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Is Sugar a Killer?

A doctor who treats obese children thinks that sugar is far more dangerous than Americans realize.

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An optimist could see Chobani’s linguistic weaseling as progress for Lustig. It’s evidence that the message has gained enough traction with consumers that nobody wants the word “sugar” on their labels. But Lustig is not an optimist. “It took 40 years for tobacco,” he said, referring to the decades required to bring the industry to heel.

Might young people help? “Unlikely. They’re often less open-minded than their parents and they were raised on processed food.”

Public health initiatives? Little faith there either. As Lustig sees it, the government is focused on creating a prosperous country, helping people make money. Public health is focused on saving money. The two are not the same. “Plus public health has to spend money before it has any hope of saving money, so the government has little impetus to make public health work.”

Academics? They remain stuck on the dogma that a calorie is just a calorie, and Lustig knows this belief must fall before his argument can really take hold. “Just this past weekend I went to a symposium at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. All very nice people; all get up and espouse a calorie is just a calorie. Then I get up and throw firebombs into the middle of the room. But by the end of the symposium they were all on board.”

LUSTIG’S MODEST-SOUNDING, MEDIUM-TERM GOAL is to get sugar removed from something called the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list at the FDA. Items listed as GRAS aren’t considered food additives, so manufacturers can include them in any food products in any quantities they wish. Lustig’s plan seems reasonable enough. According to the FDA, “For a substance to be GRAS, the scientific data and information about the use of a substance must be widely known and … establish that the substance is safe under the conditions of its intended use.” When the FDA last reviewed the safety of sugar, in 1986, the agency assumed Americans ate 40 pounds of sugar annually and acknowledged that significantly increased sugar consumption would carry health risks. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts annual sugar consumption at more than 90 pounds.

A reasonable person might assume it’s time for a new review. But Lustig, while doing everything in his power to make this happen, isn’t counting on a quick fix. Maybe someday sugar will replace saturated fat as the villain in our diets. If this happens, Lustig will have succeeded in stealing the public health mantle from Ancel Keys, whose landmark  Seven Countries Studypinned heart disease on saturated fat and shaped nutrition guidelines in the United States for more than a quarter century. Yet for all his determination, and confidence, Lustig remains pessimistic.

“I’m not a lucky guy,” he said as he headed back to his law school seminar. “I’m smart, but I’m not lucky.”

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