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Rethinking Sugar

A Review of Gary Taubes' new book, The Case Against Sugar

Sugar is everywhere. It is deeply woven into our food supply and our way of life. We use it as a preservative, a way to refresh and reward ourselves, as a “healthier” substitute for fats, to celebrate special occasions, and to show love or regard to others. It is in most breads, dry roasted peanuts, fruity yogurt, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, granola, spaghetti sauce, hot dogs, and flavored coffee drinks. If we want to avoid it, it takes effort.

It wasn’t always like this. In Gary Taubes’ new book, The Case Against Sugar, we discover that candy manufacturing began in the mid-19th century. Manufactured ice cream became an American industry in 1851. Coca Cola was first bottled in 1891. In short, sugar, in the amount we eat today, is a relatively recent addition to our diet.

This dietary newcomer is much more than “empty calories,” as we have been led to believe, and this fact makes The Case Against Sugar an unsettling book. It is deeply researched and lays out historical, scientific, and epidemiological evidence that sugar is dangerous. Taubes believes that our widely-accepted-but-flawed calorie/energy model of diet has been used by the sugar industry to support greater consumption. Energy in/energy out….our bodies just don’t work that way. Some foods with the same caloric content are worse for you than others, and calories don’t tell the whole story. Sugar is one of the worst.

Taubes hypothesizes that sucrose—or common table sugar—is uniquely harmful, well beyond merely causing tooth decay, much more so than the mistakenly villainized saturated fats that they often replace. Sucrose is half glucose and half fructose. Fructose is particularly damaging. The place of action is the liver, where it stimulates the production of fatty deposits, elevates triglycerides, and plays havoc with cholesterol. A lifetime of sweets creates insulin resistance which in turn causes metabolic syndrome. People with metabolic syndrome are prone to chronic illness, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, gout, and dementia.

Over time, like smoking cigarettes, eating sugar is poison. One in 11 American adults (9.1%) now has diabetes, a disease that was rare at the turn of the century, but has been growing since. Like tobacco, there may be no safe dose. After reading this book, you might choose to still eat sugar, but it is also possible that, like me, you may be convinced that you should not.

Taubes is the first to say that it is impossible to remove all doubt as to cause and effect where diet and nutrition are concerned. Experimentation is difficult. People can’t live their lives in metabolic chambers that measure precisely what they eat and what happens when they do. Food diaries are notoriously flawed because most of us can’t remember from month to month just what or how much we ate. We eat many kinds of foods, so it’s hard to tell if any single type correlates directly to certain health outcomes (did the burger raise the cholesterol or was it the bun?). Also, effects from eating sugar and other foods take many years to show up. Nevertheless Taubes carefully gathers the best of the research and reviews the historical record to present a case that is compelling.

I've personally been on the low carb bandwagon for a few years, more or less successfully. But since reading The Case Against Sugar I have redoubled my effort to cut out sugar completely. I've also decided I don’t want to risk harming my family’s health by using sugar to show my love for them—with cakes, cookies, or candy. This won’t be easy. I tried making home-made unsweetened ice cream last weekend—a blend of garden raspberries, full fat Greek yogurt, whipping cream, and a splash of vanilla. It came out rich. Delicious. And…tart. More of this, I thought! But my husband and grandchildren splashed theirs with maple syrup (the book does not address maple syrup or honey, but my hunch is that fructose is fructose).

The author of The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes, is a science writer and investigative journalist who writes about science controversies. He likes to ferret out “bad science.” Besides evaluating scientific methodology, he also delves into the politics and funding issues that sometimes undermine the credibility of science studies. He has written extensively about diet and its relationship to chronic illness. His other books include Good Calories Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. Taubes has won the Science in Society Journalism Award of the National Association of Science Writers three times and was awarded an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship for 1996-97. He is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation independent investigator in health policy.

The Case Against Sugar is available from the publisher, at Amazon, and through other booksellers. It is published by Penguin Random House.

My interview with Gary Taubes is below.