Sugar as a Slow Poison

The August 2013 National Geographic article "Sugar Love (A not so sweet story)" by Rich Cohen collects some powerful quotations from experts describing sugar as a slow poison. It also gives some of the slavery-flavored history of sugar. (If Eric Eustace Williams first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago is right, slavery beginning with the triangle trade was a key source of racism as well. He said "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.")

Here are some key passages from pages 87 and 96 about sugar (the pages in between show beautiful pictures of sugary foods by photographer Robert Clark):

"It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar." 

Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver, was talking to me in his office in Aurora, Colorado..."Why is it that one-third of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure?" he asked. "Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we're up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit."

... Haven Emerson at Columbia University pointed out that a remarkable increase in deaths from diabetes between 1900 and 1920 corresponded with an increase in sugar consumption. And in the 1960s the British nutrition expert John Yudkin conducted a series of experiments in animals and people showing that high amounts of sugar in the diet led to high levels of fat and insulin in the blood—risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. But Yudkin's message was drowned out by a chorus of other scientists blaming the rising rates of obesity and heart disease instead on cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet. 

As a result, fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular, fructose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is composed of equal amounts of glucose and fructose, the latter being the kind of sugar you find naturally in fruit. ... (High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is also a mix of fructose and glucose—about 55 percent and 45 percent in soft drinks. The impact on health of sucrose and HFCS appears to be similar.)

... Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition called metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure. As much as a third of the American adult population could meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome set by the National Institutes of Health. ...

"It has nothing to do with its calories," says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. "Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses."

Books referred to by the article:

Related Story: How the Calories In/Calories Out Theory Obscures the Endogeneity of Calories In and Out to Subjective Hunger and Energy