The Case Against Sugar is a rather troubling read, and not just because Gary Taubes presents in detail all the wrongs sugar is likely to be doing to our bodies, but also because it shows the cynicism of governments and companies when it comes to promoting sugar consumption.
Just like Taubes, I am convinced that sugar is not good for us, but as he clearly states from the beginning, there may not be enough hard science or definitive results to back this position. There is, however, a lot of circumstantial evidence, which the book details throughout its chapters.
The book can be seen as divided into two types of arguments: historical and political arguments, and scientific arguments.
Historical and Political Arguments
The first four chapters would fall under the first category. Taubes presents the evolution of the sugar industry, which would not have been as successful as it was without the support of governments, which saw an income generator through taxes imposed on sugar. Once sugar had become more accessible and was no longer available only to the wealthy (who were, coincidentally, also more sick than the poor, suffering from the same diseases that we are struggling with today), companies, especially the ones producing breakfast cereals, soft drinks and candy, supported by the Sugar Association, strove to increase the popularity of their products through brilliant marketing campaigns. They were so successful, that, in Taubes’ words, “by the 1960s, children’s breakfasts had been reshaped into a morning variation on the theme of candy bars and desserts”, and it now takes a conscious, continuous effort for anyone to avoid sugar from the products they buy.
The remaining seven chapters (5-11) would fall under the scientific arguments category. Taubes reviews the evolution of nutrition science and how new discoveries have shaped the trajectory that research took, such as the focus on calories consumed and expended. He also presents the efforts made by scientists financed by the Sugar Association to produce research that would at least exonerate sugar as not harmful, if not show it had actual health benefits. These scientists focused on dietary fats as the main reason why people got sick, and on gluttony and lack of activity (too many calories in, too few out) as the reasons why people got fat, and as a result, even sicker. The problem with some of this research lies in the misrepresentation of the results. Just as studies cannot be run to conclusively show that sugar is bad, the same can be said about dietary fats. Many studies failed to prove that they were the main cause of people getting sick, but a lot of the results were never made public because they did not meet the researchers’ expectations. Another reason why this science is not really trustworthy is that faulty logic has been used in presenting the results. While a difference is made between fats and other nutrients when it comes to the effects they have once ingested, the same difference is ignored when it comes to carbohydrates. Refined sugar, a carbohydrate, was not considered different from natural carbohydrates found in pulses or legumes. Also, a main argument used was the classic “a calorie is a calorie”, meaning that a calorie coming from sugar is no different than a calorie coming from milk, or from fruit. In this logic, sugar can do no harm in itself, it just may make people eat too much (i.e. too many calories) because it tastes good, and make them too full to eat other things, like fruit and vegetables.
The scientists presenting this view have been funded to do public appearances, and since their message resonated with the public campaign defending sugar, and with the dietary recommendations (also influenced by the Sugar Association and its members), they became authorities on the subject, and their views taken for granted.
Scientific discoveries in the fields of diabetes, heart disease, gout, and even cancer and Alzheimer’s offer clues as to the real effects of sugar on the human body. These studies are, again, not definitive, as most of them have been conducted on laboratory animals, the ones on human subjects have not run for long enough or did not have enough participants. But the direction they point towards is, nonetheless, noteworthy. There is a lot of laboratory research that shows troubling links between insulin, insulin-resistance in particular, and all these diseases, indicating a common cause to all of them. There is also some evidence showing that this starts with fatty liver, which in turn is apparently caused by high fructose consumption, particularly in combination with glucose. What is this combination? Commercial refined sugar, in particular in its two worst forms: sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Without being paranoid and starting to see conspiracy theories everywhere, it is easy to follow and to believe the arguments made by the author that companies producing sugar and those using sugar as one of their main, or key, ingredients in their products have been spending millions of dollars to make sure that science would be on their side, and that their story would be presented in such a way that no one would question it. Good marketing, and I mean this as “well-done”, not as “good” in an ethical way, can accomplish impressive things, and this is exactly what has happened with sugar. They did not have to make everyone believe that sugar is healthy, but just that it is not that bad, or that moderation is easily achieved, without ever specifying what moderation truly is. That way, companies can still use sugar in their products, and people will still buy them with their minds at ease, believing that they are not doing their bodies any disfavours.
A very important point that Taubes makes, and that has much larger implications, is that a sound scientific study to prove or disprove the role that sugar has in some of today’s most serious and common diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) is impossible to run. Moreover, such a study would not be able to pinpoint the effects of sugar in our diets because a diet completely devoid of refined sugars will also be devoid of processed foods altogether. It would then become impossible to tell whether the health benefits of such a diet come from the lack of sugar, the lack of processed foods and other ingredients in it, or a combination of the two. Either way, avoiding sugar will guarantee a better diet as it will force us to eat natural food.
The Case Against Sugar presents an insightful history of the science of nutrition in relation to diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as a history of the evolution of our sugar consumption and the big decisions made by companies and governments that have made this possible. For those who think this is tedious or of little consequence, I say that the way we consume and our attitudes towards food today have not come to life in a vacuum, and we need to understand how we have come to this. We need to accept that our scientific understanding is not set in stone, and that new discoveries can change how we look at different aspects of our lives. The way we look at food is no exception. Taubes argues that the Sugar Association has had a determining role in how sugar is publicly perceived, through its award-winning campaigns to defend it, through influencing the decision-making committees whose task was to categorise sugar as safe or not, through funding scientists’ research and public appearances to talk about the benefits of sugar.
We all seem to know that too much sugar is bad for us. But what is too much? I believe this is one of the most important takes from the book: we do not know what a safe limit for sugar consumption actually is. People will react differently to it depending on their genetic make-up, and on the consumption levels of sugar and refined carbohydrates they were exposed to from the beginning of their lives, including the time spent in the womb. It is impossible to tell how much time needs to pass before the body gets sick, or begins to show the signs that it will get sick. It is also impossible to tell whether the damage done can ever be reversed, both on a personal level, and on the population level.
For those looking for a book with definitive answers on sugar, this is not it. But then again, no book will provide that. And this is the case for all bad foods. Just as a definitive study on sugar is impossible to run, the same goes for fats. There is, however, one answer that the book does give: whether you look at it from a historical point of view (consumption levels throughout history, for instance), from a microbiological point of view, from a nutritionist point of view, basically any scientific point of view there is, there is always one common theme; food that doesn’t make us sick, that promotes health, is not processed. If you don’t want to believe that sugar is bad for you, at least believe that processed food is. If you don’t want to believe that sugar is worse than trans fats (or whatever your food demon is), at least believe that only whole foods are good. Processed = bad, whole food = good. Are sucrose and HFCS processed? Yes. Are they whole foods? No. There is your answer on sugar.