Death by sugar
Published 29/07/2012 | 06:00
Fat has long been considered the number-one health enemy in our diet, yet sugar is in lots of everyday foods -- and it could be killing us softly, says Suzanne Harrington
Guess what? The surge in diabetic death between 1900 and 1920 coincided with the sweeties and fizzy drinks industries properly taking off The cycle of addiction -- obsession and craving, caving in and using, remorse and shame, passage of time, more obsession and craving, more caving in and using -- happens with sugar too
Here's an experiment you may or may not wish to try at home. Instead of your evening meal, have a large bar of chocolate. Or something equally high in sugar -- ice cream, chocolate biscuits, sweets.
Note your mood before and after; chances are you'll have gone from feeling normal to feeling headachey, irritable, vague, lethargic, even a bit depressed.
The next morning you may even feel slightly hungover -- thirsty, grumpy, spaced out.
Welcome to sugar crash. We don't need our sugar to be fermented in wine bottles for it to adversely affect our minds and bodies.
Obviously, most people would not have a large amount of chocolate in place of a meal, nor is this about food guilt or self-flagellation for eating 'bad' food -- it's about the effect refined sugar has on us physiologically. It's not good.
And although brown-rice wholefood freaks have been saying it for years, it seems as though the rest of us might be finally waking up to the fact that (a) sugar is addictive and (b) sugar is harmful.
While the debate continues over whether it is ever accurate to call sugar a poison or a toxin, its link with so many of us being fat and diabetic is impossible to ignore.
We have long beaten ourselves up about the obesity crisis. It's our own fault for being greedy, lazy, sofa-bound pizza monsters.
We are so busy exercising only our fingers and thumbs on computer keyboards and games consoles, punctuated by cake breaks washed down with giant buckets of fizzy drink, that we have become a society of elephant seals, honking self-pityingly about our ballooning size as we do nothing about it.
Except this is not quite an accurate picture. Yes we are definitely fatter -- on average three stone heavier than we were in the 1960s -- but not necessarily less active.
Research done at Plymouth Hospital, a 12-year study, began monitoring 300 five-year-olds in 2000 and found that although one in five was at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (previously a condition that affected older or middle-aged people), these kids were just as physically active as children 50 years ago.
So what was making them so prone to developing it?
Could it be sugar? Well, yes. The 1923 Nobel Prize winner for medicine who discovered insulin, Canadian physician Frederick Banting, began to notice that in societies where sugar consumption was low, diabetes was rare.
It used to be quite rare in the West, too, but this began to change around the turn of the last century.
There was a 15-fold increase in deaths from diabetes reported in New York between the American Civil War and the 1920s, according to research conducted at Columbia University; this escalated between 1900 and 1920, where some American cities saw four times more people dying of the disease.
And guess what? This surge in diabetic death coincided with a huge increase in sugar consumption, as the sweeties and fizzy drinks industries began to properly take off.
Fast-forward to now. Robert Lustig is Professor of Paediatrics at the University of San Francisco California, and director of WATCH -- Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health.
He is, in other words, a world expert on fat kids, and is one of the very few medical professionals unafraid to use the word poison in connection with sugar.
Now, when we think of poison we probably think of arsenic, thallium or belladonna, which are all fast and dramatic, but what about a slower poison?
Alcohol has been called 'the slow poison' (by people like Shaun Ryder, who, it would be reasonable to say, knows his poisons).
But how can we include chocolate buttons or lemonade in that category? Isn't that the kind of hysterical hyperbolic labelling favoured by seaweed-eating macro-neurotics and food obsessives?
In 2009, Lustig gave a lecture called 'Sugar: The Bitter Truth'. Since it was posted on YouTube, it's had 2,602,506 viewings at the time of writing -- which is a lot for a 90-minute medical talk.
Lustig's point is not that sugar is full of empty calories -- we have known that forever -- but that it is metabolised differently from other foods. And not in a good way.
Not all calories are equal. The body treats fructose differently from glucose. In other words, starchy food -- potatoes, bread etc -- is not metabolised in the same way as the same calorific amount of sugary food.
Starch -- that is, glucose -- is metabolised throughout the whole body, whereas sugar -- fructose and glucose -- is dealt with only by the liver. Lustig calls this "isocaloric but not isometabolic": same calories, different chemical reaction in the body. And therefore different consequences.
The sugar to which Lustig refers is sucrose, the stuff we may or may not stir into our tea, and fructose, which is found in the food additive High Fructose Corn Syrup, HFCS, which is in lots and lots of the everyday foods we eat.
Once sugar has entered the body, it is dealt with by the liver. If you down a can of fizzy orange drink or a glass of orange juice, the liquid sugar hits the liver much faster than, say, eating the same amount of whole oranges to get the equivalent amount of sugar.
If the liver has to metabolise a sudden influx of sugar, this affects how it metabolises it. If the liver has to deal with a significant amount of rapidly incoming sugar, it does what we would rather it didn't -- it converts the sugar to body fat. Fast.
This results in something called insulin resistance, which is the underlying problem both in obesity and the development of Type 2 diabetes, and is also thought to be connected to the development of quite a few cancers.
No wonder Lustig is so adamant that sugar, far from being the sweet rewarding treat for children, is a deadly poison that's shortening the lives of millions of us.
But sugar has been around forever, hasn't it? Yet we have only been obese for a few decades. So it still must be our own fault for being greedy, super-sized fatsos. Isn't it?
Not according to British writer and broadcaster Jacques Peretti, who recently made a series unambiguously titled 'The Men Who Made Us Fat'. It's all about politics, economics and the massive amounts of HFCS added to our food.
You may not have heard of Earl Butz, but he is very much connected with the size of our, well, butz. He was a Nixon agricultural adviser who, in the early 1970s, suggested to farmers that they grow corn in industrial quantities, in the hope of bringing down the cost of food and therefore helping Nixon get re-elected. The farmers duly complied.
Powered by mega-production of corn, American food became cheaper: cows ate it and were turned into burgers, chips were fried in it. And there was loads left over. By the mid-1970s, America was up to its ears in surplus corn.
Butz went to Japan to investigate the processing of all this corn into a liquid sugar. This liquid was cheaper than cane sugar (the traditional food baddie we have long been told to avoid) and even sweeter.
As an only semi-indirect result of Nixon's re-election campaign, HFCS -- known as glucose-fructose syrup in Ireland and Britain -- began being manufactured and added to our foods on a vast scale.
Cheap and super-sweet, this stuff adds shelf-life, sweetness and even alters the appearance of baked foods (giving a sugary surface sheen), but its addition is not restricted to foods you'd normally associate with sugar, such as desserts or sweeties.
HFCS is squirted into everything -- processed meats, cooking sauces, coleslaw, bread, TV dinners, pizza, fizzy drinks, fast food, breakfast cereals, ketchup, yogurts, ice cream (even the premium stuff), salad dressing, cakes and biscuits, jam and an awful lot of low-fat food products. In fact, anything remotely processed.
Cheap added sugar made food taste better, last longer and sell cheaper -- from a food industry perspective, what was not to like?
Until the advent of mass-produced HFCS, fat was the number-one food enemy. Fat made you fat, raised your cholesterol levels, blocked your arteries and was generally bad.
Low-fat became the buzzword. Foods became prefixed with descriptions such as lo, lite and diet. Anything under 5pc was categorised as low fat. But fat makes things taste nice, as any butter-happy cook will tell you. So how to replace the fat?
With sugar. Lots of it. The soft drinks industry was already sugar-tastic when, in 1984, Coca Cola switched from traditional sugar to HFCS. Being the dominant brand, everyone else followed suit -- HFCS was cheaper and sweeter and nobody had ever heard of obesity crisis or sugar addiction.
While researching heart disease in the 1970s, one British academic, Professor John Yudkin, had made a case for sugar making us fat and getting us hooked. Nobody listened. Everyone was too busy demonising fat.
The food industry knew quite well that there was far more profit to be made from categorising fat as the enemy rather than sugar -- low-fat or fat-free was a far more enticing consumer option than anything sweetened with weird chemical stuff that was being linked to cancer in lab rats.
So we were sold the sugar good/fat bad equation.
These days, we have a situation where our food is saturated in sugar, our tastebuds have adjusted accordingly and we are carrying on average an extra three stone.
So the obvious solution would be to knock sugar on the head. Just give it up. Stop using it. Simple.
If only. The concept of food addiction is a new one. We can become addicted to substances -- drugs, alcohol, tobacco -- or behaviours such as gambling, but food? Yes, food -- specifically refined sugars, still a human diet novelty in evolutionary terms.
According to 2007 research from the University of Bordeaux, intense sweetness triggers more of a neurochemical pleasure response than cocaine.
Here's what the researchers said: "In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants.
"The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction."
At Princeton in 2008, Professor Bart Hoebel had a look at rats and sugar bingeing, and noted changes in their brain chemistry that were the same as changes produced by morphine, cocaine and nicotine.
"If bingeing on sugar is really a form of addiction, there should be long-lasting effects in the brains of sugar addicts," he said.
"Craving and relapse are critical components of addiction, and we have been able to demonstrate these behaviours in sugar-bingeing rats in a number of ways."
Never mind rats. As a card-carrying sugar addict, I can vouch for the addictive response sugar causes which overrides good intentions, self-knowledge, willpower, the loss of self-esteem caused by weight gain, even threats to physical health, such as diabetes, cancers and heart disease.
The cycle of addiction -- obsession and craving, caving in and using, remorse and shame, passage of time, more obsession and craving, more caving in and using -- happens with sugar too.
Ask any diet breaker; nobody has these issues with broccoli. Nobody binges on tofu.
My own sugar addiction emerged when I stopped drinking and subsequently robbed my dopamine receptors of their major daily sugar intake. I am far from unique; overnight sugar-madness is a common trait in recovering alcoholics.
But glancing around shows that you needn't be sugar sensitive (as in, alcoholic) to be sugar-addicted -- the size of our bodies on any high street makes that obvious. We are all sugar addicts now. One nibble and you're nobbled.
"Sugar sensitivity turns a person into Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," writes Dr Kathleen DesMaisons, author of 'The Sugar Addict's Total Recovery Programme'. "It's like having two different people live in your body.
"From one moment to the next, your sensitivity and openness turns to moodiness and irritability. This emotional ping-pong remains inexplicable without an understanding of sugar sensitivity."
Thankfully, knowledge is power. Just as recovering alcoholics avoid all alcohol so that they don't trigger a craving, the same wisdom applies to sugar addiction. Except it's miles harder.
While being a drug addict is socially unacceptable, and being an alcoholic less so -- because booze is a legal social drug -- being a sugar addict is not only acceptable but positively encouraged. Go on, have some. You know you want to.
And because sugar is so prevalent in food, radical diet change can be hard to instigate.
Food recovery groups such as Overeaters Anonymous and Food Addicts Anonymous advocate a diet free of refined sugar (especially when combined with refined flour, or 'cake' as it's also known), which requires constant dedication and vigilance.
Sugar, as you can see from the panel, is everywhere.
Only when the social and financial cost of our consumption of sugar outweighs the profits made by the high-sugar processed food industry might we see an emphasis on industry responsibility, rather than blaming the individual for being fat, stupid and lazy.
SOME OTHER NAMES FOR SUGAR
Concentrated fruit juice
‘Light’, ‘lite’ or ‘low’ sugar
Anything ending in -ol:
carbitol, glucitol, glycerol,
glycol, hexitol, inversol,
maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol,
Anything ending in
-ose: dextrose, fructose,
Sugars: Barbados sugar,
beet sugar, brown sugar,
cane sugar, confectioner’s
sugar, invert sugar, milled
sugar, ‘natural’ sugar, raw
Syrups: agave syrup,
barley syrup, brown rice
syrup, corn syrup, date
syrup, high fructose corn
syrup, maple syrup, raisin