The Great Sugar Debate


If you were living in a cave or under a rock for the last 24 hours, you may have missed one of the biggest public health uprisings in recent memory. And no, I’m not talking about Susan G. Komen cutting grants to Planned Parenthood (though that was pretty big news too). I’m referring to the position paper just published in Nature by three prominent obesity researchers from the University of California-San Francisco.

Their claim? That sugar is essentially a toxin that wreaks havoc on our bodies, causing all sorts of lifestyle diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Their solution? Regulate sugar much like tobacco and alcohol, whereby sugary items are taxed, age limits are applied to certain foods and beverages, and restrictions are placed on advertising (especially ads that are traditionally targeted to kids).

Dr. Robert Lustig and his two UCSF colleagues have no shortage of data to back-up their claims. They point to the fact that more people are dying from non-communicable, lifestyle diseases than infectious diseases. In fact, the United Nations targeted three main areas to combat these conditions—alcohol, tobacco, and diet—and, according to Lustig, only one of them (diet) remains unregulated.

The researchers also argue that sugar is ubiquitous, toxic, and addictive. And they say there’s potential for abuse, not to mention the negative societal impacts. Interestingly, these same claims helped to justify the regulation of alcohol. In fact, fructose is processed in the liver much like alcohol, and exerts many metabolic abnormalities as a result.

So here’s the real question: Do we leave people to their own free will when it comes to sugar consumption or do these researchers actually make a good case for increased regulation?

If you’ve read my blogs before, you probably know which way I lean. But before you attack me for not sticking up for freedom of choice, I want to address one more issue. The three authors of this paper did an interview discussing the potential for regulation and one of them brought up an interesting point. She mentioned that fact that many public health campaigns are initially seen as radical, but over time, become much more mainstream. Second-hand smoke is a classic example. Do you remember the backlash and anger that permeated communities when people were told they could no longer smoke in public restaurants? It was polarizing at the time, but now how do you view the policy? That’s what I thought…

Anyway, let’s hear what you have to say. It’s obvious that sugar intake is much too high and it’s clearly damaging our collective health, but what do we do about it?

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