We were surprised and disappointed to see this week s issue of Nature offering us The toxic truth about sugar. The commentary, by Dr. Robert Lustig and colleagues, calls for nothing short of a global war on sugar in order to combat the chronic non-communicable diseases that the United Nations has identified as the greatest worldwide health burden. In this regard, Lustig et al. pinpoint foods containing added sugar specifically fructose as the primary culprit. A lifetime s accumulation of fructose, Dr. Lustig warns, can kill.
Dr. Lustig s concerns about sugar are multi-faceted, but his major claim is that sugar, especially fructose, is a toxic substance that must be much more strictly regulated. He points to studies linking its consumption to liver toxicity, and he underscores its inducement of the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome (hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes). Granted, all of these conditions arise from excess consumption of sugar but that is just the problem, Dr. Lustig argues: Not only can sugar be viewed as an addictive substance (analogous to tobacco and alcohol, an assertion the authors repeat, albeit without substantiation), but its ubiquity in processed foods gives consumers little choice but to consume it in excess quantities. If international bodies are truly concerned about public health, he writes, they must consider limiting fructose and its main delivery vehicles, the added sugars high fructose corn syrup and sucrose which pose dangers to individuals and to society as a whole.
Society as a whole? asks ACSH s Dr. Ross, skeptically. As these authors would have it, now we have second-hand sugar as another public health concern warranting government intervention.
And as ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom points out, the peg on which Dr. Lustig hangs his entire argument is flawed. Most fruits have quite a bit more fructose than sucrose," he says, "Does this make an apple unhealthy and in need of regulation? The fructose in an apple is the same fructose that is demonized in high fructose corn syrup. You can t have it both ways.
Dr. Lustig s call for government intervention is draconian: He recommends regulatory measures that would treat sugar like a controlled substance, subjecting it to taxes and numerous restrictions similar to those on alcohol and tobacco. But Dr. Ross takes issue with this concept: This is the whack-a-mole theory of dietary regulation, he observes, referring to the tendency to recommend regulating a particular substance (salt, sugar, fat) until something works against, say, obesity. However, Dr. Ross points outs, by isolating this single substance, Dr. Lustig and his colleagues are ignoring the many other non-diet-related factors that are arguably linked to a rise in non-communicable diseases: smoking, alcohol, and lack of physical exercise, to name just a few.
And aside from this commentary being wholly unsupported scientifically, the real-world implementation of Dr. Lustig s war on sugar would be a regulatory nightmare. As ACSH advisor Dr. Henry Manne, emeritus dean at the George Mason University School of Law, says, Some people just never get the message. With all the failure of Prohibition and the War on Drugs, these writers ask for more of the same.