FoodPolitik: The public health community’s toxic waste (of time)

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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When you think of things that are toxic to people, what comes to mind? Drano? Gasoline? Arsenic?

Apparently, you had better add sugar to the list.

A commentary published last week in the British journal Nature claims that sugar is literally “toxic” to our bodies and should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. In other words, you’ll be carded when you buy soda or a candy bar — and perhaps there will even be special state monopolies on the sale of sports drinks. “Sugar-free” zones around schools aren’t out of the question. And sugar taxes? Most certainly.

The primary author is University of California-San Francisco pediatrics professor Robert Lustig. Laughably, Lustig told the San Francisco Chronicle he’s “trying to undo the nanny state.” Except for, you know, the little things – such as imposing a sugar-enforcement bureaucracy, the express purpose of which is stop regular citizens from making certain food choices.

Fortunately, sane scientific voices were quick to react. A Sydney University dietician declared that he was “disgusted that Nature would publish this.” One professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine noted, “Sugar does not cause obesity and diabetes. Excess causes those, and it doesn’t matter where the excess comes from.”

It’d be easy to react to this outrage by concluding that it’s proof that even idiots can get advanced degrees. But let’s humor Lustig for a moment. He claims that government intervention is needed because sugar is addictive, like a hard drug, due to of the effects it has on the brain.

It’s interesting, then, to read that a recently published study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered Americans have cut their sugar intake by six teaspoons per day since 2000 and are eating 4 percent fewer calories today.

How is that possible if sugar is “addictive”? Hint: Perhaps because it’s not. (Lustig must interpret “sugar high” a little too literally.)

The fact is that many things affect the pleasure centers of the brain, including exercise, games, sex, and music. Lots of people are “hooked” on the latest hit song. But their enthusiasm is nowhere close to the level of a heroin or cocaine addiction. People often derive pleasure from eating a candy bar, but nobody holds up a convenience store to get one.

As for the idea that taxation will improve health, it’s similarly ludicrous, as I’ve detailed in my previous column. A recent study from other researchers at Lustig’s institution found that a hefty tax on soda would only reduce the average person’s energy intake by 9 calories. A recent Duke study put it at 12 calories. Both found that there would be considerable substitution of taxed products with untaxed products.

Similarly, people might react to taxes on sports drinks by consuming more milk. It turns out that 2% milk has more calories per fluid ounce than your average soda, according to NutritionData. Prohibitively taxed candy could lead to an increase in consumption of corn chips. There’s really no indication that people will consume fewer calories and be healthier.

And who knows — maybe kids would consume less milk, which contains nutrients they need. Schools that have recently banned flavored milk saw a 37 percent reduction in consumption, according to The Washington Post.

Sometimes sugar makes the medicine go down. We shouldn’t have to swallow mega-government with it.

“We’re talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient,” says one of Lustig’s co-authors — a rather Orwellian claim given the heavy-handed regime these researchers propose.

Let’s not mince words: what these people envision is a future in which fruit juice and sports drinks are hit with warning labels and a 1,000% tax, comparable to what’s been slapped on cigarettes. Who knows, maybe there will be a special FBI unit created to bust trafficking in untaxed marshmallows.

Tags : nature
Richard Berman