Is sugar a poison?

April 30, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

An article by Robert Lustig about the dangers of sugar is drawing a lot of traffic at the NYT. Lustig is a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Lustig repeatedly charaterizes sugar as

a “toxin” or a “poison,” terms he uses together 13 times through the course of the lecture, in addition to the five references to sugar as merely “evil.” And by “sugar,” Lustig means not only the white granulated stuff that we put in coffee and sprinkle on cereal — technically known as sucrose — but also high-fructose corn syrup, which has already become without Lustig’s help what he calls “the most demonized additive known to man.”

. . .

Sugar is not just an empty calorie, he says; its effect on us is much more insidious. “It’s not about the calories,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.”

If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.


Category: Food, Health

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Katherine Vieth Albe says:

    Erich, I believe this is true but I'm so highly addicted to sugar, I can't ever give it up for very long before I'm back at it. I never verified if this statement was true, but a while ago I heard that someone interviewed Eric Clapton and he said that in the past he was addicted to and overcame heroin, alcohol and tobacco, but that sugar was his greatest addiction.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, a former coworker subscribed to the idea that all disease is caused by toxic foods.

    Sugars are a class of chemicals, on of which is necessary for most life on the planet, because it is the fuel for our cells. The fuel our bodies use is, in fact, a very simple sugar called glucose.

    Glucose is so important to the body that if deprived of glucose, the body will breakdown proteins in the muscles to provide glucose. Glucose is seldom found in the foods we eat. Most sugar used in our food is in the form of sucrose (can sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) or lactose(milk sugar).

    It's difficult to explain this, but in amounts that approximate the average metaboic needs, sugar is a nutrient, however, excess sugar loads the bloodstream up with glucose, and the excessive glucose does indeed act as a poison through a process called glycation.

    Normally, excess glucose is stored as fat, to be released when the body needs it, but we tend to overload our bodies with sugars, to the point the body can't keep up with the sugar to fat storage conversion. The excess glucose binds to various receptor proteins producing glycoproteins, effectively "clogging" the receptors and preventing them from performing their designated functions.

    In chemistry parlance the excess glucose acts as a poison by interfering with or preventing other chemical reactions.

    The body, detects this state through a sort of biochemical feed back and responds by trying to flush the excess glucose through the sweat glands and kidneys. This has the added effect of causing dehydration which increased thirst.

    Soft drink manufacturers have known fpr a while that sugary beverages will make you thirstier, and by promoting their drinks as "thirst quenchers" they will sell more of the drinks.Caffeine, which also has a dehydrating effect enhances this further. The flushing effect also removes water soluble nutrients including most B vitamins from the body and the resultin deficiencies can intefere witht the immune system leading to auto-immune disorders including metabolic syndrome (Type 2 Diabetes) combined with high colesterol and high blood pressure.

    It is more than sugar. All carbohydrates including starches, fats and oils, get converted to glucose, and we are genetically hardwired to prefer high carb foods.

  3. Erika Price says:

    This is an issue that perplexes and vexes me. When my father was diagnosed with diabetes, his doctor told him he had contracted the condition by consuming too much sugar. I learned a few years later in a food science class that there was no evidence sugar consumption caused diabetes. Obesity causes diabetes, by placing pressure on the pancreas. Pregnancy can cause temporary diabetes. Diseases that attack the pancreas can cause diabetes, etc. But sugar, I was told, could not cause it.

    I still worry because I am paranoid about contracting diabetes myself (and because I inherited the family sweet tooth, at the very least), so I try to keep abreast of the research.

    And apparently this journalist, and the researcher he cites, are somewhat slanted and controversial. See this slate podcast, which discusses the backgrounds of both <a href="″ target=”_blank”> here. Even the author of that NYT piece has a clear stance on the matter, and he has written several books advocating a low-sugar, low-carb, atkinsesque diet.

    The research is woefully unclear on this matter, I think. I recall that in my food science courses, we were all warned that the field was still in the middle ages. Until we can conduct long-term, controlled nutrition experiments, the jury may remain out. In the meantime I try to fight my sweet-tooth tooth-and-nail; even if sugar doesn't cause diabetes or cancer, it still displaces nutritional calories and wreaks havok on teeth. There's every reason to use it sparingly.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Why are we so intensely attracted to sugar. It might be reasons that don't have much to do with the flavor–it might be the social connections associated with sugar. The high of sugar might not be about the sugar itself. Check out this article by Livia Hall:

    "Scarcely is a child's birthday party complete without the gaudy, colorful, super-sweet theme cake that makes everybody psychotic immediately after eating it. Every bakery I have ever been to with my children had the obligatory sprinkle sugar cookie at the ready to give out to children to forge a positive relationship. Teachers, grandparents, and yes, even parents, use candy, ice cream and cookies to bribe or win children over. The promised dessert is the rainbow at the end of a meal a child does not want to eat. Just the smell of cotton candy and belgian waffles reminds us of happy times at a street fair or amusement park when we were carefree kids getting sick on the tilt-a-whirl but enjoying it all the same. It is no wonder we have such a positive association with sweets. They viscerally evoke memories of happiness and make us feel like good people."

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