Sugar: My Position

Sugar: My Position

David Katz 05/01/2018 5

Sugar seems to be everywhere these days, and I don’t just mean in the copiously over-sweetened standard American diet (“SAD”). I mean in the news about diet, too.

Partly, this is as it should be, as one of the principal liabilities of a dreadfully junk-laden and hypocrisy-laden diet, literally engineered to subjugate the health of the many to the profit of the few, gets the attention it deserves. Partly, though, it is the result of a well orchestrated, well funded effort by those with ties to the beef industry, and/or interest in sticking butter in your coffee, to divert your attention from the harms to people and planet alike of all those bacon-cheeseburgers, through the time-dishonored expediency of a scapegoat.

In conjunction with all this attention to sugar, there has been a fair amount of attention in media and social media to my positions on sugar, because I say things like I just said about bacon, beef, and butter- and the peddlers of those don’t like it. I’ve got trolls, in other words. 

Fortunately for me, though my trolls misrepresent my position on sugar egregiously, the truth is a matter of public record, running through columns I’ve written, educational programs I’ve helped develop and test, and algorithms I’ve engineered. But finding all of that scattered information is a challenge, particularly for those disinterested in the truth. So here it all is in one place, with selective links to some of those vintage materials. 

1) Sickly Sweet

I don’t know how to put it much more bluntly than I already did above: excess added sugar is one of the principal liabilities of the prevailing American (and, increasingly, “modern global”) diet, noteworthy for its many liabilities. From my perspective, there are three salient harms of excess added sugar in the diet: (1) excess sugar itself is metabolically harmful, via its effects on insulin release and fat deposition; (2) sugar contributes to the excess calories propagating obesity, and without any redeeming nutrient value; and (3) sugar is used expressly to make foods, even foods not overtly sweet, hyperpalatable- and thus contributes disproportionately to overeating in general.

None of these positions is remotely new. They figure prominently in a book I wrote more than 15 years ago, and a nutrition textbook I wrote before that- and have recurred in my writing ever since. 

2) Sum of Parts

It’s the total dose of added sugar in our diets that matters much more than which kind of sugar it is. The many aliases of sugar in the food supply are confusing, and problematic. We have taught children, and their parents, how to defend themselves against this deception for nearly 15 years in our well-studied, freely available food label literacy program, Nutrition Detectives®.

An interesting anecdote on this matter, courtesy of my work on a nutrient profiling algorithm (the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI™; more on that below). Many years ago, a shopper in a supermarket featuring this system, known as NuVal®, expressed concern that several different jars of apricot jam all scored a lowly “1” (lowest nutritional value) on the scale from 1 to 100. Why the concern? All but one of the jars had sugar as the first ingredient, but one of them had apricots as the first ingredient- but that one scored a 1 as well. We were asked to look into it, and did. 

What we found was a precautionary tale about food labels almost as dubious as the products they adorn. Ingredients are listed in order of abundance, and in the apricot-first jam, apricot was indeed more abundant than any other single ingredient for one reason only: the product used 4 or 5 different “kinds” of added sugar, and listed them separately. So, while apricot was more abundant than any one of the added sugars, it was less abundant than total added sugar- just like all the other jams that listed sugar first. The shopper was deceived by this, just as the manufacturer intended- but the algorithm was not. It prompted us to take this issue to the the FDA and USDA, with the request that labels consistently use “total added sugar” to establish the order of entries in an ingredient list, even if they go on to enumerate the varieties of sugar.

3) What’s in a Name?

Per the above, I think the many aliases used to indicate added sugar in processed foods are confusing, and thus harmful. There are dozens of alternatives, all of which are really just “added sugar.” I am not sure anyone knows the exact number, as the food industry is ever adept at adding more- but Prevention Magazine came up with 57!

My view, now as ever, is that the right approach is to list “total added sugar” and situate that in the ingredient list wherever that cumulative dose belongs- and then, in parentheses, spell out the kinds of sugar in order of abundance.

Here, too, history adds some interest. Given how vilified high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become (more on that below), I think many have forgotten that one of the advantages of its use in the early days was that even sugar-conscious shoppers didn’t reliably recognize it for what it was, and thus tended to overlook it. (The other, salient advantage was that it was a cheaper alternative to sugar derived from cane or beets.) We called it, accordingly, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in Nutrition Detectives®, and by distributing that program around the world in some 50,000 free DVDs- were in the vanguard of those raising awareness, and opposition, to this pernicious ingredient.

4) Hyperbole about Harms, and the Harms of Hyperbole

Some have claimed, famously, that sugar is “poison” and fructose is “toxic.” These contentions are, simply, untrue. Sugar includes the lactose in breast milk, and the glucose that floats constantly, and essentially, in our bloodstreams; it is absurd to declare the composition of mother’s milk and our own blood intrinsically “poisoned.” Rather, the dose makes the poison.

As for fructose, it occurs naturally in all fruits and many vegetables. If it is “toxic,” by extension, apples and berries are toxin delivery systems. 

I have consistently warned those colleagues involved, some of whose efforts on behalf of public health I very much appreciate, that hyperbole about harms would result in three harms of hyperbole. My warnings mostly fell on deaf ears, and only convinced these colleagues that they disliked me. Oh, well. Alas, my warnings about the three harms have all been borne out over time. 

(1) Exaggerated focus on fructose invites the “sideways to sucrose” phenomenon.

There are really two issues here. The first is that if “fructose” is vilified, the public in general will not necessarily know that fructose is nearly as abundant in table sugar (sucrose) as it is in HFCS. The food industry is thus invited to put big banner ads on the front of products that say something like- “now without high-FRUCTOSE corn syrup” with the emphasis on fructose- and thus derive a halo effect, under which a host of ills can be concealed. This has certainly happened. We can file this one under: “Tell them what they’ve won, Johnny!” Log Cabin original syrup, now FREE of HFCS, has just plain “corn syrup” as the first ingredient, sugar as the third, and maple…nowhere on the list!

The second is that if fructose is “the” villain, it implies that everything else is exonerated. Again, since the public tends not to know that table sugar is half fructose, it allows for replacing HFCS with sugar- and pretending that’s anything other than a lateral move. It is not. But Pepsico, among others, has tried to get credit for just such an exercise in going nowhere.

(2) If fructose is evil, can apples be far behind?

Another of my anxieties about excessively vilifying fructose is that it would invite people to extend the indictment to the premier delivery vehicle for this nutrient, fruit. There is no justification for this, as fruit intake is not only good for health in general, but specifically associated with protection against the very harms of excess sugar intake, notably diabetes. But, sadly, this prediction has also come true. I have received innumerable emails over the years since fructose first became “toxic” asking me if it’s OK to eat whole fruits; and this matter has caused such widespread confusion that the New York Times felt obligated to address it. What a sad waste of time we can’t spare, though, to need to convince people that whole fruits are… still good for them!

(3) The “sugar did it” proviso.

The third liability of hyperbolizing the harms of sugar, or fructose, is that it lets all of the other bad actors off the hook. Yes, excess sugar is bad- but that does nothing to exonerate trans fat, processed meats, food chemicals, salt, refined starches, or for that matter, butter. But that’s exactly the case currently being made, or feigned, by the agents of meat, butter, and cheese. They are exploiting the hyperbole about the toxicity of sugar to imply that sugar is solely responsible for the sorry state of our diet – which is, in a word, baloney. Baloney also contributes to the sorry state of our diets- both when it does (yes, it sometimes does), and when it doesn’t contain added sugar.

5) Industrial Light and Magic: of Conflicts, Confluence, and Contracts

My lab has run studies funded by industry over the years, which my various detractors have cited to imply I have conflicted interests. I do not; I have no interest in the sales of anything we’ve studied. Rather, their contentions are conflicted, since most of them want you to buy meat and butter, their book about them, or both. The noise is just so much CGI smoke.

My lab, of course, has had IRB approved contracts for every study we’ve ever run. That process probes for conflicts of interest, and prohibits them. 

But we have set the bar much higher than that. Our contracts have always guaranteed the lab full autonomy and guaranteed our rights to publish, no matter the outcome. The result is that we have published both positive and negative outcomes of industry-funded studies. 

Our studies of food have been agnostic with regard to food type, and have rather followed our hypotheses, ranging from the effects of egg intake on diet quality and cardiovascular health, to the effects of soy on vascular status at menopause, to the effects of walnuts on body composition, to the effects of snacking on appetite and weight.

Only once have we focused specifically on sugar, and when we did- we indicted it. We studied the effects of cocoa and dark chocolate on vascular health, finding benefits, as have the many others who have studied this. However, we found that sugar-free cocoawas decisively better than sugar-sweetened cocoa, or stated alternatively, we found that sugar significantly attenuated the vascular benefits conferred by cocoa.

The whole topic of industry-funded research is obviously fraught. I know of some thoughtful colleagues devoting dedicated attention to the matter now, and look forward to the results of their efforts. My view is that there is certainly the risk of conflict in this realm, but also the possibility of confluence, and that we are best served by scrupulous efforts to distinguish between the two.

6) Of Trials, and Tribulations

I serve occasionally as an expert legal witness. I hate it. It’s tedious, inconvenient, and when it involves deposition and cross-examination by hostile attorneys, extravagantly unpleasant. I do it when I care passionately about the case, or absent that, when two criteria are met: first, that I believe the side seeking to engage me is right; and second, that I am compensated suitably for my pains. Frankly, that sum is set absurdly high- which works as intended to drive away the uncommitted. But some say, “OK,” and I engage accordingly.

The result is lots of attention in social media to two lawsuits pertaining to sugar in which I served as an expert witness.

In one, the yogurt maker, Chobani, was being sued for deceiving the public by using “evaporated cane juice” as the name for added sugar in its products. I’ve noted my position about the many aliases used for sugar above, and that has never changed. But, frankly, since almost everyone knows what “sugar cane” is, I think “evaporated cane juice” is one of the least deceptive in the mix.  More importantly, until or unless the FDA changes the rules, the simple fact is that many names are in use for sugar throughout the food supply. I have examined the issue carefully, and “evaporated cane juice” is used preferentially by many of the most virtuous, corporately responsible food companies out there- and appears on the very select products that make it into my own home. 

The bottom line in this case, and this is the position I took all along, was that suing Chobani for being deceptive about sugar was like suing the maker of Prius for carbon emissions and climate change. Yes, it might be true in both cases that they contribute to the prevailing problem- but in both cases, they are well above the standard, not pulling it down. Singling out Chobani was absurd, and almost certainly involved ulterior motives.

The other suit was, in essence, one sugar producer versus another. I said in deposition and in open court that as far as I was concerned it was the case of the “pot versus the kettle,” and that the principal public health problem was too much of both of their products. But the case was about a very specific question: can the human body ‘tell’ the difference between HFCS and sucrose. As a simple matter of fact, the human body can- even if the body politic doesn’t have much cause to care. That was my position then, as it is now.

7) Are Artificial Sweeteners Better?

I really don’t know, because nobody knows for sure. The literature on this topic is mixed with some studies showing benefit from cutting out sugar and calories through the medium of no-calorie, “artificial” sweeteners. Other studies, however, suggest that the currently prevailing sugar substitutes may do significant damage of their own. Whether or how this pertains to the newer entries such as stevia, or monk fruit extract, is still a work in progress.

What I can say is that I avoid artificial sweeteners personally for three reasons. First, the precautionary principle, which argues that it’s safer to assume harms until they are disproven than it is to assume harmlessness until it is confirmed. Second, when sugar is “put in its place” and one’s diet is made up overwhelmingly of unprocessed foods, there is neither need, nor place, for artificial sweeteners. And third, I think there is a better way to reduce sugar intake, which I call “taste bud rehab.” By trading up choices and eliminating stealth sugar first, and more overt sugar after, you can cut your intake of sugar and calories; avoid any actual or potential harms of chemical additives; and rehabilitate/sensitize your palate into the bargain, so you actually come to prefer more wholesome, less copiously sweetened food.

8) Of Attitudes and Algorithms

I suppose simply because facts can be inconvenient and innuendo is easier, on-line comments have suggested that the ONQI®, in nearly 2000 supermarkets nationwide under its consumer-facing name, NuVal®, somehow favors sugar. This is mathematically confirmed nonsense. The two most severely penalized nutrient entries in the formula are trans fat, and added sugar. The ONQI (the world’s most robustly validated nutrient profiling system, to the best of my knowledge) differentiated between total sugar (which includes the lactose in dairy, and the fructose in whole fruit) and added sugar long before the FDA concluded they should do the same. Both are penalized, as is glycemic load, but added sugar is penalized preferentially.  The result is that copiously sugary products, such as sodas, are the lowest scoring items in the entire food supply.

The bottom line is that I have been among the prominent critics of excess sugar in our diets for nearly three decades, and but for minor refinements to keep pace with research findings, my position has never wavered. It is consistent across columns and books, research studies and review articles, programs and algorithms. I hasten to add that I have been in excellent company all along. Despite the long line of claimants that has queued up under the “I discovered the harms of excess sugar last Thursday, so buy my book” sign- the reality is that advice to limit sugar has been not just present, but prominent, in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans since the first, in 1980.

Through clinical trials, and the tribulations of lawsuits- my position on the considerable harms of excess added sugar in our diets is pretty much the same as it ever was.

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  • Alexander Mercer

    This article does a good job of helping people understand the threat of excess sugar in our diet

  • Karla Sandoval

    I also agree that artificial sweeteners are very bad. Just stop using anything sweet for a month and your cravings will disappear.

  • Cole Andersen

    You can't really blame food manufacturers for the fact that people are to lazy to turn the package around. I think we all have to take responsibility for our own actions

  • Diego Ruddi

    I used to drink about a two litter of soda every for years. When I quit, I noticed my hands shaking for two days from what I assume was withdrawal. I also lost 10 pounds almost immediately.

  • Chris Binghamton

    It shows where the governments priorities lie when despite huge increases in the number of adults and children who are obese, manufacturers can still choose whether or not to use the traffic light system on packaging. As you said, sugar is not the problem, but the huge fat amount those people are digesting.

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David Katz

Healthcare Expert

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.

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