Sounding the sugar alarms

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Worried about trans fat or salt? That’s a little old-school. If you want to stay current on dietary villains, you’ll want to start thinking about sugar.

Lots and lots of sugar — as in 77 grams, or nearly 20 teaspoons. That’s how much added sugar the average American consumes every day, according to a 2011 scientific report, and that’s not even factoring in the sugars naturally found in fruits, vegetables and milk.

And yes, we’re talking typical people on typical days, not just 10-year-olds gorging on cotton candy and funnel cake at the carnival.


At a time when obesity and Type 2 diabetes have become nationwide epidemics, those piles of added sugar — nearly two times the limit theU.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for a 2,000 calorie diet — were bound to get attention. In some circles, sugar is now public enemy No. 1. The wanted posters are on the wall, the horses are mounted and the posse is on the trail.

The anti-sugar brigade features some of the biggest names in nutrition, including Harvard’s Dr. Walter Willett and Yale’s Kelly Brownell. But the de facto leader is Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Francisco. His 2009 lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has snagged more than 2 million views on YouTube so far. He upped the ante in February with an article that called for new taxes on added sugar and age limits for certain sweet treats. To top it off, he declared on an April 1 episode of “60 Minutes” that added sugar was a “toxic” substance that has “created a public health crisis.”

Lustig says that sweets in processed food — whether it’s high-fructose corn syrup in a soda or cane sugar in a candy bar — are the leading cause of metabolic syndrome, a dangerous collection of complications that includes high blood sugar, high blood pressure and decreased sensitivity to insulin. By some estimates, the syndrome more than doubles the risk of heart attack or stroke. And that’s bad news, because about 1 in 4 U.S. adults — including many sugar junkies who look lean and fit — already have the syndrome. “Everyone needs to be aware of the danger,” he says.

Of course, sugar has plenty of defenders. Or, depending on your viewpoint, co-conspirators. “Lustig doesn’t know the science,” says Andy Briscoe, president and chief executive of the Sugar Assn. People ate a lot of sugar back in the early 1970s, he says, “and we didn’t have all these problems with obesity or with this metabolic stuff.”

Some nutritionists also think the sugar alarmists are going too far. “Sugar isn’t a poison — diet is more complicated than any one single villain,” says Joanne Slavin, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. She says that people who try to cut sugar from their lives could end up cutting out sugary-but-nutritious foods such as chocolate milk, fruit juices and many whole grain cereals.

But Lustig doesn’t buy it. He says that fruit juices are a “disaster” and that added sugars should just plain be avoided, even if they come from an otherwise appealing source.


How to cut back? Instead of reading labels and counting grams, Lustig urges people to simply choose more foods that don’t have nutrition labels at all. “I’m not suggesting that we take the sugar out of processed food. I’m suggesting that we eat real food.”