• Sugar should be controlled like alcohol?

    From Ryan Jaslow:

    Should the government regulate sugar, just like it regulates alcohol and tobacco?

    A new commentary published online in the Feb. 1 issue of Nature says sugar is just as “toxic” for people as the other two, so the government should step in to curb its consumption.

    And later:

    Sugar meets the same criteria for regulation as alcohol, the authors wrote, because it’s unavoidable, there’s potential for abuse, it’s toxic, and it negatively impacts society. They write that sugar is added to so many processed foods that it’s everywhere, and people eat up to 500 calories per day in added sugar alone. Sugar acts on the same areas of the brain as alcohol and tobacco to encourage subsequent intake, they wrote, and it’s toxic because research shows that sugar increases disease risk from factors other than added calories, such as when it disrupts metabolism.

    Any regular reader on the blog knows of my interest in obesity, and my concern that we are failing to address the problem adequately. But this seems to go a bit too far. There are legitimate reasons that we don’t allow children to purchase and/or consume alcohol. Sugar (as glucose), on the other hand, is necessary for life. It’s in lots of food, not just processed foods. And just because something “can” be abused doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be allowed to have it.

    There are data that show immediate and serious consequences of drinking. As far as I know, no such data exist for sugar, teased apart from other unhealthy nutrients. We can have a serious and evidence based discussion of how food and tax policy subtly shapes our eating habits without resorting to age limits on a substance that the brain needs in order to survive. That’s not productive, and might even drive people away. The obesity epidemic can likely only be overcome with sustained societal behavior change. We need to work, with people, not against them.

    (h/t Sullivan)


    • I’m not arguing for the same regulation of sugar as with alcohol, but:

    • “There are data that show immediate and serious consequences of drinking.”

      Moreover, there are consequences beyond that user/abuser.

      To a lesser degree that also applies to second hand smoke.

    • They want to regulate fructose, not glucose. Presumably sodas and such would switch from HFCS or sucrose to glucose-only sweeteners.

    • Morgan: That might have severe unintended consequences from glucose’s insulinogenic effects. I haven’t seen the paper (of course), but I’m guessing it’s not all about fructose metabolism in the liver. (On the other hand, I’ve been mildly obsessive on the insulin/leptin-resistance issue for a while, so maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see.)

      Aaron: I think the “immediate/serious consequences” point is the more compelling one. Even barring ketosis, people can get all the (serum) glucose they need from starches, and I don’t think even Lustig is so fanatical that he’d consider restricting wheat, rice, and potato products. (Although if we could get him to co-author a paper with Gary Taubes the two of them might end up in that direction, which would be pretty funny to watch.)

    • “There are data that show immediate and serious consequences of drinking.”

      But should regulation not consider how concentrated that harm is? Harm from ETOH is concentrated in a relatively small number of people. You could also say that safe use of alcohol is widely dispersed among users. Even more so for sugar.

    • The evidence against that sugar is bad for health is very very weak.

    • What about fructose or HFCS?

    • Other than the “association” with the way we regulate access to alcohol and tobacco, I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the recent calls ( and the reactions to those calls )to limit the amount of sodium in processed foods.

      Sodium is necessary for life, too – but I doubt that you would characterize efforts to limit the amount of salt used in processed foods as going “a bit too far” ( haven’t visited for a while, so perhaps you have ).

      I’ve seen other coverage on this story ( Science Digest ) where one of the authors makes clear that he’s not taking about “prohibition” ( or totally eliminating sugar ( added or natural ) ) – so I’m a bit disappointed with your use of these “arguments”

      • From May:

        A new JAMA study finds a strong correlation: the third of folks who eat the least salt die over three times as often as the third of folks who eat the most salt. (more)


        [A] new analysis … conducted …. for the Cochrane Collaboration … analyzed 167 studies conducted between 1950 and 2011 that compared people who consumed low-sodium versus high-sodium diets. Low-sodium diets did cut blood pressure levels in people with high and normal blood pressure. … But it also significantly increased other risk factors for heart disease, such as cholesterol levels, triglycerides, adrenaline and renin, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Hypertension. “These results do not support that sodium reduction may have net beneficial effects in a population of Caucasians.” (more; study)



    • There are a couple misconceptions in the original post and the comments: (1) the sugar Lusting is arguing about in foods is not just glucose but glucose + fructose. (2) glucose itself is not very sweet-tasting and would never fly as a substitute sweetener.

      The fructose in HFCS or sucrose (table/cane sugar, a dimer of glucose and fructose) is the problem in Lustig’s view. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver and therefore in large quantities places a huge burden on the liver. Glucose can be directly taken-up by all tissues and therefore burdens the liver much less. Hence, starches and wheats, which are polymers of glucose alone with no fructose, are much less problematic for the liver.

    • Taxing sweets and regulating what our children are exposed to on a daily basis isn’t a bad idea. We have no idea how many added sugars we consume (or how addicted to them we are) until we try going a month or more without eating any.

    • How’s that regulation of alcohol working out? People have much more freedom to buy and consume alcohol in Europe and they have better health outcomes.

      Just because something is bad for your health doesn’t mean more government regulation of that thing will make people healthier.