Regulating sugar as a toxin

So by now you’ve probably all heard of this editorial:

This comes from Laura Schmidt, a co-author on this paper (boy howdy is it gated) which — judging by its first author — probably contains a lot of pretty decent experimental evidence that fructose is pretty nasty stuff.  Dr. Schmidt describes herself as a “medical sociologist”, and her editorial sure has an acute case of the social sciences.  Witness:

So three years ago, a pediatric endocrinologist named Rob Lustig walks into my office and asks for my help. Rob tells me that he’s finding many connections between the metabolism of fructose (sugar) and ethanol (alcohol) in his work on metabolic functioning, liver damage and the obesity epidemic.

(Emphasis added.)

No.  No.  You cannot take fructose as a general exemplar of “sugar” like that, especially in the context of sugar metabolism.

Many of the health hazards of drinking too much alcohol, such as high blood pressure and fatty liver, are the same as those for eating too much sugar. When you think about it, this actually makes a lot of sense. Alcohol, after all, is simply the distillation of sugar. Where does vodka come from? Sugar.

Vodka is mostly produced from grains.  Remember that first paragraph I quoted where Dr. Schmidt equates fructose and sugar?  Ain’t no fructose in the starches from those grains (or in potatoes, if you’re going old-school).  It’s possible to produce vodka from sugar — or, hell, oil refinery byproducts — but it’s rarely done.  A better argument would be some sort of claim that ethanol and fructose share similar metabolic pathways in the liver (which would be extraordinary; imagine the liver trying to make glycogen from ETOH), or that their metabolism has similar effects on glucose and triglyceride metabolism (which would be less extraordinary), but remember — this is a social scientist writing for CNN.

Added sugar at the levels consumed by many Americans changes our metabolism — it raises blood pressure, critically alters the signaling of hormones that turn hunger on and off, and can damage the pancreas and liver.

This is all true, but we’re back to a very broad interpretation of “sugar” that includes polysaccharides — starches, maltodextrins, &c. — as well as fructose.  Oh well.  Sociologists, amirite?

All of that said, I’m broadly sympathetic to the underlying science that prompted the editorial.  (This should surprise no-one.)  Chronic overconsumption of fructose will fuck up your liver.  Chronic overconsumption of carbohydrates in the absence of systemic demand — like gross glycogen depletion from running a marathon or post-lifting energy demand from skeletal muscle — will lead to insulin/leptin resistance, metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis, and &c.

The recommendations, on the other hand… not so much.

Eric Crampton has a great post on the slippery-slope angle, so I’ll just link to his (go on, click through and RTWT; I’ll wait) rather than duplicate any effort.

The suggestion to impose an age requirement on the purchase of soft drinks parodies itself, so I needn’t go there.

This dogshit:

The reality is that unfettered corporate marketing actually limits our choices about the products we consume. If what’s mostly available is junk food and soda, then we actually have to go out of our way to find an apple or a drinking fountain. What we want is to actually increase people’s choices by making a wider range of healthy foods easier and cheaper to get.

is typical Concerned Progressive signaling (“I really really care about people’s health; I’m Very Smart and you’re not; and I really really don’t like corporations!”).  If you want to know what I think about Caring People who know better than you do and are willing to have you Tasered in your own best interests, I’ve written about it here, here, and here.  I’m actually a bit bored of ranting about contemptuous paternalism, so I’ll refer you to my previous rants on the subject.

This idea, though, is interesting:

Contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress to encourage them to take sugar off the Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) list. This is what allows food producers to add as much sugar as they want to the products we eat.

Let’s assume for the moment that when Dr. Schmidt writes “sugar” above she means “fructose”.  This suggestion, taken to its logical conclusion, would be rather wide-ranging.  Want to add apple juice to  your barbecue sauce?  Not so fast; apple juice contains (rather a lot of) fructose, a regulated ingredient no longer Generally Regarded As Safe.  Want to add corn to your salsa?  Not so fast.  Want to make a fruit salad?  Someone call the cops!

There’s plenty to demonize in the realm of junk food, and that’s pretty clearly what Dr. Schmidt intends to vilify.  But narrowing the scope of the fructose-metabolism argument far enough to catch only junk food, without collateral damage to perennial food-nanny favourites like fruit juices and breakfast candy cold cereals, is going to be difficult.  Similarly, expanding the scope of the fructose-metabolism argument to other common junk foods like potato chips without also catching more than half of the USDA’s “healthy eating” recommendations in the crossfire doesn’t look plausible (although they can always go back to the usual fat-and-salt demonization for those, and never mind that whole insulin/leptin-resistance thing).

I’ll be curious to see how the corn lobby reacts to this paper, as well as how all and sundry manage to double-think their minds around the idea that added fructose is bad while “natural” fructose (in watermelons, apples, and &c.) is good — or at least inoffensive.


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