Hysteria about sugar doesn't help-knowledge does

Published online: Oct 11, 2013
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Knowledge-not hysteria-should always drive our thinking.
 
Knowledge derives from evidence but is achieved only when critical evaluation of disparate, often conflicting, bodies of evidence becomes a commitment. This principle has remained a singular constant from the start of my education and training in biochemistry to the present day.
 
This is why continued attempts by some public officials and purported health advocates to stigmatize sugar as "toxic" or "poison" are baseless and have little-to-no scientific underpinning. Sadly, this hysteria is happening even though sugar is a food we have safely consumed for thousands of years.
 
Thus, I hope readers will consider the assessments reached by thoughtful scientists whose detailed evaluations of the published evidence counters the hysterics of the extremists and attackers.
 
On July 1, longtime researchers and advocates of carbohydrate restriction, Drs. Richard Feinman and Eugene Fine, wrote in the medical journal Nutrition & Metabolism that, "nothing in the biochemistry suggests that sugar is a toxin." They also point to several controlled trials that demonstrate the predominating role of starch-not sugar-in people with Type 2 diabetes.
 
Dr. Richard Johnson, a leading researcher on the role of fructose in metabolism and author of The Sugar Fix among other works calling for reduced sugar consumption, on July 23 gave a radio interview in which he said "we shouldn't tell people never to eat sugar or that sugar's toxic."
 
Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and fellow advocate for reduced sugar intake, agrees that "sugar is not poison." Calling sugar "the" problem in our diets, he explained, undermines important work regarding many other dietary concerns.
 
Even Dr. Robert Lustig, a vocal sugar critic who earlier this year touted a study he co-authored as "proof enough that sugar is toxic," discredits his own hyperbole when he wears the hat of serious scientist. Dr. Lustig reacted to another study that had correlated diabetes prevalence with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) rather than sugar by noting that the people with diabetes might not be the ones consuming all the HFCS. It's a fair point, and one that applies to his paper as well because nothing in his "proof" showed that the people with diabetes were the ones consuming all the sugar.
 
The reality is that USDA data shows per capita sugar consumption has for the last 35 years been lower-that's right, lower-than at any other time in the 20th century. So when critics of "sugar" talk about its high or increased consumption, they are inaccurately and misleadingly lumping authentic sugar (from sugar cane and sugar beets) together with HFCS and all the other caloric sweeteners manufactured from starch.
 
The lumping together of sugar with other caloric sweeteners may explain why a recent Harris Interactive poll showed that 75 percent of parents believe U.S. sugar consumption has increased during the past 40 years just when sugar consumption actually dropped to its lowest levels of the past century. In contrast,HFCS consumption climbed significantly during that period.
 
What's more, sugar isn't HFCS and HFCS isn't sugar. The scientific name for sugar is sucrose, and it is a natural substance found in plants (primarily sugar beets and sugar cane). Sucrose, whether still in a plant or in our sugar bowl, is the same: equal parts fructose and glucose bound together at the molecular level.
 
Despite its name, HFCS isn't found in corn. Advanced technological processes are required to manufacture glucose and fructose from corn starch, and they are then mixed together in varying proportions, mostly high in fructose -- sometimes as high as 90 percent. HFCS is molecularly distinct from sugar because of its different proportions of fructose and glucose and the fact they are not bound together.
 
This might surprise some, but more than 90 percent of the sweetener supplied for so-called "sugar sweetened beverages" in the U.S. is actually HFCS, not sugar. And even Dr. Lustig has acknowledged that beverages sweetened with HFCS may contain as much as 30 percent more fructose than if they were sweetened with sugar. This is important, as fructose is the component about which he, Dr. Johnson and many others are so concerned. In fact, Dr. Johnson has co-authored a clinical study comparing beverages sweetened with HFCS to those sweetened with authentic sugar that shows "HFCS is more likely to cause acute adverse effects than sucrose."
 
Another recent paper by, among others, Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center and co-director of the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, echoes this point in the August volume of Nature Reviews Endocrinology. Noting the molecular differences between HFCS and sucrose, and "more detrimental effects (on fasting glucose levels, weight gain and fat mass)" of HFCS, the piece expressed particular caution about neonatal and early childhood exposure -- "critical developmental periods [that] might have a key role in the development of adult obesity."
 
Given these facts, when critics surreptitiously lump HFCS into their attacks against "sugar" in an effort to make the attacks seem more potent, a serious disservice is done.
 
As Drs. Feinman and Fine advise, the "rush to judgment on sugar" and demands to reduce or regulate it "despite the absence of any experimental test of the idea" presents a significant "likelihood of unintended consequences."
 
It's sage advice. Consumers should know which sweetener is in their foods and beverages. They should be given the tools to better understand the meaningful differences between natural sugar and the more than two dozen other sweeteners that can now be found in our foods and beverages.
 
Again, hysteria and misinformation aren't among those tools.
 
I'm not advocating excessive sugar consumption, and the industry I have represented for more than 20 years never has. As Dr. Katz has rightly noted, "An excess of sugar in the body is harmful, certainly-but so is an excess of oxygen, potassium, iron, water, or calcium. Too much of any of these can kill us-but just like the glucose that floats in our blood, so can too little."
 
Dr. Charles Baker is chief science officer of the Sugar Association, Inc., a trade group based in Washington, D.C. Dr. Baker was awarded a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1973 by Purdue University, and held academic and industry positions prior to joining the Sugar Association in 1990.