I just had a wait! what? moment.
Continuing my Stick with it: a willpower special reading in The Guardian this morning I began with Martha Hayes’ How to quit sugar this year: ‘It’s a lifestyle change, not a diet’ and at the third paragraph I slammed on the brakes when I read:
From the World Health Organisation halving its recommended daily sugar intake from 10 teaspoons (about 40g) to five in 2014, to the UK government’s plans for a tax on sugary soft drinks in 2018, we’ve all had the memo: sugar is evil.
How can anyone get through a day on just 20 grams of sugar? Here’s a bit of perspective: a single sugar cube contains 4 grams of sugar and the Kind, Nuts & Spices, Maple Glazed Pecan & Sea Salt bars I keep in my desk drawer contain 5 grams of protein, are gluten and GMO free, have a low glycemic index and no sugar alcohols boldly proclaim that they contain ONLY [emphasis on the package, JH] 5 grams of sugar.
Now, I select those bars because of the 5 grams of sugar. I thought that was good, but even the half-bar I nibble with my first coffee in the morning contains 12.5 percent of the WHO recommendation. (There is no mention of a Recommended Daily Allowance for sugar on the package because there is no such recommendation.)
So, Hayes snagged me with that third paragraph, and I kept reading and then she dropped the bomb.
Rather than being a solid piece of informative and helpful investigative journalism, Hayes delivers an advertisement for a $115 diet program.
Shame on The Guardian. (I did a quick read of the comments and I seem to be in good company on this.)
Imagine a drug that can intoxicate us, can infuse us with energy and can be taken by mouth. It doesn’t have to be injected, smoked, or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effects. Imagine that it mixes well with virtually every food and particularly liquids, and that when given to infants it provokes a feeling of pleasure so profound and intense that its pursuit becomes a driving force throughout their lives.
Why, Taubes, asks, is that the case?
The critical question, as the journalist and historian Charles C Mann has elegantly put it, “is whether [sugar] is actually an addictive substance, or if people just act like it is”.
The answer, no one will be surprised, is murky.
Certainly, people and populations have acted as though sugar is addictive, but science provides no definitive evidence. Until recently, nutritionists studying sugar did so from the natural perspective of viewing it as a nutrient – a carbohydrate – and nothing more. They occasionally argued about whether or not it might play a role in diabetes or heart disease, but not about whether it triggered a response in the brain or body that made us want to consume it in excess. That was not their area of interest.
The few neurologists and psychologists interested in probing the sweet-tooth phenomenon, or why we might need to ration our sugar consumption so as not to eat too much of it, did so typically from the perspective of how these sugars compared with other drugs of abuse, in which the mechanism of addiction is now relatively well understood. Lately, this comparison has received more attention as the public-health community has looked to ration our sugar consumption as a population, and has thus considered the possibility that one way to regulate these sugars – as with cigarettes—is to establish that they are, indeed, addictive. These sugars are very probably unique in that they are both a nutrient and a psychoactive substance with some addictive characteristics.
As if there’s not enough to turn our hair gray coming out of the election of Donald John Trump, there’s also this Christmas day present from The Guardian: Sugary drink taxes could be threatened by Trump administration, experts say which is important given this New York Times piece—More Evidence That Soda Taxes Cut Soda Drinking—from last August.
I don’t recall where I first heard the message that the three whites—fat, salt and sugar—were poisons but I know that I was still in my teens when the warning was delivered. Those three are also the principle staples that have made the fast-food industry a global success story of death and destruction. (Spurlock continues his fight as evidenced with this bit of guerilla theater just before last Thanksgiving.)
Taubes goes on in exactly the way Hayes does not and delivers a great read. I’ll leave you to ingest the entirety of what he has to say and simply make note of three passages that I found worthy.
Most of us today will never know if we suffer even subtle withdrawal symptoms from sugar, because we’ll never go long enough without it to find out.
I intend to do just this and find out for myself. I spent years of my life addicted tobacco, one of Sidney Mintz drug foods, and I regularly (daily in the case of tea and coffee) the rest.
Sugar historians consider the drug comparison to be fitting in part because sugar is one of a handful of “drug foods”, to use Mintz’s term, that came out of the tropics, and on which European empires were built from the 16th century onward—the others being tea, coffee, chocolate, rum and tobacco.
Its history is intimately linked to that of these other drugs. Rum is distilled, of course, from sugar cane. In the 17th century, once sugar was added as a sweetener to tea, coffee and chocolate, and prices allowed it, the consumption of these substances in Europe exploded. Sugar was used to sweeten spirits and wine in Europe as early as the 14th century; even cannabis preparations in India and opium-based wines and syrups contained sugar.
As for tobacco, sugar was, and still is, a critical ingredient in the American blended-tobacco cigarette, the first of which was Camel. It’s this “marriage of tobacco and sugar”, as a sugar-industry report described it in 1950, that makes for the “mild” experience of smoking cigarettes as compared with cigars and, perhaps more important, makes it possible for most of us to inhale cigarette smoke and draw it deep into our lungs.
Quitting smoking took me years and literally dozens of attempts before I succeeded. I expect an experiment with sugar will be similarly trying.
Once we have observed the symptoms of consuming too much sugar, the assumption is that we can dial it back a little and be fine—drink one or two sugary beverages a day instead of three; or, if we’re parenting, allow our children ice cream on weekends only, say, rather than as a daily treat. But if it takes years or decades, or even generations, for us to get to the point where we display symptoms of metabolic syndrome, it’s quite possible that even these apparently moderate amounts of sugar will turn out to be too much for us to be able to reverse the situation and return us to health. And if the symptom that manifests first is something other than getting fatter—cancer, for instance—we’re truly out of luck.
My reading on this topic continues with another Guardian Long Read: The sugar conspiracy by Ian Leslie.