Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In Praise of Sugar

Health obsessions come and go.  You will recall the successive demonization of fat, cholesterol, trans-fats and the great anti-carb crusade.  The last of these caused perfectly rational people to convince themselves that a diet of bacon cheeseburgers was perfectly OK as long as you abjured the bun.  I suspect 2011 will be recalled as the year when demon sugar caught the fancy of the nutritional exorcists.  And don’t think this is an isolated American phenomenon, I just read a long article about how sugar is leading us to damnation in the Czech Republic’s foremost financial paper, Hospodarske Noviny (here’s the link if you happen to read Czech).  Nonetheless, the American health-advice industry still leads the world: just read Gary Taubes “Is Sugar Toxic?” New York Times article from last April.  That piece was largely devoted to examining claims made by Robert Lustig, a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and childhood obesity at UCSF.  Lustig makes no bones about it:  sugar is poison and it is evil.  By the end of the article Taubes appears largely convinced.  “Sugar scares me too,” he writes and worries about giving it to his sons. 

Lustig’s argument is not that too much sugar is bad but rather that any amount of refined sugar is bad.  It’s like saying that because rhubarb contains oxalic acid (which can cause health problems) strawberry rhubarb pies should be banned.  Americans have a tendency, though, to label food “good” or “bad.”  If you eat the good stuff you will be svelte and fabulous and never die and if you eat the bad you will go straight to hell wearing XXXL sweats from Walmart.  Subtlety does not make careers or sell newspapers. 

That said, Americans undoubtedly do eat too much sugar and other sweeteners, probably about twice as much as is healthful according to a FDA study quoted by Taubes.  But what exactly does that mean?  We’re eating some 90 pounds per year.  Which works out to about a half a cup a day or 24 sugar packets.  A quarter cup would be probably be fine though, according to the FDA study, and just in case you’re wondering, that’s the equivalent of 8 Toll House cookies, 4 glazed donuts or about 3 slices of pumpkin pie.  The problem, of course, isn’t that people are eating too much dessert but rather drinking too much soda.  But telling people to eat a sensible quantity of sugar rather than abstaining altogether just isn’t the American way.  It’s like the advice American teenagers are given about sex: just say no.  It’s no wonder our teenage pregnancy rate is one the highest in the developed world and our obesity rate is just as bad.

So why can’t we just be sensible about all of this?  I think it has a lot to do with the fundamentally puritan nature of our culture.  At the root of this is the idea that pleasure is sinful.  Abstaining from pleasure (especially such sensual pleasures as sex and food) will ensure you a place in heaven while self-indulgence will send you straight to hell.  Sometimes the vocabulary makes this self-evident.  Sugar is “demonized.”  It is “evil.”  Sometimes it’s more subtle than that.  There is a widely held belief that it is up to you to determine how long you live.  The more discipline you have, the better you are able to control your natural urges, the closer you can get to life everlasting.  The good (those who haven’t succumbed to their instincts) get to play golf in the Elysian fields well into their nineties, while the bad (who lived on Coke and KFC) are punished with an early, painful end.  This is the secular answer to heaven and hell but there is the same moralizing quality. When citing various studies on the effects of diet, journalists often write that eating or not eating ingredient X lowered the study participants’ death rate.  Of course what they mean is the death rate from a particular disease but that’s not the way it reads.  To the best of my knowledge, our death rate remains 100% no matter what we do or eat.

We are hard-wired to like sugar much as we are designed to enjoy sex.  Pleasure has an evolutionary basis.  In nature, foods that are sweet are invariably not poisonous whereas bitterness signals danger.  In many cultures children’s first taste of real food is something sweet and kids naturally gravitate to sweet foods.  Does that mean that they should be indulged with a diet of Cocoa Pebbles and soda?  Of course not, but neither should they be told that those things are “bad.”  They need to learn that pleasure has its time and place; otherwise they will only associate it with being drunk in the back seat of a borrowed car—and regret it the next day.  There is a twisted logic at work here:  if pleasure is sinful you can only get pleasure from sinful activities and thus the greater the transgression the greater the pleasure.  You will notice that the term “sinfully rich” does not occur in Catholic Europe, but to us “sinful” is just a synonym for “pleasurable.”

Sugar has long been a natural target for those who wish to save our souls.  Well before the current sugar-bashing fad, sugar was associated with the miseries of the slave trade and, while it is undoubtedly true that European sugar consumption habits in the 17th and 18th centuries were the primary cause of the transatlantic slave trade and its associated horrors, it does not follow that sucrose is somehow malevolent.  Was the sugar produced by peasant farmers in India during this time more virtuous?  Or the beet sugar produced after 1800 morally superior?  Certainly 19th century abolitionists thought so (there was a movement to boycott slave-grown sugar in the early 1800s).  Some made this explicit, describing consuming slave-grown sugar as partaking “of other men’s sins” and the need to refrain from the pleasures of the tea table to safeguard their own virtue. (See Lectures on Slavery, 160).

More recently  (in the 1970s) sugar was linked with hyperactivity in children though the consensus among researchers is that no such link exists.

Undoubtedly the current sugar witch hunt will come and go leaving people ever more conflicted and confused about what is on their plate and ever guiltier about each and every pleasure.  But in the meantime I have every intention of enjoying my next donut or that slice of tarte au citron and feeling virtuous pleasure with every bite.