Gary Taubes' anti-sugar screed

Gary Taubes pens a screed against sugar in Mother Jones. But in the end, low-carb crusader Taubes is forced to admit “the sugar industry may be facing the inexorable exposure of its product as a killer — science will ultimately settle the matter one way or the other.” [Emphasis added]

So Gary, if science isn’t settled as you plainly admit, how did the sugar industry err in defending itself?

21 thoughts on “Gary Taubes' anti-sugar screed”

  1. True. It all breaks down into glucose, galactose, and fructose, and fructose and galactose don’t metabolize quite the same way as glucose.
    But when people talk about the different kinds of carbs, they don’t mean the difference between grape juice and apple juice, they mean the difference between sugar and “healthy whole grains”, or potatoes, yams, or whatever source of starch they somehow think is healthy.

    And it doesn’t matter what kind of starch, it’s all just glucose. There isn’t any difference in how the body reacts to it, once it hits the blood stream. Because it’s the same stuff. The starch in potato chips, the starch in white flour, the starch in brown rice, the glucose in table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, it’s all the same stuff.

    The only metabolic difference between carb sources is how long they take to digest. Which is to some degree influenced by how much fiber is present, but as much or more by how much fat and protein you eat along with it. Eating carbs alone – even in a form with a fair amount of fiber like whole wheat bread – will result in a short, sharp spike of glucose entering the blood stream. It it with a bunch of healthy fat and the rise will be much slower and lower.

  2. Oversimplified. Glucose and fructose are different molecules that are metabolized differently, although they’re both monosaccharides. Starch breaks down into only glucose. Sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. Table sugar is made of sucrose. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has more fructose than glucose.

  3. “You need to know the simplest chemical facts of what carbs and sugars are instead of thinking they’re all the same”

    Carbohydrates are either sugars, starches, or fiber. And since fiber is indigestible, it’s not part of the conversation.

    As for sugars, they are either monosaccharides or disaccharides – either single sugar molecules or pairs of sugar molecules bound together, and starches are just chains of single sugar molecules. Both sugars and starches start breaking apart into individual sugar molecules as soon as they touch the amylase in saliva, before they are even swallowed. They are entirely broken down before they enter the bloodstream. So in terms of simple chemistry, there is no difference – they are all broken down into the same simple sugars regardless of source.

  4. “… it is easier to demonize things than to prove they are actually harmful.”

    Nice choice of words, Steve.
    Now try saying this three times, fast, while looking into the mirror.

  5. Gary,

    I don’t doubt that the sugar industry has spent little time and money researching sugar-as-a-toxic-substance. But I don’t fault them for it.

    Like other GRAS substances, sugar is perfectly safe when used in moderation (and that may mean different things to different people). And by the way, just how would one study sugar’s potential long-term effects in a scientific manner anyway? Massive clinical trials with strict lifestyle controls that last entire lifetimes? You couldn’t control enough people and enough lifestyle factors for enough time to come up with meaningful/credible results.

    I will take this opportunity to rail against the attempted tobacco-ization of sugar. I don’t think anyone every thought that oversmoking was a healthful activity. After all, they were called coffin nails long before Stan Glantz was a twinkle in his parents eyes. Similarly, the problems brought on by overeating, including eating too many sweets, are well known by virtually everyone. So just because you sell a product, does it have to be proven harmless under every possible use and abuse? If so, I would suggest that there wouldn’t be much commerce.

    While “lack of definitive evidence” does not necessarily mean the “absence of meaningful evidence” as a general proposition, there has been a fair amount of work to examine the potential role of sugar in weight gain, obesity etc. and the results, so far, have been unimpressive. And if there is impressive work, please send it to me. Lustig ranting on 60 Minutes doesn’t count.

    What is “too much” sugar? That’s easier to answer on an acute basis than on a chronic one, since the latter (if there is an effect) will be confounded by other lifestyle factors and genetics.

    As you have learned from your forays into epidemiology, salt and dietary fat, it is easier to demonize things than to prove they are actually harmful. And all I have been asking for in’s almost 17 years is credible scientific evidence that demonization is justified. What I have found instead is ample evidence that many (most?, almost all?) self-proclaimed scientists (particularly epidemiologists) really don’t have the first clue as to what science is all about, much less how to do it properly… but I remain ever hopeful.


  6. Hi Steve,
    The question is, how do you define too much? And that’s a serious question. And, of course, my entire article was about how industry actions could indeed be relevant to the issue of sugar’s alleged “toxicity.” At the moment, we’re back to where we were in the mid-1970s, thanks in part to industry actions. So if sugar is toxic — and of course we could argue or debate how to define toxicity — then industry is in part responsible for our awareness of that fact being delayed for 35 years and considerable harm being done. If sugar is harmless — that it’s effect on the body per calorie consumed is no different than any other food we might consume — then they were exactly right to act as they did. I find this a fascinating issue. We only know if their actions were correct if sugar is indeed harmless and we can only find out if it is indeed harmless by doing the kind of studies that should have been done 35 year ago and, as we point out in the Mother Jones articles, the sugar industry’s own hired consultants recommended that they do 35 years ago. You too seem to equate a lack of definitive evidence with the absence of any meaningful evidence. Or am I misunderstanding your position. And while you answer that, please give me your working definition of too much.


  7. Gary,

    I don’t see how industry actions are in anyway relevant to the issue of sugar’s alleged “toxicity” — which was the point of my comment.

    But as one who has from time to time reviewed and debunked alarmist studies about sugar and HFCS, I’m still waiting for evidence that typical consumption of sugar/HFCS causes any discernible harm whatsoever. You even basically admit in your article that the science is still not there.

    Feel free to send me what you think is a compelling study to the contrary. I’m willing to debate if you are.

    Of course, too much sugar, like too much of anything, can be harmful. But we much be careful in how we talk about that sort of outcome.



  8. Hi Steve,
    I thought the article did a pretty good job of explaining how the sugar industry did and did not address the issues, and analyzing the nature of the challenges when there is significant, but not definitive evidence suggesting your product might be toxic. What would you do if you were the sugar industry, it’s the mid-1970s, and serious research is implicating sugar as a substance that increases risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, perhaps independent of the caloric content? By that I mean, as I explained in my NYT Magazine article, that 100 calories of sucrose would be deleterious where 100 calories of glucose or even fat might not be. So how would you handle it? The argument we made in the Mother Jones piece was that the sugar industry handled it incorrectly and did the best they could to equate ambiguous evidence with no evidence at all. Should they have funded serious studies, as their scientific consultants suggested, to settle the issue one way or the other. Or should they have done what they did, which is launch a public relations campaign proclaiming sugars harmlessness? You don’t address those questions, but I would suggest that doing so would be more helpful than merely writing article off as a screed and so not worth serious attention.
    All the best,

  9. I find it interesting that little or nothing was mentioned about the sedentary lifestyle we lead. I include myself in that category as sit here typing at my keyboard. I think many of the problems would solved by simple accounting, i.e. do more and eat less(of everything including carbs)= weight loss.
    Keep sitting there banging on your keyboard, don’t work out and eat whatever you like=obesity diabetes and decreased lifespan.
    Don’t blame “Big Sugar”, corporate America or anyone else. It’s your own damned fault.

  10. Taubes has done a lot of terrific useful work, criticizing the abuse of epidemiology and debunking nonsense about the dangers of salt and fat. But he has grievously erred in joining with the mindless demonization of sugar. I would refer Taubes to his earlier work on the abuse of epidemiology.

  11. Have you even read Taubes? The entire focus of his journalism has been questioning poorly constructed “scientific” studies and their conclusions. Anyone interested in intellectual integrity in science should recognize Taubes as one of the most important persons in the scientific community in the last 20 years.

  12. You need to know the simplest chemical facts of what carbs and sugars are instead of thinking they’re all the same and blaming carbs for insulin insensitivity. The risk factors for insulin insensitivity are overweight, sedentary lifestyle, and high fat consumption (shown to cause insulin insensitivity in animal studies) and maybe very high fructose consumption (speculated to cause insulin insensitivity based on animal studies and because the liver makes triglycerides from excess fructose, equivalent to a little more dietary fat.) Starch is 100% glucose. All populations that lived mainly on starches such as rice, corn, potatoes, or breads without added fat, had low rates of obesity (in China, India, the Americas, and pre-20th century Europe other than the minority who could afford and ate large amounts of animal products.) The modern American diet is high in fat by historical standards (and the carbohydrates in it have a higher fructose to glucose ratio than historical civilized diets) and its results are very high rates of obesity and insulin resistance. Probably not just a coincidence. The brain uses glucose as its primary energy source. The less glucose low-carb advocates consume, the less chance they have of ever thinking straight about this.

  13. Taubes is the master of spin and junkscience, thinkly veiled to sound like science. Sadly, we are in a post-scientific era. Not only does he work from false hypotheses and creating fake crisis and conspiracies, he ignores and twists inconvenient evidence, uses outdated anecdotal evidence (most of which has long been discredited by the body of sound science), misuses definitions and terms that disprove his beliefs, and repeatedly demonstrates an inability to apply critical thinking to his own biases. He is the current low-carb guru and popular among today’s politically correct. But fearmongering about modern life, big business, and white foods – sugars, flours, and ‘processed foods’ — has been around for more than a century and this is just the latest rendition.

  14. All you need to know is the bio-chemistry of insulin and everything falls into place. I’ve read Taubes’s book and it’s not only completely compelling but also well researched. We Americans eat 5X the sugar we did 200 years ago and it’s killing us. Insulin is the body’s mechanism to control blood sugar and when we eat too many carbs we end up getting insulin resistant, which means “too much insulin to do the same job.” The net/net of all this is that our body gets into the mode of run-away fat (triglyceride) production, converting sugars (and starchy products) into fat that is packed into fat cells and locked there thru the action of insulin on LPL and HSL. (You need to read the book, or look up Lipoprotein Lipase and Hormone Sensitive Lipase on the internet). We end up getting fat. The constant oversupply of insulin in the blood (resulting from insulin insensitivity through eating too many carbs) starves the body of energy from fats and as soon as the sugars are consumed we get ravenous. We don’t get fat because we overeat, we over-eat because we’re getting fat. This can largely be addressed by a high fat, high protein, low carb diet which allows us to burn both consumed and stored cellular fat (because insulin isn’t being produced absent the carbs) and lose weight without being hungry (which means we can keep up eating this way for a life-time and maintain a healthy weight.

    There’s a lot more about how this obesity epidemic produces all kinds of diseases — heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and more, but that’s for another time.

  15. Chuckie,

    sugar is as safe as water. If you stick you head under water long enough you drown. If you eat too much sugar you only hasten your death, unless the truck dumps a ton on your head!!!

    The nutritionists are the masters of propaganda and politics. In France everyone drinks and there are few alcoholics. In the US we have even gone through a period of prohibition and we still have massive dependency issues.

    Maybe it isn’t the substance that is the problem. Maybe it is the crap education our children are given.

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