“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”
Currently there’s a war raging in the media and, as usual, truth is the biggest casualty. Nutritionists, industry spokespeople and academics are duking it out for the moral high ground, this time on sugar.
Actually, it’s a knockout contest between sugar, fructose and fat – it’s a dirty fight. The weapons of mass destruction are media jibes of “poison”, “toxic” and character assassination of any authority holding an opposing view.
As a naturopath I find it amusing that anyone with a skerrick of nutritional knowledge is to be found defending any one of the proponents. You don’t need a degree in nutrition to understand that a truckload of fat, sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not actually “good” for us.
The battle began earlier in the year when US 60 Minutes ran a story about the dangers of sugar. Around that time New York City proposed to ban large sized soft drinks in an attempt to “fight” obesity. Since then, the sugar battle has spread to our own shores.
In May I noticed a number of local nutritionists promoting an article by the ‘Sceptical Nutritionist’ attacking Robert Lustig The piece targets the Californian professor who featured in the 60 Minutes programmes. The academic gained notoriety for speaking out against the use of HFCS and its connection with liver damage. The gist of the Sceptic’s article was the implication that Lustig was writing a book on the subject, therefore had other (presumably financial) motives to push his cause.
On the surface Bill Shrapnel, the Australian dietician behind the Skeptical Nutritionist, provides credible research to support his argument that fructose (the type of sugar that naturally occurs in fruit) does no harm. But the research quoted tended to look at free fructose rather than man-made HFCS. Also research funded by the manufactured foods industry weren’t excluded on the grounds of competing interests. Which leads us to Mr Shrapnel himself, whose clients include food manufacturers who use HFCS.
Another supporter of the assertion that fructose/sugar is not a danger to your health is Professor Jennie Brand-Miller. She featured on the recent Australian 60 minutes episode about sugar. Brand-Miller claimed that “ten teaspoons of added sugar a day is part of a ‘balanced diet'”. However this seemed to be a strange claim from someone behind the Glycaemic Index (GI). But the recent collaboration between her Glycaemic Index Foundation and CSR to make a low GI sugar could explain the quote. Otherwise I’m at a loss to explain what drives an otherwise well-respected dietician to claim that eating sugar is not a cause of obesity.
Attack is the best defence
A common tactic in this kind of media war is deflection. Attacking another type of food, by saying it is unhealthier, can shift the attention away from the real issue. This is the ludicrous approach taken recently by the Australian 60 Minutes, when it pitted “sugar” against “fat” – as if only one could be the loser? Which led to the ridiculous sound bite of Prof Lustig deeming that a cheeseburger “dripping with fat” was a healthier option than a soft drink. However, thanks the to ‘cut and paste’ style of syndicated journalism, the full transcript of the Dangers of Sugar (the US 60 Minutes version) may put the quote into context.
The most interesting aspect of this media-generated ‘debate’ is not what is said but what isn’t. For the most part HFCS seems to be missing in action. This stalwart of the manufactured foods industry (check for this ingredient in fizzy drinks, confectionery, ice cream and anything sweet on the supermarket shelves) seems to be flying under the radar. The dietary culprits in obesity get blurred when the discussion focuses on sugar, fructose and HFCS interchangeably.
Is fat worse than sugar?
Don’t buy into the hype. Sugar in all its guises is something that is best kept to a minimum, regardless of it being from ‘natural’ or manufactured sources. Fructose in the form of fresh whole fruit, with natural fibre slowing its breakdown, is not the same as high fructose liquids made in the laboratory. A recent science article explains some of the trickery around fructose research. It’s written in plain English and worth a read.
As for fat, it helps keep us warm and is a building block in hormone formation – fries and a cheeseburger are not a regular part of a healthy diet. Fat, like sugar, is not a single food. It comes in many forms, some essential and other potentially harmful.
So is saturated fat ‘better’ for our health than HFCS or even regular sugar? All of these need to be approached with caution. A little fat or the odd teaspoon of sugar (not ten or more of them a day) mightn’t lead to obesity, diabetes or liver dysfunction. It’s all about balance. Claiming either are ‘good’ for us is pushing the boundaries of sensible discussion.
Although sugar and fat are inevitably part of a modern diet, the old rule of “quality over quantity” always applies. As for the hype, if you smell a rat ask yourself who is likely to benefit from it. I can assure you it is rarely the consumer.
The Dangers of Sugar, the original CBS 60 Minutes report.
Australian 60 Minutes version of the sugar debate, cobbled from the US report, with local content and their own twist on the story.
For the negative: A well written science article on fructose, its various forms and health issues.
Mother Jones reports on a rat study that finds HFCS impairs memory (in rodents at least). This piece wins a prize for the best photographic depiction of a cupcake coma!
For the affirmative: A pro-fructose article about a recent diabetes study.
From the archives
5 reasons to cut down on sugar.
Is sugar a natural part of life?
The skinny on agave.
Diet and cancer risks: what common foods are most likely to cause cancer?
Competing interests: None. Gill Stannard is a Melbourne based naturopath in private practice.