February 4, 2012
On Thursday, high-profile science journal Nature published a commentary by three academics, which argued that sugar is a toxin and that it should be subject to similar kinds of public-health interventions as alcohol. In other words, sugar should be taxed and restricted just like booze.
One of the authors, Robert Lustig, runs an obesity clinic at a children’s hospital, part of the University of California, San Francisco. His colleagues and fellow authors, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, are researchers in healthy policy. Lustig has gained an online following since 2009 for a lecture entitled ‘Sugar: the Bitter Truth’ (watch it here). While Lustig’s tone is rather melodramatic, there does appear to be a growing body of evidence linking refined carbohydrates and a group of related symptoms – obesity, fatty liver disease, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – that come together under the broad umbrella of ‘metabolic syndrome’.
It’s certainly the case that these chronic diseases have increased in importance in recent decades (in part because of the decline of infectious disease). Consumption of refined carbohydrates – particularly sugar – has increased, too. America has a particularly sweet tooth; the average American consumes 131 pounds (about 59 kg) of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) per year, up from 113 pounds per person in 1966. A teaspoon of sugar weighs about 4g, so this amounts to 40 teaspoons per person per day. (And remember, that’s an average – some people are consuming considerably more.)
The UK has a pretty sweet tooth, too. A survey for the Food Standards Agency in Scotland in 2008 found that 17 per cent of children’s calorie intake was coming from ‘non-milk extrinsic sugars’ – that is, table sugar and sugar added to food. That adds up to about 20 teaspoons per child per day.