Big Sugar, toxins, and separating facts from fallacies

I am a moderator in a Facebook group called “Banned By Food Babe”, geared towards shooting down the myths and harmful ideas promoted by Vani Hari aka “The Food Babe”. Now, I’ve always hated the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – first of all, Food Babe is not my enemy, but second of all, just because someone doesn’t like Food Babe’s ideas doesn’t mean we’re in agreement all the time! The discussion thread I was involved in recently is a case in point. The thread began with this post:

Although I’ve been Banned by Food Babe bc of her shady claims does not mean I don’t think the food industry is a complete and utter carnival of corruption. I’ve seen first hand the results of metabolic syndrome in a staggering number of adults. In 1980 we had *effectively 0 adolescents with Type II Diabetes related to a otherwise healthy child (and not some underlying issue or genetic predisposition). Today it’s well over 50,000. Point: it’s trending in the wrong direction. And people who push the simple equation of calories in (energy in) calories burned (energy out) (BMR plus exercise) should prob take a basic physiology course to at the very least acquire a foundation to even have a conversation about the food industry and obesity. If sometimes think 100 calories of soda is the same as 100 calories of almonds, you should reevaluate your education. I’m not saying anyone is making that claim. I am trying to get a pulse on what the purpose of this group is and make my position clear that while Food Babe is a Fear Mongering Opportunistic Pseudoscientist, does not mean that the Food Industry (aka Monsanto and the like) aren’t directly involved and responsible for the obesity epidemic. I mean something as simple as putting a daily allowance percentage on Sugar? I’m in the belly of the Dragon in DC, and see first hand which hand washes the other when it comes to lobbying, politicians, and “scientist” vs ethical science. When Coke is funding its own research, rest assured it’s not to put itself out of business. Also being thin does not mean your healthy on the inside. Lastly when you have health and life insurances investing in fast food stock, what does that tell you. What is the pulse of this group. Am I in the minority here?

You can probably see why I would take issue with this post. It does contain some statements grounded in fact – for example, special interest groups do affect labeling laws. This concept is so common we have a name for it – “regulatory capture”. But just look at some of the rhetoric contained here! NO cases of adolescent type II diabetes in 1980? Denying calorie counters? Argumentum ad Monsantum? These things are all designed to fit a very specific type of narrative – the exact type of narrative that Banned By Food Babe is supposed to combat.

I’m going to alienate some readers here: climate change is real, and it is caused by human activity. There is a direct correlation between carbon emissions and global climate change, and there is a direct correlation between human activity (especially the burning of fossil fuels) and carbon emissions. Now that I’ve got the controversy out of the way, let me say something a little more safe: fossil fuel is a huge industry. Exxon Mobil pulls down hundreds of billions of dollars every single year and they aren’t even the largest oil company in the world! It goes without saying that oil companies really want to discredit the science on global warming, but they can’t – the consensus remains firm. So they do the next best thing: they convince you to ignore the evidence.

Now, consider the evidence on sugar. We know that eating too much sugar is bad for you. That’s pretty basic stuff, right? I almost don’t even need to cite it! There’s not a single doctor on the planet who won’t tell you to drink water instead of Coke or eat carrots instead of Oreos. So where, you might ask, is the conspiracy? Well, it turns out that the sugar industry’s influence dollars are mostly spent the same way – regulatory capture and convincing people to disregard the evidence. Is this evidence of some kind of massive conspiracy? I don’t think so.

Pop quiz – who said that “fructose is a toxin”? Was it much-maligned food blogger Vani Hari aka “The Food Babe”, or was it board-certified endocrinologist Robert Lustig? Trick question – both of them have called sugar “toxic” at some point, but Robert Lustig is the only one who might be qualified to say it. That’s why it’s such a shame when he does say it, because it lets the sugar industry discredit him – even though most of what he says rings true and is useful!

What we need to do here is to separate the magic from the reality. “Sugar is toxic” is an intellectually dishonest statement: sugar is fuel for your brain and body. Sugar is so essential for human life that if you stop eating it, your body starts making it out of whatever it can find. But the thing about fuel is, if you put in more fuel than you burn up, you need to store the rest of it somewhere. Your car has a gas tank, but your body’s gas tank doesn’t stop moving – if you don’t use that fuel during your day trip, the gas can goes into the garage indefinitely. (By that, of course, I mean that you store excess calories as body fat.)

So where does sugar fit into all of this? Well, our brains and bodies are hard-wired to LOVE sugar. It tastes AMAZING and sometimes we just can’t get enough of it! So when we find something that has a lot of that yummy sugar in it, it can be very tempting and very easy to over-consume – eat more calories than we need and turn that sugar into body fat. Eating too much sugar has well-known deleterious effects on human health including increased risk of heart disease and, of course, increased prevalence of dental caries. So who is to blame for this? Has the sugar industry been telling our doctors that Coca-Cola is health food? No, they were rightly ridiculed for that the last time they tried it. What they’re doing instead is convincing you to ignore the scientific evidence.

Listen, don’t worry about the nutrition labels! Everyone who follows health gurus like the Food Babe knows that labels can’t be trusted. Instead of paying attention to how much sugar you are eating, freak out about ingredients you can’t pronounce, and find as many tentative links between scary chemicals and scary diseases as you possibly can! Subway bread is full of refined carbohydrates, which are a really great way to get fat – so naturally, the thing you should be concerned about is the 45-parts-per-million chemical that decomposes to harmless biurea upon baking and has never been linked to human health problems when used as a food additive.

Here’s my point: there is no vast Big Sugar Evidence Cover-Up. Big Sugar wants you to ignore the evidence, for sure – that’s why they love people like the Food Babe, who promotes some of the sugariest drinks known to man on her website. They want you to ignore your doctor, because you know better: fructose is toxic, kale is a “superfood”, and you know the One Weird Trick to losing weight without actually cutting back on what you eat. Don’t buy in to the magical thinking or the conspiracy narratives. Instead, pay attention to the evidence, and pay attention to the nutrition facts. You can avoid excess sugar by staying at or under the Recommended Daily Allowance of carbohydrates, and you can count how many grams of sugar you’re eating because it’s right there on the label. Do your part by teaching your kids or your friends or whoever how to read these labels, instead of trying to convince them that they just need to avoid some evil ingredient. The science is there – let’s use it and not abuse it.

EDIT: just a quick addition here – “sugar” and “fructose” are obviously different things. There’s a great Skeptical Raptor post about high-fructose corn syrup and fructose as it is used by your body that you should really read if you’re interested in knowing more about the differences (and similarities) between fructose and glucose.

I am starting my first year of a biochemistry PhD program in August. If you like what you see here, please consider contributing to my fundraising campaign to make this dream a reality. I promise I won’t bug you about this every time. 😉

Big Sugar, toxins, and separating facts from fallacies