comments_image Comments

Should Sugar Be Regulated Like a Controlled Substance? Why Some Folks Are Saying Yes

An opinion piece in the journal Nature suggests ways the government could regulate added sugar, including a sugar tax, distribution controls and age limits.

Sugar is a danger to society and should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. So says an opinion piece published in the journal Nature. The authors blame sugar consumption for the fact that, "Last September the United Nations declared that for the first time in human history, chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes pose a greater health burden worldwide than do infectious diseases, contributing to 35 million deaths annually."

The article's lead author is Dr. Robert Lustig of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Lustig is well known for an oft-viewed YouTube video of his lecture, " Sugar: the Bitter Truth." In it, Lustig argues that sugar, especially fructose (which makes up half of sucrose, aka table sugar), causes fat deposits in the liver, which leads to insulin resistance, which causes the body to create too much insulin. Insulin resistance causes diabetes, has been linked to hypertension, and promotes tumor growth in the colon and the breast. In the liver, fructose is converted to palmitate, which correlates with an increased risk of heart disease.

The combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat and abnormal cholesterol levels is called metabolic syndrome, and it leads to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In their Nature article, Lustig and company put the blame for metabolic syndrome on the sweet shoulders of sugar.

Worldwide sugar consumption tripled in the last 50 years, they write. That has created a public health crisis on par with those created by alcohol and tobacco."Passive smoking and drink-driving fatalities provided strong arguments for tobacco and alcohol control, respectively," they write. "The long-term economic, health-care and human costs of metabolic syndrome place sugar overconsumption in the same category."

Skeptics of the anti-sugar case, including the sugar industry, often point to an observation called "the Australian Paradox." Sugar consumption in Australia declined by 16 percent between 1980 and 2003. During the same period, Australian obesity rates tripled.

The Australian Paradox suggests that added sugar is not the only cause of obesity, which will come as no surprise to those who've successfully lost weight through carb-cutting diets like Atkins. Processed carbohydrates, like those in pasta and bread, are quickly broken down to simple sugars in the body.

While not addressing the Australian Paradox directly, Lustig et al make it clear that while sugar can lead to obesity, it's sugar that's the problem, not obesity. "Many people think that obesity is the root cause of these diseases. But 20% of obese people have normal metabolism and will have a normal lifespan. Conversely, up to 40% of normal-weight people develop the diseases that constitute the metabolic syndrome."

Thus, the Australian Paradox can be explained be people eating more processed carbohydrates, even if their sugar consumption is down.

After making their case against added dietary sugar, the authors go on to suggest ways the government could regulate added sugars, including a sugar tax, distribution controls, and age limits.

It's one thing to argue that too much sugar is a bad thing, butregulating it as a controlled substance is a more complicated sell. Lustig would be the first to agree, as he pointed out in his famous lecture, that government meddling against the boogeyman du jour helped trigger an increase in sugar consumption to begin with. USDA efforts in the early 1980s to decrease our fat intake compelled food processors to add sugar in order to make processed fat-free foods more palatable. Many baby formulas now contain as much sugar as Coca-Cola. And research has shown that in utero exposure to sugar, thanks to mom's habit, can encourage a lifelong sweet tooth.

See more stories tagged with: