Food & dining

Q&A

Is sugar a food or a drug?

Gary Taubes
Kristen Lara Getchell
Gary Taubes

Science writer Gary Taubes asks readers to imagine a drug that could instantly make even a crying baby happy with the smallest of doses, and then consider how long it would take for use of that drug to grow out of control. In his new book, “The Case Against Sugar,” Taubes argues that after two centuries of escalating sugar consumption and an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems, that’s exactly the situation.

Taubes recognizes that most people see indulging in sugar as something pleasurable that adds “a little sweetness” to life. But, he asks, “would we say that if we really thought of this as a drug?” In the book, Taubes looks at the history of sugar from luxury to staple, the evolving understanding of sugar’s addictive qualities, and its contribution to disease. The Oakland-based author has previously written about the intersection of food, nutrition science, and health in his books “Why We Got Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories.”

Q. When did sugar become a major part of people’s diets?

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A. You have this massive increase in the 19th century of sugar consumption. By end of the century you’ve seen the creation of chocolate candy, ice cream, the soft drink industry. We’re already to about 80 or 90 pounds of sugar per person per year. That’s an almost 20-fold increase in the course of that century. Then it slowly keeps climbing through the 20th century until you peak at 150 odd pounds per person per year.

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Q. Did the appearance of health problems follow a similar path?

A. By the 1920s, the public health authorities and medical authorities are aware that diabetes diagnoses and mortality have been increasing dramatically. The head of the New York City department of public health puts out a report saying they’ve seen 15-fold increases in diabetes mortality since the Civil War. The obvious suspect is sugar.

Q. What misconceptions about sugar do you see persisting?

A. The conventional wisdom is that the worst we can say about sugar is that it’s empty calories and maybe it causes cavities. If it’s empty calories, then you can exercise it away, right? If the question is keeping your calories in balance, you can keep your balance by increasing how much you work out or how physically active you are. What I’m arguing is that sugar has harmful aspects independent of the calories.

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Q. What kind of harmful effects?

A. The first chapter is called “Drug or Food?” because historically people will consume as much sugar as they can afford, up until the point that they begin to get obese and diabetic, and perhaps beyond. I wanted people to ask themselves as they’re reading that history, are we looking at the history of a drug or are we looking at the history of a food, because you could say the same thing for instance about nicotine in cigarettes. Sugar was considered a medicine until basically it became cheap enough to start being used in foods, at least by the nobility, around the time of the Renaissance. The question is whether or not it is an addictive substance. Clearly, if you have kids, how much research do you need to tell you that there’s something unique about sugar that makes it have to be rationed? But not for everyone and not for every kid, just like we all metabolize alcohol differently. If you know alcoholics, they tend to be people who can’t have a single sip of alcohol without some phenomenon kicking in that drives them to binge drink. The same is true for some of us when it comes to sugar.

Q. Is the solution to avoid all sugar?

A. When I was writing this book, the title I always envisioned was “Stealing Christmas: The Case Against Sugar,” because I recognize the Grinch aspect of what I’m doing. You have to put this book in context. The context is that we have these epidemics of obesity and diabetes worldwide. To deal with epidemics you have to unambiguously identify the agent of the disease. We know what the vector is. It’s the Western diet and lifestyle. I’m saying that the prime suspect has always been sugar. Until we confront that, we’re never going to really solve these epidemics.

Q. Should we be approaching sugar like alcohol or tobacco?

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A. I do make the metaphor to tobacco a lot. Once you say that tobacco causes lung cancer, we don’t talk about smoking in moderation or cutting back on your smoking or just having a few cigarettes, in part because we know it’s addictive. Cooking with sugar is not the problem. It’s the sweets, the juices, the sugary beverages, the candy bars, desserts, sugary cereals, all the ways that sugar clearly is kind of the main attraction to that food or beverage. If you get into the habit of drinking water and reading labels, you can avoid probably 90 percent of the sugar we consume. One of the problems is that it is in virtually every processed food. People see me as taking a hard line, but what I’m saying is there’s a lot more to this than we think.

Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com