Sugar. Is. Toxic.
Cigarettes are carcinogenic. No question. No debate. They are toxic; a pollutant; disease causing. Campaigns to reduce consumption and regulate their sale abound. Mothers advise their children against smoking, doctors advise their patients. Cigarettes…are…toxic. Alcohol is also toxic. It too is regulated, known to be disease causing, campaigned about, advised against, and in high doses will result in death. The notion of toxicity is a familiar one that exists along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the intuitive understanding that cocaine is a toxin. It causes dramatic, noticeable changes to a person’s clinical presentation moments after consumption and the health of a regular consumer deteriorates quickly due to changes in sleep patterns, appetite, neurotransmitter disruption, among other effects. On the other end of the toxicity spectrum are the subtle physiologic changes that take place over time, causing damage such as endocrine disruption, requiring careful study before researchers and policy makers are willing to concede to a statement such as “Bisphenol-A is toxic” (Rogers, Metz, & Yong, 2013). Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum exists a movement of individual consumers, researchers, scientists, parents, authors and advocates proclaiming “Sugar. Is. Toxic.”
Wow, really? Sugar? Toxic? Of all substances, how could someone say such a thing? White sugar is the sweet backbone of that slice of cake given to little Katie to celebrate her first birthday. Everyone at the party laughs as she smears the icing all over her nose and the cake crumbles to pieces on her highchair tray. Surely everyone at the party wouldn’t be so tickled if sugar were actually a toxic substance. There must be a mistake. Or what about the high fructose corn syrup in the sodas, juices and sports drinks of vending machines at most major public venues, including many schools? Or in the ketchup on the hotdog at the baseball game and incidentally, in the bun, too; or the little sweet treat on the dinner tray of hospital patients? Perhaps most importantly, what about the corn syrup solids in many, major infant formula brands? How is it that the first food given to a new human being on the planet could contain a toxic ingredient? Is sugar really toxic?
If someone were to ask my belief, free from research, public opinion or the latest scientific finding, I would answer a resounding “yes” based on my personal experiences alone. In my early years of recovery following a powerful struggle with drug addiction, without even realizing I was doing it, I turned to sugar. For many people, early recovery from one substance often means replacing it with another, but I wasn’t in the least bit aware that this was happening to me. Sugar is so innocuous, it’s in everything, sweet treats are everywhere – encouraged, celebrated – how could I be addicted to it? The thought never even crossed my mind, especially considering how much energy was diverted into just staying clean in the beginning. I wasn’t using, I was getting my life back in order, so what if I ate a cookie everyday, or several? Roughly two years into recovery, somewhere in an honest moment, I realized that my relationship with sugar looked like a watered down version of cocaine. Not only would I go to extreme lengths to acquire it, crave it insatiably until I had it and hide just how much of it I was consuming, but I was also beginning to notice a connection between my volatile eruptions of emotion and my binges on sugar. Two years clean, everything else was falling into place in my life, but I could not seem to control emotional outbursts of sadness or anger or periods of mental confusion and overwhelm. Somehow I was led to two books, Potatoes not Prozac and Addiction-Free Naturally, both of which opened up a world of possibility by describing sugar sensitivity and sugar addiction. I discovered a community of thinkers that believe, like I do now, that sugar can be dangerous for many people. It is toxic.
As powerful as my own personal testimony may be, it is only part of the story in setting the stage for the controversy. Not everyone who believes sugar is harmful relies on my criteria for evaluating harmfulness. Much of the research gives less attention to mood instability or addiction and instead focuses on rising rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Also, sugar’s influence is meaningful to consider not only in light of mental and physical health but also in relationship to its impact on social systems, the planet as a whole, or emotional and spiritual wellbeing. And yet all of these possible angles with which to understand sugar are presuming that the premise “Sugar is Toxic” is accepted in the first place. In the medical community, this is not entirely the case.
What Does The Science Say?
The term sugar can take on many different forms in the literature. It could serve to describe sucrose in a myriad of roles, including cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or raw honey, or it could also represent research where the fructose component of sucrose was examined in isolation. My experiences were reflective of trouble with cane sugar, but there are many approaches with which to explore this topic scientifically. It is important to know exactly what the variables are when comparing studies.
With regard to looking at fructose in isolation, Robert Lustig, MD has used this approach to endorse his belief that sugar is toxic. Lustig has specifically implicated the fructose component of sucrose, when consumed in excess, with disproportionate rates of metabolic syndrome (Lustig, 2010; Lustig, Schmidt, & Brindis, 2012). Despite increased discussion in recent years about the possible role of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in contributing to obesity, Lustig goes beyond HFCS and more broadly implicates refined sugars of any kind. As an important comparison, he and others point out that sucrose is roughly 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, while HFCS is 55 and 45 percent, respectively (Rippe & Angelopoulos, 2013). In other words, HFCS and sucrose are chemically comparable in their disaccharide components and exert similar effects biochemically under the premise that the fructose half is the true source of metabolic dysregulation. Lustig goes so far as to say that the fructose in sugar is toxic and is biochemically comparable to ethanol. In his research, he points to striking similarities between fructose and ethanol including comparable increased rates of de novo lipogenesis, increased formation of reactive oxygen species and similar positive feedback mechanisms in the brain that encourage continued use, among others (Lustig, 2010).
Support for the notion that sugar is a health risk is evidenced at an organizational level by recommendations from the American Heart Association urging individuals to reduce their consumption of added sugars (Lustig, 2010). Support at a nationwide policy level has been reflected in Denmark’s consideration in October, 2011 to tax sugar as a way to reduce consumption and thereby reduce disease (Lustig, Schmidt, & Brindis, 2012). Other efforts to raise awareness about sugar’s ills have also recently come to light in the attempt by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to create a ban on the sale of sugar sweetened beverages over 16 ounces in size (Wang & Vine, 2013). Couple the above information about sugar’s effects on health with the aforementioned literature describing sugar addiction and the implications on brain health, beta-endorphin and serotonin levels, etc (DesMaisons, 1998; Dufty, 1975; Mars, 2001; Phelps & Nourse, 1986) and it becomes clear that there are numerous resources available to suggest that sugar is toxic.
Simultaneously, however, a controversy exists because not all of medical science is on the bandwagon with the notion of sugar toxicity, or even with the link to sugar and metabolic syndrome. With regard to HFCS, White (2013) and other colleagues argue that HFCS has no supportable link to obesity in the United States or elsewhere. Arguments include the fact that obesity rates in the US have climbed in the last decade while HFCS consumption has declined (Rippe & Angelopoulos, 2013); “fructose-glucose sweeteners are metabolized through the same pathways regardless of dietary source” (White, 2013, p1721S) and therefore HFCS cannot be independently implicated separate from other sugar sources; and lastly, while fructose has been shown to cause negative impacts on health, White argues that fructose is not consumed in isolation and therefore conclusions from fructose-only experiments are not always justified.
In related analyses that included fructose and sucrose, Ripke and Angelopoulos note that reviews of the current literature have demonstrated that “no adverse effect on triglycerides or weight [were] observed in multiple trials using fructose up to the 95th percentile population consumption level” as well as “no increases in blood pressure or propensity toward obesity” (2013, p 238). Similar research that contradicts the position of Lustig and others comes from the work of a 1986 FDA Sugar Taskforce set to review the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) status of carbohydrate sweeteners, affirmed in 1976 for sucrose, corn syrup, corn sugar and invert sugar, after being previously granted and affirmed in 1958 and 1969. The research review performed by the taskforce in 1986 determined that “other than a contribution to dental caries there was no conclusive evidence that there was a hazard to the public when sugars were consumed at the then current levels” (Glinsmann, & Park, 1995, p. 165S). The review included research on diabetes mellitus, blood lipids, cardiovascular disease, hyperactivity in children, hypertension, among others, and reported at that time that sugar consumption was not a hazard to any of the above. This is clearly in direct conflict with the “sugar is toxic to the body” premise and is another testament to the extent of the controversy.
How Does the Controversy Impact Social Structures?
Accompanying the argument that sugar is toxic are a series of social implications. Sugar as a major culprit in the rising obesity epidemic will have obvious effects on humanity worldwide. As processed foods high in added sugars spread across the globe, along with sugar sweetened beverages, the rates of obesity have nowhere to go but up if consumption is left unchecked. Lustig points out that the metabolic syndrome is associated with $65 billion spent in lost productivity and $150 billion on morbidity-related health care resources annually in the United States alone (Lustig, Schmidt, & Brindis, 2012). The notion that sugar could be related to a series of health conditions causing financial strains this significant warrants a careful look at what humanity stands to gain from continued consumption of this substance. Not to mention, if mothers are losing their eyesight to diabetes and missing precious moments of their children’s lives or employees are spending weeks on leave due to recovery from major cardiovascular surgery, what are the implications on the communities that the mother and the employee live in? Financial strains aside, who is negatively affected by the illnesses that sugar could be contributing to in our neighborhoods? What is the eventual toll on a community and its functionality if a society becomes more sick than it is well, and how far do these scenarios have to play out before interventions become necessary, not optional?
Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, attempted to initiate one such intervention with the aforementioned ban on sugar sweetened beverages over 16 ounces in size. A highly controversial move, it was fueled by the idea that something must be done to limit the increasing rates of overweight children and adults in the city’s borders and this could be one small step in the right direction. Interesting facts related to this problem include the trend that a regularly sized soda at McDonalds in 1955 was only 7 ounces, whereas today the options start at the child-sized 12 ounces and top out at 32 ounces (Wang & Vine, 2013). According to Wang and Vine, that 32-ounce sugar sweetened beverage, containing roughly 310 calories, would take the average adolescent 5.3 miles of walking to burn off. At some level, unless we as a society are pretty sure that the adolescent will be burning those calories, then we must concede that he or she will be storing them, at which point there is no way around the argument that the likelihood for obesity has increased. Whether or not that weight gain occurs for certain is unclear, but the likelihood has surely increased following this logic.
The above dilemma ties back into the previous discussion of what we as a people want our local communities to look like and how we are willing to let them evolve over time. Is it socially acceptable to allow, endorse or even turn a blind eye to our 14-year old neighbor steadily gaining weight during his high school years after repeated trips to the local mini-mart for their 32-ounce drinks? Opponents of the cap on sugar sweetened beverages have argued that there are no guarantees that this intervention will even prevent the 14-year old neighbor from heading down the path to excessive weight gain, especially in light of the fact that there are so many other contributing factors to obesity (Sievenpiper & De Souza, 2013). Of course it is extremely important to carefully consider the value and effectiveness of any intervention that limits the choices of community members and removes their ability to make decisions about their own body. And perhaps this particular intervention isn’t the right one or isn’t here at the right time. However, the idea that high sugar products could have toxic effects, even so much so that researchers like Lustig are making comparisons with ethanol, merits a discussion about if and how sugar could be regulated or controlled to provide the greatest possible outcomes for society over time.
What is the Emotional Context of the Controversy?
This topic is not without its emotional implications either, especially as it relates to social systems and possibilities for regulation. The idea that government agencies could step in to dictate how much sugar should be consumed, under what circumstances and from what types of businesses, is a prospect that makes some people highly uncomfortable, even angry. How dare “they” say that they know what is best for us? How dare “they” dictate what I can and cannot do with my body? Yet, much like alcohol, substances that possess toxic, harmful qualities can have devastating effects on individuals and communities and may need monitoring. Sure, no one is going to binge on doughnuts and then get into a motor vehicle collision, but if sugar, as pervasive as it is, is truly having the impact that some claim its having on our health worldwide, that is a significant concern no matter which way its looked at. Lustig, Schmidt, & Brindis (2012) highlight the significance in their comment that “because about 25% of military applicants are now rejected for obesity-related reasons, the past three US surgeons general and the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have declared obesity a ‘threat to national security’” (p. 28). There may not be hit-and-runs involved, but this is by no means a small-order problem.
The emotional impacts are found not only in the anger of the individuals that oppose such drastic claims and regulatory efforts, but also in the anger of anti-sugar advocates protesting that not enough is being done to protect humanity from its mass production and harmful effects. Much like the movements that attempt to expose possible corruption within the pharmaceutical industry or the grassroots efforts to fight Monsanto, individuals outraged by the sugar industry paint the picture of a powerful entity with paid politicians in its pockets and the influence to saturate the market with their product, no matter the cost to humanity. Even Michael Pollan points out the power of the sugar industry which, through the stronghold of the sugar lobby in Washington, has managed to retain the official U.S. recommendation of “an eye-popping 25 percent of daily calories” as permissible in the form of free sugars (Pollan, 2008, p. 25). These examples incite anger and frustration, as well as disappointment in a system that doesn’t appear to be keeping its citizens’ best interests in mind. Additionally, sugar cane cultivation specifically has an unfortunate history that involves slave trade with Africa and this brings with it a whole host of emotional context related to the “dark side” of sugar’s beginnings and the sadness for those affected (Yudkin, 1972).
Not to mention, sugar addiction/sensitivity is a topic unto itself that has emotional impacts as its foundation. Individuals suffering from sugar addiction experience mood swings that DesMaisons (1998) describes as “Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde” in nature. The highs associated with sugar consumption and the lows that result after the high wears off are both reminiscent of a bipolar type diagnosis. This may seem like an extreme comparison to make, but for the sensitive individual that has been at the low point of a sugar crash, crying uncontrollably or so irritable that they want to jump out of their own skin, no description can do justice to how extreme those experiences are. William Dufty in 1975 was not afraid to draw the parallel between sugar addiction and depression when he wrote his book Sugar Blues, and others have followed suit with books on how to ‘kick the habit’ of sugar addiction and reclaim your emotional stability (DesMaisons, 1998; Dufty, 1975; Mars, 2001; Phelps & Nourse, 1986). Without question, no matter what angle one takes to explore the toxic effects of sugar, whether physically or mentally, the emotional context of the controversy is undeniable.
Is Mass Sugar Consumption a Symbol of Something Greater?
Also undeniable are the implications of sugar toxicity on a greater, spiritual and symbolic level. In the 1980s, self-help leader Louise Hay popularized the idea that a lack of love for oneself was at the root of so many of humanity’s ills (Hay, 1984). The controversy with sugar conjures up a connection between this concept of self-love versus self-hatred, and the notion that an individual, or even a whole culture, would embrace the consumption of a substance that has such negative effects on the body and mind. For some, this connection to Louise Hay’s work may seem like a stretch, especially for the individuals that have never been touched by sugar addiction or who can’t completely appreciate the severity with which it is affecting metabolic functioning today. But if the notion that sugar is toxic to mental, physical and social health is embraced for even a moment, one can’t help but ask the question, “Then why is it so acceptable, so encouraged, so celebrated?” Why would we allow our mothers to lose their eyesight to diabetes, or our employees to lose weeks recovering from invasive heart surgery, or our friends to ride the emotional rollercoaster of sugar highs and lows? What attitude is at the core of our permission to risk our health and happiness for the sake of a sweet burst on the tongue or a pleasant surge of feel-good neurotransmitters? If we truly love ourselves, truly, at a Divine, cosmic, spiritual level, unconditionally love and accept ourselves as beautiful and worthy creatures – would we still permit ourselves to sacrifice health, emotional stability or the ideal functioning of our communities for the sake of eating sugar? At what point are we willing to answer, “no.” No, I will not pollute the sacred temple that is my body with harmful substances, nor will I allow generations of my grandchildren to evolve under the false premise that harming their bodies is okay. I love myself and my fellow man too deeply to concede that this is acceptable. At what point does genuine self-love naturally stand in the way of our excessive consumption of harmful substances, sugar as no exception?
Under the premise that sugar is toxic, many questions could be raised about how we as a global community move forward in preparing future generations to navigate its stronghold. Do we propose bans on sugar sweetened beverages or regulate its distribution under certain circumstances? Should influential government agencies pursue campaigns as powerful as the anti-smoking movement to shift society’s perception of sugar as harmless? Do anti-sugar advocates retain the label of extremists or do we at some point validate and honor their anger as warranted and concede that their so-called conspiracy theories are actually rooted in real events in the global, political marketplace? And finally, do we at some point stand up and say, “I love myself too much to surrender my power, my health, my future, to a nutritionally devoid substance that only robs me of my vitality in this life”?
And then again, the greatest question that still stands at the end of it all: Is sugar even really a toxin to begin with?
DesMaisons, K. (1998). Potatoes not prozac: A natural seven-step dietary plan to control your cravings and lose weight, recognize how foods affect the way you feel, and stabilize the level of sugar in your blood. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Dufty, W. (1975). Sugar blues. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Glinsmann, W. & Park, Y. (1995). Perspective on the 1986 Food and Drug Administration assessment of the safety of carbohydrate sweeteners: Uniform definitions and recommendations for future assessments. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62, 161S-169S.
Hay, L. (1984). You can heal your life. Carson, CA: Hay House Inc.
Lustig, R. (2010). Fructose: Metabolic, hedonic, and societal parallels with ethanol. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110, 1307-1321.
Lustig, R., Schmidt, L., & Brindis, C. (2012). Public health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature, 482, 27-29.
Mars, B. (2001). Addiction-free naturally: Liberating yourself from sugar, caffeine, food addictions, tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Phelps, J. & Nourse, A. (1986). The hidden addiction and how to get free. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Rippe, J. & Angelopoulos, T. (2013). Sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup and fructose, their metabolism and potential health effects: What do we really know? Advances in Nutrition, 4, 236-245.
Rogers, J., Metz, L., & Yong, V. (2013). Review: Endocrine disrupting chemicals and immune responses: a focus on bisphenol-A and its potential mechanisms. Molecular Immunology, 53(4), 421-430.
Wang, Y. & Vine, S. (2013). Caloric effect of a 16-ounce (473-mL) portion-size cap on sugar-sweetened beverages served in restaurants. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 98, 430-435.
White, J. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain’t. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88, 1716S-1721S.
Yudkin, J. (1972). Pure, white and deadly: How sugar is killing us and what we can do to stop it. New York, NY: Penguin Books.