The Current

Is sugar killing us? Author Gary Taubes makes his case

Sugar is a ubiquitous part of our lives and author Gary Taubes warns sugar should be treated like tobacco — there's no safe level. He argues it's sugar not over consumption and sedentary behaviour that's behind our obesity crisis, and it's killing us.
Science writer Gary Taubes argues sugar is responsible for more premature deaths than cigarettes. (Gunilla G/flickr cc)

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A new Ontario study that looked at more than 40,000 products on Canadian supermarket shelves found more than two-thirds of them contained added sugar — including baby foods and products marketed as healthy choices.

From glucose and fructose to fruit juice concentrate — however manufacturers name it on the label, science writer and author of The Case Against Sugar Gary Taubes says we need to dramatically change our relationship to sugar because it's killing us.

"It's a very distinctive crime — these obesity and diabetes sugar — is always at the scene of the crime," Taubes tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He argues that obesity and diabetes is not caused by overeating and sedentary lives as suggested by public health officials and health advocates. 

"It's a biological issue, not a physics issue — it's not an accounting issue," Taubes says.
Taubes says the argument that obesity or diabetes is caused by overeating and sedentary lives is wrong. (Uwe Hermann/flickr cc)

"Like everything else in your body the amount of fat on your body is exceedingly well regulated … we didn't just evolve to be able to spill excess calories into our fat tissue."

Taubes explains how hormones regulate fat accumulation and foods affect hormonal status.

"When you eat carbohydrates and you eat sugar that raises this hormone insulin which works to make you store calories as fat."

He goes on to say that sugar — in particular fructose  — metabolizes in the liver and points to evidence that a condition called insulin resistance begins in the liver and insulin resistance is the fundamental defect in the common form of diabetes known as Type 2.

In a recent New York Times article, Taubes argues sugar has prematurely killed more people than tobacco.

He tells Tremonti that in the late 19th century the innovation of flue-curing tobacco would increase the sugar content of tobacco leaves from about two per cent to 20 per cent.

In 1913, when the first American blended cigarette came on the market it included the flue-curing tobacco and chewing tobacco that was marinated with a sugar sauce that also had a high sugar content and high nicotine content.

"So the lung cancer epidemic that followed the explosion of success of American blended cigarettes was in part largely due to the sugar content of the leaves of the tobacco."

"So that's not a sugar industry issue — that's a tobacco issue."

"The point is we wouldn't have nearly the deaths from lung cancer and heart disease that tobacco has caused if it wasn't for sugar."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Willow Smith.