Sugar and evil

Further to a side discussion with @GulliverFoyle on another post, I just found this on Ars:

TLDR basically the food industry is using the same tactics Big Tobacco did, burying independent studies and hiring scientists to refute the findings.

The whole sugar thing scares me especially because I’m old enough to have lived through the worst of the fat demonisation just when I was starting to cook for myself and make my own food choices. Like a lot of people, I avoided fat (and then meat, because saturated fat), and wound up with chronic health problems precisely because I did follow the food guides and read up on the literature.

It’s a hard topic to discuss at the height of the “sugar season” (Hallowe’en to Easter), but any takes on the Ars article? I used to think the nutritionists were just mistaken and that we were in a course correction now, but it seems outright deceit is involved.


I’d go further and argue that most “health” studies are confusing or dubious. Food industry groups do pay for “studies”, and those should never be trusted as they cannot be scientifically impartial. There are also independent nutritional studies, but that doesn’t mean they’re always accurate or that the methods of the studies are always rigorous. In general the public should be extra skeptical of nutritional studies. Good scientists disclose their funding and their methods. However, the average non-scientist shouldn’t have to learn science to eat well. And they don’t. In truth, healthy eating is not that complicated. Moderation of rich foods, balance of food groups and foods that are less processed (closer to what they were chemically when taken from nature) will suffice for the vast majority of people. If more detailed informaiton is desired, I usually recommend this book, which while not perfect, is written accessibly and avoids fads…

The thing we really have to get away from is this entanglement of weight and health. Body types vary a lot. Being fat isn’t the same as being unhealthy. We have to get to a point as a culture where we can talk about nutrition without the discussion devolving into fat shaming or assumptions of fat shaming.

Americans do, on average, consume unwise quantities of refined sugar and salt. But that’s to do with perennial habits. Occasional seasons of indulgence aren’t a major deal. I would not recommend anyone completely eliminate sugar from their diet unless a doctor advises it or they themselves know a lot about nutrition. Besides, sweets are my favorite thing to cook, so I’d be the last person to demonize sugar.

That said, Americans, on average, eat too much refined sugar…

Also want to say that you’re doing better than a lot of Americans by cooking your own food. The single biggest problem is how often Americans eat out, generally cheap copious restaurant or fast food that’s loaded with processed additives and preservatives that make it cheaper to produce, transport, store and serve.


I’m not a nutritionist. I am interested enough in the splash made by this study’s publication to copy and paste some interesting fallout:

Mars — which is also a member of the group, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) — said Wednesday the paper undermines the work of public health officials and makes all industry-funded research look bad.

The situation highlights the potential for conflicts of interest in nutrition science. Critics say the nature of nutrition research leaves the door open for companies to cherry-pick projects that make their products seem healthy, or cast doubt on science that suggests they fuel obesity.

So? The food processing industries and dietetic and diabetes associations also cherry-pick projects to make saturated fats look bad.

The authors admit that “given our funding source, our study team has a financial conflict of interest and readers should consider our results carefully.” No kidding.

Joanne Slavin, a professor at University of Minnesota who helped write the study proposal, did not list that she received a $25,000 grant from Coca-Cola in 2014.

Slavin had also worked on a paper on sugar guidelines in 2012 funded by ILSI. That paper was co-authored by an employee of the group, with feedback from a Coca-Cola executive and others, according to emails obtained by the AP through a public records request. Slavin said she would list the grant for the first ILSI paper in her new filing.

Also in 2012, Slavin presented a session for dietitians sponsored by Coke and Pepsi called “The Confusing World of Dietary Sugars” at an event held by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A slide for the presentation concluded that efforts to “micromanage” diets by imposing strict dietary rules are difficult to support with science.

“Strict dietary rules” meaning what: looking at ingredient labels and rejecting sugar in all its weaselly worded forms if it’s among the first five ingredients listed? Limiting sugars to those in fibrous fruits and vegetables? Eating foodstuffs your greatgrandmother would recognize?


This is the money paragraph. What convinced me that Americans on average ate sugar was a Pacific Science exhibit on the five senses of the body, and a display of how many teaspoons of sugar was in a serving cup of commercial yogurt.

Link to an eye-popping and several-screens-spanning infographic from via Forbes Magazine

Industry people are simply “Merchants of Doubt.” When the UK was considering a sugar tax, a spokesdoctor for “Action on Obesity” would be pitted against an industry-funded nutritionist or dietician who would chant “moderation” like a mantra. Thing is, when less than 0.5 mg of sugar can lead to a snack label of “sugar-free”, when people don’t write down their daily intake of foods and tally the grams of sugar ingested, how do people know what “moderation” is?
Natural sugars in fruits and vegetables have fiber which take longer to digest which keeps insulin levels lower and will burn up as energy. Refined sugars are digested almost instantaneously increasing insulin levels and fat storage. If the body has sustained high blood glucose level for an extended period, the body becomes insulin-resistant and has a hard time processing and storing glucose.

Americans typically consume around 20% of calories from added sugars.
Before the sugar industry got after them, many countries recommended an upper level of sugar intake at 10% of calories. That’s what the U.S. Food Pyramid did in 1992. The sugar industry does not like the 10% recommendation. The World Health Organization advises sugars be no more than 5% of daily calories, The sugar industry happily viewed 25% as a recommendation, not a maximum. Governments want to tax sugar (only on pop drinks, though, maybe they should include fruit juices too). how much sugar is too much for the body to process safely? The answer depends on yet another question: whose body? Many foods do not have the same effect on everyone who eats them. A perfect example of this is dairy. If you don’t have the gene that allows you to produce lactase, the lactose in dairy can make you feel ill. If you do have that gene, you can enjoy dairy products without a problem. So it’s silly to say that dairy is a “safe food” or a “harmful food:” whether it’s safe or harmful depends on the person eating it.

In many ways, the same is true of any kind of sugar. Since digesting sugar requires a healthy metabolism and a certain degree of insulin sensitivity, the upper boundary of a healthy sugar intake is probably much smaller for people who already have trouble with insulin metabolism, such as diabetics or people who are already obese. On the other hand, people with a healthy metabolism might not have any problems digesting a moderate amount of sugar. If 66% of Americans are obese, hundreds of millions of them have insulin metabolism issues that an average amount of sugar wouldn’t remedy. So “moderation” to me is a euphemism for “cut it way, way down, try 1/4 or 1/10 as much sugar or go sugar-free if you have to” even though that’s not the industry nutritionist’s message. The industry nutritionist knows full well one doesn’t NEED fruit juice or pop in the diet.


I find the advice to eat in moderation and avoid processed foods to be helpful, but I also think it’s important to focus on training your taste to accommodate a healthier diet. When I was younger, I had to have sugar in tea and coffee, but I slowly weaned myself off them and now I don’t even like the taste much (although I do find it helpful if I’m on a sugar low). I really don’t trust sugar and fat substitutes and go by the principle that I either have the real thing or get used to the taste without it. I don’t really have the patience for anything else - I know that I wouldn’t last long researching all of the pros and cons of different substitutes and meticulously checking everything I eat. I do still have some processed foods, but much less without having to expend much mental energy.

I also find that really enjoying your food helps a lot - it is one of life’s great pleasures and I don’t actually mind too much if a diet I really enjoy takes a few years off my life. In practice though, probably the opposite is happening. If I want to go vegan, I learn some really good vegan recipes and find ways of looking forward to vegan food as a reward rather than a restriction. If I like chocolate and want to cut down, I buy less but really good quality.


Michael Pollan does a lovely job of dismantling this idea. Healthy eating shouldn’t be complicated, agreed. But since at least the 1920s (accelerating in the 1950s) the populace in every developed country has been told science knows better than tradition as to what’s good to eat.

“Progress” was going to save us all, make us healthier, create food that was better than nature’s. There were some improvements – the chalk powder and other non-edibles that were allowed in a Victorian loaf of bread are now gone – but there are new horrors, like wood pulp used as filler in orange juice. Orange juice ought to be a reasonable thing to include in moderate amounts in a healthy diet.

Lately my strategy us to eat “old” recipes – stuff my great-grandparents would have recognised. A lot of my heavy-rotation dishes are French, not because I have any French ancestry, but because the French never lost their food culture. Also it seems like a lot of French food either goes in a slow cooker well (ratatouille, beef bourginon, soups), or can be whipped up in minutes (omelettes, crèpes). It fits with the working-stiff lifestyle well.

But sugar… sugar shows up even in from scratch recipes where it shouldn’t. I’ve come across bread recipes where the poster has proudly made them “healthy” by subbing Splenda for sugar (shudder).


There’s a really good documentary about this very thing.

They talk to the doctors behind this study, before the study came out.

It was on Netflix a while ago, not sure if it is now…


i do most of the cooking in my household which leads to me being the one to go do the grocery shopping which i do once a week. 90% or more of the food i buy comes from either the produce section, the meat and fish section, or the dairy section. about half of the rest of our groceries are either rice, beans, pasta, quinoa, or some type of bread product. we occasionally have ice cream, frozen pizza, canned chili, etc. but the majority of my food is purchased fresh and prepared by me during the course of the week. i pay attention to my carbs because i am a type 2 diabetic but my body handles fats very effectively which results in a total cholesterol around 95-100 despite a diet high in fat. many of the checkers at the store i frequent have commented on how my basket is pretty much the reverse of most shoppers’ baskets in that most shoppers tend to buy about 90% canned or prepared foods and about 10% fresh foods.


Same here (except for the diabetic part.) There are an uncountable number of words that all come down to Michael Pollan’s advice/philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I’m fascinated by the difference between food shopping in the US and here in Belgium. The massive mega-marts that carry five brands of everything don’t really exist here. There are a lot of small but high-quality stores here that don’t try to carry everything, along with a lot of specialty shops. I’ve got a bakery a half a block from my house where I get our fresh bread for breakfast every day.

I really thought our diet was going to take a hit from not living on the farm anymore when we moved here. The opposite has happened-- we’re eating better and with more variety than we ever have before.


there was a point i wanted to make in my original comment but i got distracted by a phone call and my wife’s request for help with something she was doing. i’ll go ahead and make the point now: it’s not necessarily that hard, if you’re in the upper middle class and live near a decent grocery store, to eat a healthy diet but it does require giving more time and thought to what you’re eating. and if you’re poor in the u.s. or you live in a “food desert” it can be almost impossible to do so. a guaranteed income and a better distribution of access to produce would make it much easier but we’ve elected a president who believes in social darwinism and letting the poor die rather than letting them have access to healthcare much less access to produce and he has gotten elected under the banner of the party of cruelty aka the republican party. things are likely to get much worse before they even have a tiny chance of getting better.


Absolutely. I am very, very lucky to live close to an old-school grocer’s run as a family business. The owner is a butcher, and although he didn’t do a lot of that himself anymore, the meat counter is amazing. Fruit and veg are in front, along with dairy. Frozen stuff is in the back half of the shop and a bit hard to get to. They have potato and nacho chips, but you have to ask for them at the cash because they’re on a wall behind the counter.

It might sound weird, but it’s a bit of a tourist attraction just because a lot of people from the burbs have never shopped in a place like that before.

They don’t sell things like paper towels or cleaning products, but there is a supermarket down the road for that, or one of the larger pharmacies just a walk away.

As to sugar: they do have the biscuits and the chocolate in easy-to-reach areas, right where the register queue is. The only saving grace is they do tend to sell the less-crappy stuff.

Now, you could shop like that at a supermarket, but I know from the rare times I do that it’s difficult.

Still, I think I’d this is going to change, it has to be from the consumer up. If consumers stop giving money to processed food producers, then supermarkets will have to re-think what they’re spending shelf space on.

And it has happened once already, starting in the 50s and accelerating through the 70s and 80s with the low-fat craze. We need to PR and public educate our way through a low-sugar craze. And not, please the gods, one where people switch to artificial sweeteners, but actually change their taste preferences.


it’s also going to require that people know more about safe handling of food at home, particularly meat and fish; how to prepare raw vegetables and fruits for cooking; how to use a knife safely and effectively; and simply how to select fruits, vegetables, and meats. not everyone knows this stuff.

i see this in my students. i teach 6th grade science. some of my students barely know how to make a peanut butter sandwich for themselves while others are responsible for cooking the evening meal for themselves and their siblings because either both parents work late or they live in a single parent family and that parent works late. some of the ones who don’t know how to cook much of anything have been raised to be lazy by parents who rarely cook themselves and who go out for fast food 6 nights a week others are desperately poor and mom or grandma prepares the meals and everybody gets their share and no more because there is no more and there’s no money to spare for kids snacks. of the ones who are responsible for cooking, i’ve exchanged recipes and talked seasonings and ingredients with them. those are very rare exceptions. before my school district established a policy that forbids bringing homemade treats for students, either by teachers or parents, i would bring my homemade marshmallows for the students as a christmas treat. i’ve had parents tell me that they thought their child was lying about that because they thought you had to have a factory to make marshmallows.

i apologize for rambling but it will take a lot of different things to make a change into the way our society eats.


That’s classic about the marshmallows. I’ve had similar reactions to some of the things I’ve made, like bread and yogurt.

Those are interesting points about your students. I remember in university I met a second-year student who couldn’t even make Kraft Dinner – because she had never learned how to tell when water was boiling. Her family could afford to hire a housekeeper. She’d never had to cook anything for herself.

Food issues are linked to poverty so often, but it can work against better-off people too, like that student. A friend of mine was on welfare for a few years, and she jokes she never ate healthier. She kept a backyard garden and only bought the essentials. When she got a regular job, she gained weight because she could afford junk food and ate more processed food because it was faster to make.


Agreed. Everything’s connected. As someone who really enjoys your comments, one quick critique: even if you don’t have time to find a place for a logical paragraph break, just putting one randomly (between sentences) into a big paragraph can make it easier for the eye to read, kind of like running relays vs marathons.

Ditto, I love making French foods for the same reason. Italian food is another that’s fairly efficient to cook from scratch, but it tends to be higher in carbs than French food. Greek food is often what I make when I’m trying to cook healthier stuff, but even though my wife loves it, I’ve never been able to get that into Greek dishes.


i found a spot where the tone shifts enough to allow for a new paragraph. tell me if it helps.

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Serendipity. I was listening to CBC Ideas in the car tonight:


Thanks for these! I bookmarked them in the summer and then never got to listen to them.

The first episode includes a link to a thorough (and thoroughly scary) article about the role nutritionists have had to play in all this. It’s hard to overstate how much nutrition education had to do with bringing about the food crisis.


Yup :relaxed: Even just a visual break helps the eye travel. That you chose a place where it makes sense adds to the experience, but even a sporadic break is helpful.


This is a good thread.

As far as diet goes, I’ve never been overweight, my “weight problems” as such are being underweight, which isn’t considered a problem in our society. I’ve always been spindly, and when I got grown, I got tall and spindly. The only weight I’ve ever gained was height. Beer, bread, sugar, whatever; they can be consumed in quantity without weight gain. I’m built like Joey Ramone. BUT sugar can make me pass. the. fuck. out. After physical exertion, or just being active throughout the day, I have a coke when I first sit down, I’m probably gonna pass out for a few minutes and be extremely groggy for a while. When I was a bike messenger, I’d treat myself to an ice cream (“I work hard, I’ll have a treat”) I’d pass the fuck out at the Baskin Robbins. They probably thought I was on drugs. If I stay standing I can avoid it but I still feel groggy and slow.

I don’t know what that is. This is not something they warn you about, so I guess it’s just me, but I pieced it together about midway through my life. I didn’t really get the correlation because I just figured I needed a nap. I mean sometimes I need a nap without sugar and I don’t use sugar as much as a lot of Americans anyway so the circumstances of sugar plus exertion are not a daily thing. This is partly due to upbringing.

My hippie mom did not keep sugar in the house. I wasn’t raised on it as much. Not constantly having it was normal, so I think that has informed my adult taste; I definitely feel what has already been said ITT about weening or getting off sugar, you just don’t like it as much. As an adult, anyway, I pretty much only eat it as chocolate. A coke is too sweet for me. If I have access to a fountain or bar gun with plain soda, I’ll water one down like half or more and squeeze limes into it to make it palatable but mostly I just skip it.

As a kid I would always devour it as much as possible because all kids love sweets I think, and I never noticed any effect then (I didn’t notice the passing out until more teen years, although I wouldn’t rule out me ignoring any effects off the strength of general youthful rejuvenation.) Mom wasn’t anti-sugar as much as she just didn’t keep it at the crib. At my grandparents, or school birthday parties or whatever, I would binge. When we went out to eat I would get a coke and even a dessert, it wasn’t taboo. But none of that stuff was around at home, not usually. Which leads to a funny, counter-intuitive thing thing about “sugar and evil” which I’m going to have to google so i get it right… okay:

Honey is a known dietary reservoir of C. botulinum spores and has been linked to infant botulism. For this reason honey is not recommended for infants less than one year of age.

I was born in '74 and my hippie mom was trying to not give me refined sugar so she would give me “good” natural honey. I guess I got sick and at the hospital they were asking her about diet and she averred she never used sugar, just honey. They fixed me up and apparently I was one of the first case studies, according to what I remember my mom telling me like thirty years ago. You see right there in the box it was “recognized in 1976.”

So, sometimes refined sugar ain’t all that evil, I guess.


I found an excellent WaPo article from earlier this year “What this scathing exchange between top scientists reveals about what nutritionists actually know”

Observational studies, rather than randomly controlled trials, are what nutrition experts review and derive their policy recommendations.

What many experts in nutrition research will admit is that scientific certainty on these topics is often elusive, even on the health effects of some very common foods.

You might like a related article’s Table 3: Selected Areas of Concordance and Controversy Related to Diet and Cardiometabolic Health. It’s general, but sensible. It’s also big, so I’m providing a link

This is as general, broad and helpful a contribution I can make to a controversial and trending topic. I disagree with the “low-sugar” diet principle being a “craze”, given how long homo sapiens sapiens the world over have eaten low-sugar diets as cultural norms. I do believe no one nutritionist or diet guru has the best eating plan recommendations for everyone, and that it’s best to start with what is commonly in concordance for healthful foods, then branching out by culture, food sensitivities, nutrient density, value for the food dollar.

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