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Spooky Sugar

It's another hit we seem wired to welcome despite the ominous research.

Crawford Kilian 31 Oct

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Shortly after I'd had a minor stroke, my doctor gave me more bad news: I was overweight and pre-diabetic, my cholesterol and blood pressure were high, and I needed to cut down on carbohydrates like sugar.

So I did. I bake bread and love it, but now eat it rarely. And I cut back sharply on sugary foods. OK, at Christmas I make pulla, a sweet Finnish coffee bread, but pulla comes but once a year. I've managed to lose 30 pounds and keep them off for over three years. But in finding sugarless food, I soon realized my own supermarket is really a sugarmarket, largely devoted to peddling sucrose.

Whole aisles are devoted to selling sugar, whether as soft drinks or in cereal or ketchup or components of highly processed foods. Down those aisles go young parents with their tots (often pushing their own mini-shopping carts), buying sugar-rich goodies. I don't think my supermarket really wants to kill me, but it does really want to make a profit.

It's a hit we seem wired to welcome, probably since we long ago learned what bees were storing in their hives. Like bears, we're ready to suffer any discomfort to get the sensation of sweetness on our treacherous tongues.

Medieval Europeans explored across the world not just for gold but for something to make crappy European food palatable -- spices in particular, to conceal the grossness of half-rotted meat. Stumbling upon sugar cane and then upon stimulating but acerbic black tea, Europeans built a global nightmare economy. They forced opium on China to pay for the tea and imported millions of black African slaves to the Americas to grow sugar cane to sweeten the tea and the pastries to go with it. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.

Apart from helping send countless dentists' kids to good universities, our sugar habit seemed innocuous enough when I was growing up. But here and there, researchers began to find disturbing evidence that sugar might be behind more serious problems than kids' cavities.

One such researcher was Dr. John Yudkin, a British physiologist and nutritionist, who in 1972 published Pure, White and Deadly. He argued that sugar -- that is, the combinations of fructose and glucose we call table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup -- was a leading cause of heart disease. Others argued it was saturated fat and they prevailed. Yudkin's book went out of print and the hazards of sugar went out of mind.

Crack down on 'free' sugars

Further research drew attention back to sugar, and Yudkin brought his book back into print in 1986 with better evidence. As Dr. Robert Lustig said in the introduction to a 2012 reissue of the book, Yudkin "draws direct lines between sugar and dental caries, gout, autoimmune disease, heart disease and cancer. Indeed, [he] shows that sugar consumption and mortality rates go hand in hand."

Twenty years after his death, Yudkin appears vindicated. Study after study has confirmed him. Last spring the World Health Organization issued a new guideline recommending that adults and children "reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below five per cent or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits."

"Free sugars" include everything from table sugar and corn syrup to honey and fruit juices, but not the sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk.

The WHO pointed out that "much of the sugars consumed today are 'hidden' in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, one tablespoon of ketchup contains around one gram (around one teaspoon) of free sugars. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of free sugars."

The organization based its new guidelines in part on the experience of Europeans in the Second World War, when sugar intake dropped from 15 kilos per person before the war to 0.2 kilos in 1946. Dental cavities dropped proportionally.

This is not breaking news. Soda makers have offered sugarless drinks for years, and some processed foods tout their low sugar content as a selling point. Occasionally some government tries to tax soft drinks, with mixed results. But people keep buying sugary processed foods and drinks, and obesity and diabetes rates keep rising.

Taxing a centuries-old culture

Now a new study (led by Dr. Robert Lustig, who wrote the 2012 introduction to John Yudkin's book) has dropped a bombshell into the debate.

Forty-three Latino and African-American children with obesity had their dietary sugar cut from 28 per cent to 10 per cent, with starchy foods like chips replacing the sugar. In just nine days, their blood pressure and cholesterol improved -- with no change in calories or loss of weight.

It's a small sample, and the study needs to be repeated, but it tends to back up arguments like those of food guru Jamie Oliver that governments should impose sugar taxes to discourage consumption.

The Canadian Sugar Institute takes issue, and points out that "Canadian consumption of added sugars is much lower, about one third less than U.S. levels, due mainly to lower soft-drink intake in Canada." But the sugar corporations are working in the shadow of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, which have discredited almost any business defending the safety of their products.

Big Sugar does have this going for it: a centuries-old culture defines its product as something wonderful.

Folk songs extol kisses sweeter than wine; popular music describes one's beloved as a sugar-pie, honey-pie, sweetie-pie. A lover or good friend is a sweetie, and "sweet" is a typical response to any good news. Any additional benefit is frosting on the cake (itself far sweeter than bread). "Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven" (laced with sugar). A beautiful image is "eye candy" and a good-looking companion is "arm candy."

Such terms are burned into our wiring, defining what makes life good, and it will not be easy to burn them out again.

Don't sugar-coat it

But we also recognize that if they sugar-coat bad news, it's still bad news. In the army, a candy-ass is a weakling. A sugary smile is not one to trust. Just beyond sweet is cloying, when we gag and recoil.

We make a hullaballoo over safe injection centres, where people can at least maintain a disastrous habit without killing themselves. Sugar is not as addictive as heroin but it is almost universal. It will be far harder to get billions to kick sugar than a few million to kick narcotics.

According to Worldometers, over 786 million people are undernourished today. Over 26,000 die daily of hunger. Meanwhile, the number of overweight people is above 1.6 billion, and over half a billion are obese. Today, the U.S. spent about half a billion dollars on obesity-related diseases, and over $160 million on weight-loss programs.

Given such costs, it’s ironic that we’re making them inevitable here as well by our spending on sugar -- including an average of $42 per Canadian on Hallowe’en candy. Spooky, indeed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food

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