Another perspective on toxic sugar

Yesterday, Gary Taubes demonized sugar in the New York Times. Like Taubes, I will point out that “sugar” means cane sugar, beet sugar, brown sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice and the dozens of other caloric sweeteners used in processed foods.

Before we get carried away and begin to target sweeteners as the sole cause of all our diet-related disease, let’s consider one very important point Taubes himself raises. Government research from the 1980s was based on the assumption that Americans took in

“40 pounds per person per year of ‘added sugars’ as nutritionists now call them. This is 200 calories per day of sugar, which is less than the amount in a can and a half of Coca-Cola or two cups of apple juice…But 40 pounds per year happened to be 35 pounds less than what Department of Agriculture analysts said we were consuming at the time — 75 pounds per person per year — and the U.S.D.A. estimates are typically considered to be the most reliable. By the early 2000s, according to the U.S.D.A., we had increased our consumption to more than 90 pounds per person per year.”

We’re basically exposing our bodies to much more sugar than ever before. How is it that we’re eating so much more sugar today compared to the 1980’s? Well, it’s now in practically everything. You would expect to see a sweetener in things like sodaiced teacandy, and cookies. While not necessary in these foods, it’s not a surprise to see a sweetener added to sorbetcanned fruitchocolate milkfruit drinks. However, the sugar consumption statistics are no longer shocking when you realize where else sweeteners have crept in: whole wheat wraps, veggie burgers, whole wheat bread, cottage cheese snacks, frozen garlic bread, frozen veggies in sauce, vanilla yogurt, chips, tonic water, breadcrumbs, oatmeal, plain soy milk, boxed rice sides, frozen meals, crackers, granola bars, soup, pickles, crab cakes, cereal, stuffing, hot dog buns, canned tomatoes, guacamole, and tortillas. Think about it this way: if you were to make the items above from scratch, would you add a sweetener (cane sugar, honey, corn syrup, agave, etc.)? *Thanks to one of our readers for pointing out that making some of these items (whole wheat bread, pickles, granola bars) actually requires some kind of sweetener. For these products, a better question might be would we add the same amount of sugar that food manufacturers add? 

One of the reasons sweeteners are so common in all types of food is because they’ve been used to replace fat. We’ve essentially gotten rid of one problem and replaced it with another, which brings me to a valuable lesson that I think Gary Taubes and I would agree on: If you are in general good health, fixating on one single nutrient is not a long-term solution to improving your diet. The arguments presented in Taubes’ article are logical and laid out well, but perhaps overly focused on sugar (although he correctly argues that we’ve given sugar a free pass for a long time). This is not to deny that excess sugar consumption is a major problem for most Americans – it is. It’s just not the only problem with our diets.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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