Sugar and refined sugar, redux

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The Melanie Warner blog post I wrote about in my most recent entry pointed toward a HuffPost column by Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale, that is as obtuse as it is interminable.


In "Is Sugar Toxic?" his New York Times Magazine cover story, Gary Taubes is clearly talking about manmade sweeteners, whether they are refined from beets, sugar cane, corn, or some other plant. Katz, however, defends sugar as it occurs in nature, first invoking hummingbird nectar and then mothers' milk. Continuing, Katz cites natural selection, evolution, and humans' innate taste for sweetness, all of which are entirely valid — if you're talking about sugar as it appears in nature. But Taubes wasn't.

But this is almost obtuseness squared: Processed food products rely heavily on processed sugar, precisely because food manufacturers know about natural selection, evolution, and humans' innate taste for sweetness. They put it in all sorts of products that you wouldn't think warrant sugar — meat, bread, french fries, salad dressings, etc. — because they know that we will be more likely to buy them if they do.

Nature has nothing to do with it. It is unnatural, by design.

So what's wrong with that? As processed sugar has become more common in processed-food products, obesity has become more common with it, and now it is epidemic.

Here's another consequence, less nefarious but also more subtle, so that most people don't realize it: When you add sweetness to practically everything, natural sweetness is harder to experience. When I was 365 pounds, I ate without regard to ingredients or additives. I was desensitized to natural sweetness and had no clue of that I was.

Then I decided, with help and guidance from others, to live processed-sugar-free. This went far beyond just giving up ice cream and eschewing table sugar. I started reading labels and rejecting products where sugar (or molasses, or brown sugar, or turbinado, or evaporated cane juice, or dextrose, or granular sugar, or powdered sugar, or caramel, or barley sugar, or maltose, or sucrose, or corn syrup, or barley malt syrup, or rice syrup, or brown rice syrup, or maple syrup, or sucanat, or fructose, or any of the other names for it) was among the five most common ingredients.

(An aside: Why so many names? The law requires ingredients be listed proportionally: If manufacturers called them all simply "sugar," the true sugar saturation would be clearer, and more people would be aware of what food-processing companies are doing.)

One effect of my decision has been to make fruit and vegetables much sweeter in my perception than I can ever recall. Roasted vegetables especially — carrots, turnips, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and others — are almost always the first portion of my plate to disappear, not because I'm trying to eat altruistically but because they taste great. I don't think I'd have noticed if I was still doing ice cream, sugary soda, and other megadoses of processed sugar.

I'm left wondering what could explain why so informed and educated a voice cites the natural co-evolution of naturally occurring sugar and human nature to defend unnaturally occurring sugar, unnaturally injected into practically everything in the supermarket in the name of higher food-industry profit.

Meanwhile, Katz spends the latter portion of his very long piece (Doc: get an editor!) faulting how Taubes's article falls victim to, or gives comfort to, the ONAAT fallacy, a Katz coinage in which the acronym stands for "one nutrient at a time." In an earlier post, he explained it as, "the false, but insidiously persistent notion, that the nutritional quality of a food, or the relevant nutrition guidance for a given patient, can in fact be gauged just that way, one nutrient at a time." Warner reported, after posting her original piece, that Katz e-mailed to say that "his big problem with Taubes’ argument is the way it reduces all of our diet problems to just one thing, leaving other potential demons off the hook. According to Katz, this type of single nutrient approach plays right into the hands of the food industry: 'Give the food industry just one nutrient to focus on, and they will be glad to oblige. There are always new ways to tweak junk food! We got low fat junk food. We got low carb junk food. Why not fructose-free junk food? I can see the multi-gazillion dollar line of ‘Taubes/Lustig approved’ foods with ‘No Fructose!’ prominent on the front of pack."

I take his point about the need to consider the whole of nutrition, rather than the processed-food industry's penchant for breaking it down so they can boast about it low cholesterol, or fat, or calories, none of which are proof of a healthy product, all by themselves.

But Katz fumbles that complaint, too, when he says the article "reduces all of our diet problems to just one thing." Only a tone-deaf reader could infer from the Times story that "if we solve this sugar thing, everything will be fine." There is a big difference between saying something might be a problem, and saying it is the only problem.

And for someone worried about how the food industry might take liberties with words, Katz might have thought better of his statement, "Breast milk is a sugar-sweetened beverage."

Warner suggests the sugar lobby might be pretty pleased about that one, and I agree, we haven't heard it for the last time.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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