One of the problems with the whole sugar debate is the amazing amount of time, energy, and money that has been spent and will continue to be spent to answer such questions as, “Which is worse, traditional cane and beet sugar, or high fructose corn syrup?” An impartial observer from another planet might suggest, “Duh! Stop arguing about which one is worse, and kick them both out the door.”
Another area of contention is whether sugar is technically, by definition, addictive, or just habit-forming. This is an important distinction, because it represents the difference between entering a 12-step program or not. If the literal addictiveness of sugar and other substances is accepted as fact, probably a lot of changes will need to be made in society.
People can spend time discussing whether the average American eats 90 pounds of sugar a year or 150 pounds of sugar per year. Maybe there are more useful and helpful ways to spend that time. On the other hand, anything that improves public awareness is good, and outlandish numbers certainly do attract attention. Some mind-blowing numbers are connected with the public health costs of medical conditions that are believed or proven to be caused by sugar, but we’ll get to that.
Here is a number — 75 million Americans with metabolic syndrome. Gary Taubes says:
A condition known as metabolic syndrome is a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes… Having metabolic syndrome is another way of saying that the cells in your body are actively ignoring the action of the hormone insulin — a condition known technically as being insulin-resistant.
Taubes pretty well covered the waterfront in his 2011 New York Times article, “Is Sugar Toxic?,” which was widely noticed, and either criticized or endorsed by many other writers. He belongs to the fructose-is-worse school of thought. Apparently, the rest of the body shares in the task of metabolizing glucose that comes in from normal eating. But fructose, whether its source is high-fructose corn syrup or regular sugar, mainly gets dumped on the liver.
Taubes explains how sugar-sweetened beverages are worse than solid food, because the overload of fructose hits the liver like a tsunami. That poor overworked organ doesn’t know what to do with the stuff, except change it to fat, and give you insulin resistance as a bonus.
Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form — soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly… The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.
Feed animals enough pure fructose or enough sugar, and their livers convert the fructose into fat — the saturated fatty acid, palmitate, to be precise, that supposedly gives us heart disease when we eat it, by raising LDL cholesterol. The fat accumulates in the liver, and insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome follow.
Of course, many other experts are very anti-sugar these days, in any form. As a public health menace, Mark Bittman equates the sweeteners added to processed food with tobacco and alcohol. He points out that governments have concerned themselves with limiting access to those substances, so maybe it isn’t entirely inappropriate for governments to do something about sugar, which he sees as “the biggest public health challenge facing the developed world.”
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