, we hope to pour some calming oil on these troubled candy waters.

Mostly, I agree with Taubes. In fact, I agree with almost everything in the article. But I don’t think eating candy is the problem, and I don’t think forbidding candy is the solution. I’ll explain why in a moment.

First Taubes’ argument, in brief:

–sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup are chemically and metabolically identical. Both are about half glucose and half fructose.

–Our bodies use glucose for fuel; it goes directly in the blood stream and from there into every cell. Fructose must be metabolized by the liver.  Taubes summarizes: “Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose).”

–Americans consume huge amounts of added sugars, both as sucrose and as HFCS.

So far, just basic scientific facts. Next comes the scary hypothesis:

–the strain of excess fructose metabolism on the liver leads to fatty liver leads to insulin resistance leads to metabolic syndrome (diabetes, heart disease, obesity).

And therefore, the alarming conclusion:

–Sugar is toxic to the liver and leads to chronic disease conditions that result, ultimately, in death.

Well, there are a lot of links on that chain. But if you follow Taubes’ bouncing ball, you end up as he has, a sugar tee-totaller. That means, obviously, no candy. But is there another way to look at it?

Here’s my spin.

I absolutely agree that the amount of added sugar in the average American diet is excessive. The majority of those added sugars come in processed foods and sweetened beverages. If you want to dramatically reduce the amount of added sugar and the strain on your system, you can best do so by avoiding processed foods and beverages: stuff in boxes, cans, cartons and tubes.

So now you are shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. You are eating eggs, chicken legs, salad, apples, oatmeal and yogurt. You are drinking water and milk. Do you like candy? You should eat some. Because the amount of added sugar in a small portion of candy is actually not enormous, especially in composite candies that include chocolate, nuts, nougats, raisins, coconut and the like.

This is my view: No single food is evil, or toxic. It is the aggregation of added sugars in ALL the foods we are eating through the course of the day, week or lifetime that adds up to a pathogenic diet.

On the other hand, let us just grant for the sake of argument that at the end of the day Taubes is absolutely right, any amount of added (refined) sugar is damaging to our liver and our bodies. Here’s the problem: we can’t go back to cave-man days. This isn’t just about sugar. We fly in airplanes that might crash, we brush our teeth with fluoride toothpaste that might strengthen our tooth enamel but might also poison our bones, we drink water laced with chlorine to kill the bacteria that also might kill us. There is no place to hide.

And let us acknowledge that plastics and pharmaceuticals and chemical engineering and the rest of it have brought us enormous advantages. (As has food processing; I suspect that without the food processing industry, the U.S. population would be dramatically smaller–but that is another topic.) Some will decide that the only possible response to the dangers of modern life is to opt out, to go off the grid. The rest of us, when we can, when we have the means and opportunity, we mitigate.

Most of us don’t want the path of total abstention, any more than we want to live without cell phones or laundry detergent. Counteract the harm of refined sugar and HFCS by knowing what you eat, and choosing deliberately when and how much sugar to consume. Be mindful, and make those added sugars occasional rather than part of every meal. If Taubes’ most extreme fears are true, maybe even a little is risky. But so is getting out of bed in the morning. How do you want to live? That is really the question.

Coda: I am left with a puzzle after reading Taubes: what of glucose as an added sweetener? Corn syrup is an important candy ingredient, and candy makers have frequently used corn-derived dextrose (glucose) in the place of cane or beet sugar. The research Taubes focuses on singles out fructose as uniquely damaging. Will we be seeing “all-glucose” candy formulations in the future?

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jillian  |  April 27, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I totally agree with you. I eat a very good diet and also as many sweets as I like, and when I eat sugar I know I’m eating it and I make it count!

    What’s making Americans fat is not the sugar in candy, it’s the sugar in things like peanut butter, and jelly, and bread, and water (as soda or vitamin water or whatever) and every single other thing you buy in a restaurant or in the middle of the grocery store. Every single thing some people eat has added sugar/HFCS, and -that- is why they are fat.

  • 2. Matt  |  April 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for that. My initial response after reading Taubes’ article several days ago was, “Oh my god, I can never have candy again.” Luckily, my rational brain kicked in seconds later with, “Actually, I’d rather die than never eat candy again.” So now I’m just more careful about eating foods with sugar in them that really ought not to have sugar in them, and I still enjoy my candy. What’s the point of living a long life if you can’t enjoy it?

  • 3. Swedish Fish  |  April 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks so much for responding to the article and for articulating so well why we don’t need to swear off sugar in every form just yet. That’s exactly how I tell myself I approach my candy consumption now; maybe I’ll actually put it into practice going forward…

    Interesting question about glucose too!

  • 4. David  |  April 27, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Given that humans evolved eating fruit I find it hard to justify the use of the word “toxic.” The article was full of panicky language like that. I don’t entirely understand why the American reaction to the findings of nutritional science has always been this drive for total abstinence, followed inevitably by binging on something else. The current sugar binge started when we were convinced fat would kill us. If we give up sugar, what will we kill ourselves with instead?

  • 5. foxmarks  |  April 28, 2011 at 1:02 am

    The dose makes the poison. Insulin management is established technique for bodybuilding and fitness athletes. And no-added-sugar is a prescription for some diabetics. Foremost, it’s a matter of understanding the biochemistry

    Airplanes and plastics are not relevant to biochemical processes. The paleo concept, following caveman principles, is a biological one, not a technological one.

    Unless you’re at the limit of your body’s capacity, whether due to training or genetics, you can surely enjoy a little sugar and other non-caveman foods.

    In my own dietary experiments, actually eating from the perimeter of the grocery store heightens the perception of sweetness. The processed-sugar has an invisible but real effect. Maybe conceptually parallel to how smoking diminishes lung capacity.

    A few cigarettes per week will not be what kills you. Neither will a similarly small amount of candy. And if you’re like me, a small amount will be as much sweet as you can take. My occasional dose of cane-sugar Scottish jam has never been more delightful. But a second helping just makes my teeth itch.

  • 6. Loralee  |  April 29, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Actually, there’s quite a lot of candy made from glucose (dextrose), such as Smarties and Pixy Stix. Think we’ll start seeing health claims on dextrose-only candy wrappers anytime soon?

  • 7. Bearfoot  |  May 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    We’d all better kill ourselves, because by this logic life is toxic.

    Hey it leads to death every time right?

    it’s a quality of life thing, I think. I don’t think that an occasional candy bar would overload your liver.

    It’s wen you eat nothing but that you have a problem.

    Just as the occasional drink will not destory your liver, but 4 a day…?

  • 8. Adam Hall  |  August 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I am vegan and intake under 12 grams of sugar a day. Not that hard.


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