In last week’s New York Times Magazine, the science writer Gary Taubes argues forcefully that a range of chronic health problems — heightened rates of obesity, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer — can be blamed on overconsumption of refined sweetener. It isn’t just the surge of empty calories that sweeteners provide that’s making us sick, Taubes argues; it’s also — and mainly — the way our bodies process them.
Taubes acknowledges that the science around sugar metabolism isn’t fully settled. But he brings highly suggestive evidence to bear, and I find it convincing, with a couple of caveats. I agree with Melanie Warner on BNet that Taubes should have been more clear that his indictment of “sugar” does not apply to all things sweet. Your body doesn’t process the fructose in an apple the same way it does, say, the jolt of refined sweetener in a can of Coke.
I also agree with Melanie that the forceful demonization of a particular substance is problematic. First, it gives a free pass to other troublesome substances. Added fats have grown even more dramatically than added sweeteners in the U.S. diet over the past several decades — much of it in the form of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. I’d be surprised if all that added fat, too, didn’t play a role in our festering health problems.
Moreover, the fixation on sugar also, as Melanie points out, plays right into the grubby interests of the food industry. How long before truly deplorable products like Diet Coke appear with a “fructose free” label? Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Taubes’ sugar theory uncorks a gusher of products sweetened with dodgy artificial dreck like aspartame.
All of that said, Americans eat an awful lot of added sugars — about 12 teaspoons per day, or 45 pounds per year, Taubes reports. Again, I’m close to convinced by his argument that the damage caused by our sweet tooth transcends all the empty calories. If Taubes is right, sweetener consumption drives growth in what the medical authorities call “chronic disease” — and thus causes vast amounts of human suffering and economic dysfunction.
According to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, “Chronic diseases are the No. 1 cause of death and disability in the U.S.” and “treating patients with chronic diseases accounts for 75 percent of the nation’s health care spending.”
All of which makes me think of U.S. farm policy. A space alien who alighted upon earth and took to analyzing our farm policy could be excused for concluding that it’s specifically geared to maximize consumption of refined sweeteners. The government subsidizes the corn that gets turned into high-fructose corn syrup, our most prevalent sweetener (see above), and the sugar beets that get processed into our second most prolific sweetener, beet-derived sugar.
Recently, the U.S. sugar beet crop came under threat when a federal judge banned the planting of genetically modified sugar beets, on grounds that the USDA had approved their use without rigorously studying their environmental impact. Since Monsanto’s modified sugar beet seeds had taken over nearly the entire market for sugar beet seeds in just a few years, the ban would likely have reduced total U.S. sugar production by 20 percent, which would have pushed up sugar prices and probably reduced consumption. But the USDA would have none of it. Defying the court order, the agency allowed growers to plant the Monsanto seeds anyway, citing a feared sugar shortage. Once again, government policy had intervened on behalf of the American sweet tooth.
Beyond subsidies and the flouting of court orders, federal policy props up sweetener production by encouraging maximum production of corn. As I showed in this piece from 2006, high-fructose corn syrup is purely a product of the U.S. policy of urging farmers to plant as much corn possible. Flush with a bounty of cheap corn generated by the “get big or get out” policy, gigantic processors like Archer Daniels Midland went searching in the 1970s for ways to turn the corn surplus into profit.
If Taubes is correct, that policy has been ruinous to public health. Rather than promoting maximum production of corn to be transformed into a cheap sweetener and low-quality meat in factory animal farms, government policy should be pushing farmers to grow a wide variety of crops that nourish people, and don’t make them sick.
Get Grist in your inbox