Judging from my in-box, lots of people heard yesterday’s “On Point” broadcast about regulating sugar. But of course, it would be wrong to use that guideline, because my friends were pinging me specifically because they knew I would be interested. And I was.
The show was motivated by Dr. Robert Lustig’s (and colleagues’) article in the journal Nature a few weeks ago arguing that refined sugar should be made a controlled substance, for all the harm it does. When the article came out, I and many many others commented on it, as one would expect of such a bold assertion.
According to Rob, the reaction has been 3-to-1 positive, which is much more favorable than I had assumed.
What’s that, you say? When did I talk to him and what makes me think I can call him Rob? Well, funny thing about that.
When the article came out, I had only heard of Dr. Lustig, because of a speech he gave a while back — “Sugar, the Bitter Truth” — that has now been seen more than 2 million times on YouTube.
But then he was added, as a substitute for a colleague, to my panel on food addiction at the Commonwealth Club of California that went off without a hitch on Tuesday in San Francisco. There I was on the dais, with Rob on my right and the thrillingly accomplished, if less well known, Nicole Avena on my left. It will forever remain a professional highlight of my life.
Anyway, yesterday’s show: The strongest takeaway I had, perhaps because a lot of Lustig’s perspective is not new to me, is that the producers really struggled to find an opposing voice. Or, it seems that way, given what we heard from economics professor Art Carden, the Tennessean who filled the role weakly. It seemed that he knew why he was there, but he kept agreeing with what Lustig was saying!
To my surprise (because of several personal resentments about host Tom Ashbrook that I have yet to give away — we used to work together), I very much appreciated Ashbrook’s approach, both with Carden and callers: Look, the problem is obvious. If you don’t like Lustig’s proposals, it’s on you to propose something better.
That’s precisely where I am. Saying no is not an action plan. I’m not excited to rely on taxation as a solution, but I’m prepared to until someone suggests a better idea. Our nation has taken many collective actions distasteful to some, from traffic signals to the income tax, from Prohibition to conscription, because to do otherwise would have threatened our existence.
I believe we’re at that point now, for reasons many people have documented many times, from severely higher health care costs to weakened national security. Voices who see this as a political or civil liberties issue are welcome to do so, but any of them who deny the problem, or rank their political views higher, deserve to have their motivation and credibility questioned. The house is on fire, and they want to stand on principle rather than to do the hard work of putting it out.
Apart from ideologues, there is much convincing left to do. We are tied to sweets not only biologically but emotionally, because of all the apple brown bettys that Grandma made. For many people, celebrating without cake, cookies, or ice cream is just plain wrong.
If the extent of the problem were only home-baked goods, there wouldn’t be a problem, but of course it’s not. Industry, in pursuit of capitalism, has hijacked not only our biology but our memories by putting refined sugar into practically everything: cereal, salad dressing, processed meat, bread, and condiments, never mind cookies, candy, ice cream, and cake.
Even if he seems, to me, a tad too happy about taxing refined sugar, I still greatly appreciate what Lustig is doing, taking flak that comes from leading the charge.