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Is sugar toxic? (cbsnews.com)
45 points by stfu 2124 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

Here is a video from Dr. Robert Lustig about sugars. It is an hour and a half long but very informative.


After watching it, I've considerably reduced my sugar intake. I still drink soft drinks during lunch/dinner, but I am slowly weaning myself off them and onto water/tea and other better alternatives.

I watched that a while ago and I remember him talking about the amount of salt in a Coke, as though it were a conspiracy of some kind.

But Coke has very little salt -- about 45 mg.

So the rest of the talk seemed to be colored with a conspiratorial tone, from my perspective. Am I wrong to be so dismissive?

I had the same reaction when he went off on the public restriction on alcohol (52m), but the science sounded reasonable. With that in mind, I cut my sugar and carb intake. I lost fat. So, I chalk it up to his personality or a reaction to being ignored for a long period of time.

The coke I've drank in the past has been loaded with salt. But salt isn't really the most dangerous ingredient in coke... is it

>But Coke has very little salt -- about 45 mg.

This tells me nothing. 45mg per 100ml? Or per serving (usually 250ml)?

It's about 40mg of sodium (which is about 100mg of salt) per 12-oz can, which is 355ml.

It doesn't really make much difference. It's a small amount of salt for any reasonable level of consumption unless you are really watching your salt intake.

I do not know whether 45 mg is a small or large amount of salt. But his main point is that that salt is there to make you feel thirsty after drinking a soda.

In my personal experience he is correct there. Soda does not quench my thirst and leaves me feeling thirsty.

1 teaspoon is (very) approximately 5 grams. There are 1000 mg in 1 g; thus 5000 mg in 5 g.

So 50 mg is 100th of a teaspoon of salt. Roughly.

EDIT: This UK health advice suggests that adults should have less than 6 g of salt per day.


But this Scientific American Article suggests that there's no evidence for that.


I found Dr Lustig's talk enlightening because I always thought of it simply as input -> output (sucrose -> glucose). In retrospect, it's obvious that the bio-checmial process your body uses to convert that is pretty darn important.

However, as cool as it is to get re-introduced to things like ATP and Krebs Cycle, the driving message we get from experts has been a constant for a long time: avoid processed foods.

It's incredibly simple advice to understand and to follow. It's also an excessively easy lifestyle to adopt. There is no lack of unprocessed foods and it isn't more expensive. I just don't understand why people don't eat better. I'd be pretty depressed if I was a health-care professional...decades of messaging and things are only getting worse.

I just don't understand why people don't eat better.

I understand it perfectly. The brain rewards bad diet; sugar tastes better than fiber. Couple this with food companies that need to grow 10% a year to keep their investors happy, and you have the perfect recipe for making people eat more, cheaper calories. Processed food may be the same price as unprocessed food, but it's more calorie-rich, it's more advertised, and it gets more shelf space at the store. (It is really a lot cheaper, but sold at a higher markup. So that profit buys ads and shelf space.) Hence, the path of least resistance is to buy processed food.

For some of us who never got into the cooking habit, and can't do anything on a regular schedule (like food shopping), and can't plan in advance in general, and don't even have running water at work (old building), it's incredibly HARD advice to follow.

I live one block from a giant supermarket; I moved here FOR that supermarket. They have pretty good produce; if I walk 5 minutes there's a local food co-op and 10 minutes gives me Whole Foods.

But you know what's easier than going to the supermarket, picking out produce, planning or googling a meal, and [feeling like] + [remembering to actually] cook that meal before the produce goes bad?

Buying ten boxes of Amy's, congratulating myself on the fact that there are actual identifiable pieces of broccoli instead of green flecks, calling it "healthy", grabbing some ice cream and cookies to reward myself for that, and being all set for ten days, plus a buffer of whatever I actually had in the back of the freezer before.

Never heard of Amy's before...looked it up, doesn't look horrible to me. A little high in sodium and low in fiber, but that's typical of this kind of food.

Fruits and vegetables often don't require cooking, can keep for long enough to not need planning or require water @ work. Add nuts to this, and some water or tea, and you've taken care of snacks.

As for cooking, ya you need to learn. Its an investment, but the rewards are so significant, it really should be a top priority.

"can often keep long enough to not need planning": I don't think you quite get how bad ADD can be... I just threw out some (almost healthy!) unsweetened applesauce I bought and opened last winter. It was not hiding in the fridge; it was one of the only things in the fridge.

I used to go to the supermarket every week to "buy the groceries and change the spinach". (See, once I have fresh veggies, I want FRESH veggies. No water-logged baby spinach for me.)

And yeah, I actually used to cook Passover dinner for 30, built a gourmet kitchen, Calphalon pots, Wusthof knives, Matfer mandouline, Kenwood stainless-gear mixer with every attachment (did you know there's a potato scrubber?), properly seasoned wok, and a freaking pecan picker (http://ontheroadinthevw.blogspot.com/2007/12/catching-up.htm...).

Now I live in an apartment with a cheap electric stove and that stuff is in cabinets I never open and did I mention how easy it is to grab 10 frozen dinners? But yes, of course you're right.

What is considered "unprocessed" foods at the grocer? Raw beans, rice, whole grain wheat? Is the ground beef/deli meat "unprocessed" by your definition?

Serious question. My impression is that anything not cut from an animal myself is processed by some harmful additive, so I've given up.

>My impression is that anything not cut from an animal myself is processed by some harmful additive, so I've given up.

There is plenty of simple advice on what to eat, and it isn't the end of the world if you don't follow the guidelines 100%. "Giving up" makes it sound like you're prone to an extremist view, which life has shown me is rarely the most pragmatic view.

Fruit that looks like it is something that would come off a plant > "Fruit roll-ups" Whole-wheat bread > wonder bread strawberries > twinkies

> As Mr. Pollan puts it, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”


Nah, just try to use whole ingredients were possible, and read the label if you aren't sure.

Most pre-made foods have terrible ingredients. Manufactured foods are made of filler (water, flour, emulsifiers), a bit of "flavor" (preferably salt, cheap oil, sugar, and weird chemicals), and preservatives (some of which can be quite harmful).

The priorities of food manufacturers are shelf life, cost, marketing, and tastiness. Tastiness is usually their lowest priority. Unless they want to look healthy, health isn't even a priority.

Pan-frying some in-season vegetables with a bit of chilli and garlic is usually a lot healthier. A big ol' steak is less healthy, but tastier.

Try eating a tomato which was picked green (so it keeps better, and is easier to handle without bruising it), then had its skin artificially ripened. Then try a ripe tomato (you can generally tell just by how soft it is). There's a big difference.

> preservatives (some of which can be quite harmful).

Citation needed.

Specifically, I want you to support the assertion that preservatives used in modern, Western food are currently known to be potentially quite harmful in the usual amounts consumed.

Sodium nitrate is a raging carcinogen if you char grill it.

Sulfur dioxide can cause problems in some people. It's relatively safe (as in, as safe as you can get for a preservative), but can induce asthma in some people. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7426352.

> Sodium nitrate is a raging carcinogen if you char grill it.

I don't think that's unique to sodium nitrate.


> Sulfur dioxide can cause problems in some people.

Right, and gluten does a real number on the (relatively few) people with celiac disease; gluten is a naturally-occurring protein that is perfectly healthy for most people, so we can't judge a chemical entirely by what it does to some people.

Sodium benzoate in combination with vitamin C produces benzine - a known carcinogen.

For starters, everything that doesn't come in a box or a bag is likely unprocessed (which includes the meat you mention). The massive categories you are missing are fruits and vegetables (although excess fruit can also pose a sugar problem). Wheat is tricky because it is typically processed. Whole grains are better.

I understand that you could take this to an extreme: if it doesn't grow in my garden or die by my hand...

But let's just focus on low hanging stuff for now. There are food products that are more chemical than anything. Oreos, Poptarts, CheezWhiz, pops, frozen meals, Juices "now with 10% real juice"...The list is extensive. Then you have overly refined products (white bread, white pastas).

Fruits and vegetables (fresh, canned or frozen), lentiles and legumes, grains/careals (including breads and pastas), raw meat (fish/chicken/beef/pork/...) are all ok. I'm sure there's more.

I don't think there's much room for confusion between eating Captin' Crunch vs oatmeal, cheetos vs a bowl of plain yogurt with strawberries.

> There are food products that are more chemical than anything

The problem is that even this statement is ambiguous. All foods, processed or not, are almost all chemical by any proper definition of the word chemical I know of.

Of course the point your trying to make is that they contain large amount of "human added chemicals" some synthesized, some not. If you look at the ingredient list of a rockstar energy drink you'll find almost everything in it is "natural", that is a chemical that exists in nature and is part of a diet that would be considered healthy (in some amount / combination).

The argument should really be based on healthy amounts and combinations of chemicals and just because it exists in nature, doesn't make it healthy (see red meat and recent studies regarding it).

I find this discussion to be fascinating in regards to evolutionary development. Humans 'like' sugars and meats for strong evolutionary reasons. They were rare when the average age of death was like 30. Getting cheap calories was very beneficial to successful life and hence child bearing in the era.

Whats really interesting is that I don't see those traits going away. Evolution requires selective pressure. There would have to be a selective mechanism that resulted in those who "eat well" to contribute more to the gene pool than those who do not. While I have no studies at hand to back this up, my personal observation doesn't indicate that this pressure exists. As a result I don't think we'll see the enjoyment of such food disappear any time soon.

>They were rare when the average age of death was like 30.

When lots of people died before their first birthday‡, the average age being thirty meant that lots of people who made it past their first birthday would live longer than thirty.

‡Estimates vary from 30 to 50% rate, in the old world.

I really wasn't trying to throw a stick in the mud in terms of a hard scientific date which is why I phrased it how I did. That said my reference wasn't so much toward "the old world" which I take to mean in the last few thousand years but rather on more of an evolutionary scale, that is millions of years ago.

There is selective pressure beyond simply "Does this individual get to reproduce?" For example, if unhealthy people are less able to care for their kin, that can put their genes at a disadvantage.

Agreed, but that doesn't changes my stance / point so I didn't elaborate as it is mostly irrelevant in today's society unless there are some statistics that I am unaware of regarding reproductive success of children whom travel through orphanage systems or similar mechanisms that exist to support child who's parents can not support them.

> There are food products that are more chemical than anything.

Everything is 100% chemical.

Sorry, of course that's right. I meant the list of ingredients.

You're not quite getting it: Saying something is 'chemical' tells people nothing about it. Absolutely nothing. This is a form of the naturalistic fallacy.


Instead, mention specific chemicals and detail what in specific they do that's bad at the quantities people normally eat them.

Bear in mind that a lot of grains and beans are fairly toxic in themselves - plants don't want you to eat their seeds. So whole grain might actually be just as bad for you as the refined stuff, just in different ways.

Gluten is one aspect of this, but there are apparently a whole range of other things which can impact your digestion, prevent nutrient uptake, etc.

If it grows on a plant, or eats plants, or eats things which eat plants, it's not processed food.

If it didn't exist 150 years ago, or you cannot find it in nature, it's processed food.

This doesn't seem all that useful. I can't find salads in nature. I can't find bread in nature. I can't find smoothies in nature. I can't find noodles in nature. Are those all bad, processed foods?

> If it didn't exist 150 years ago, or you cannot find it in nature, it's processed food.

Is the corollary true as well? Lead sugar existed a few thousand year ago - so is that processed food?

> If it grows on a plant, or eats plants, or eats things which eat plants, it's not processed food.

Tell that to people who go bugnuts about GMO foods.

> If it didn't exist 150 years ago, or you cannot find it in nature

Start checking on when your favorite variety of apples was first created.

Newer varieties of fruit actually have much more sugar than many heritage breeds. I wouldn't go as far as to say you should avoid them, but that's probably not a valid argument against the rule.

Title can be improved.

What is toxicity? "A central concept of toxicology is that effects are dose-dependent; even water can lead to water intoxication when taken in too many doses, whereas for even a very toxic substance such as snake venom there is a dose below which there is no detectable toxic effect. Toxicity is species-specific, lending cross-species analysis problematic. Newer paradigms and metrics are evolving to bypass animal-testing, while maintaining the concept of toxicity endpoints."


The dose makes the poison - Paracelsus

Dr Lustig's argument is that the amount of sucrose the average person takes is toxic. The title could be "Average person eats sucrose in doses of toxicity"...or "Sucrose is toxic"

You are being pedantic.

Dr Lustig has been promoting this idea for many years. The problem is that he's doing it very unscientifically. He vastly overstates his evidence and makes claims of certainty that the science doesn't support.

I'm interested to see what replies his recent Nature publication receives.

He starts by saying sugar and high fructose syrup are the same, then concludes by testing high fructose syrup and finding it's bad - but not testing sugar.

His test does not support his conclusion.

Good message: "don't over consume and stick to unprocessed sources".

It bothers me though that the word sugar is in the title since they really mean sucrose. Both fructose and glucose occur naturally (fruit, veggies, starches) and are not harmful.

Sucrose occurs naturally too. So does cyanide. Natural != good to eat.

Speaking of words, it's weird to often see 'veggies' in writing because to me that is squarely baby-talk. No offence - I'm sure it's a regional thing.

Fructose is harmful, unfortunately. Sucrose gets split by the body into one fructose and one glucose molecule. And it is the fructose that is harmful because it cannot be properly processed by the liver in large quantities. Sucrose is only harmful in as much as it produces fructose.

It is true that fructose appears naturally all over the place. And that is the tricky part. The liver can actually process fructose fine if it gets a little at a time and simultaneously receives fiber. Almost everywhere fructose occurs naturally it occurs with fiber. Thus, the human body is perfectly capable of processing fructose in its natural state, but once you start concentrating it and removing the fiber the problems come about.

This is why fruits and veggies are perfectly healthy but refined sugars are bad for you.

> The liver can actually process fructose fine if it gets a little at a time and simultaneously receives fiber.

Dietary fibre gets to the liver?

The liver gets nutrients from dietary fiber which help it process fructose. I believe the nutrient in question was phosphorus, but am not absolutely sure.

Fibre doesn't have any nutrients - it's essentially indigestible. The reason it helps with sugars is that it slows their absorption down and helps to reduce blood sugar spikes.

I think his point is that sucrose is quickly transformed into fructose + glucose. And our bodies aren't equipped to process that much fructose. glucose is processed by cells all over. fructose in the liver, depleting phosphorus and making fat, when we chronically consume too much. We've eaten refined glucose for a larger chunk of human history. Until refined sugars were added to everything, we consumed a lot of fiber with our fructose sources, reducing the amount that was even absorbed. He goes into how much extra sugar we unwittingly consume from processed sources.

Too bad he sounds so smug. But I'm pretty sure he will be proven correct.

A lot of modern fruit has been cultivated to increase its sugar content. An apple 200 years ago was a lot less sweet than one today.

An apple 200 years ago was picked at the peak of ripeness - i.e. very sweet.

Today they pick them early, so they try to get the sugars in there sooner.

Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose; which is why I don't like the title. Cyanide is not in context...

A healthy liver can process roughly 50g fructose before fat storage begins to occur. This would be a tough number to hit since for every 100g of fruit you eat only 7g is fructose (on average).

Please link baby saying "veggies", ty.

do you have a source on that claim? not that I don't believe you, I just haven't heard it before and it sounds pretty interesting.

Fructose is the main problem, according to Lustig. Whole fruits aren't bad because they also contain fiber, which counteracts the fructose, but fruit juice is a problem because the fiber has been removed.

I do a ton of review of nutrition studies and here's the conclusion I've come to:

The primary concerns are the biggest killers: cancer and CVD. The main causal pathway by which carbohydrates (of which simple sugars have the largest effect) affect CVD incidence is via the simultaneous lowering of HDL and raising of blood serum triglycerides. This is much more important for predicting CVD episodes than the 'low LDL' you hear touted a lot. The connection between sugar and cancer is less well established.

Refined sugar has only been a big part of our diet for the past couple of hundred years (not even a blink of an eye on an evolutionary time scale). Breads and grain-based foods have been part of our diet for somewhat longer, but highly refined white flour is also comparatively novel in our diet.

I cut all added sugar and all flour (bread, pasta, pizza, etc) and most other grains and processed food from my diet about 18 months ago. I basically went on the paleolithic diet, though I'm not really fanatical about it except for the sugar and flour. I mainly eat unprocessed meat, eggs, leafy vegetables, nuts, some fruit (try to stick to berries) and minimal dairy. I went from 215 lbs to 165 without any real effort (exercise, etc). I'm convinced that the obesity "epidemic" and the need for so many people go on Lipitor and similar drugs as they get older is directly attributable to our sugar- and flour-laden diets.

I do miss freshly baked bread but on balance I think it's worth it. Will I live longer? Who knows, but I feel better eating what my body is evolved to consume.

I don't think that something being "comparatively novel in our diet" is a sufficient or even useful argument.

Definitely. However, that doesn't mean he is wrong. For more actual evidence of this stuff, The Eades' book `Protein Power'[1] and Robb Wolf's book `The Paleo Solution'[2] offer some pretty compelling evidence of how grains and related foods are detrimental to our health (among other topics). I, too, am a Paleo success story, having gone from 210 to 185 in 2 months, and feeling better than I have ever felt. All I have is anecdotal evidence for myself, though, so I always refer others to these books.

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/Protein-Power-High-Protein-Carbohydrat...

[2]: http://www.amazon.com/The-Paleo-Solution-Original-Human/dp/0...

It is sufficient to make it much more probable that we can't process it very well assuming one believes in evolution.

You seem to have an odd idea of how evolution works. If it were the way you seem to think, we'd have a harder time picking up water bottles (which are very recent) than water outside of a bottle (which has existed for millions of years). In fact the opposite is true.

Water bottles were designed[0] to be easy to use. Our digestive system (and everything else about us) are a series of hacks on top of hacks on top of hacks that happened to make their carriers more likely to have descendants.

That an abundance of simple sugars is novel in our diets is at least weakly suggestive that we will be poorly adapted to them. There's even evidence for this; in general the shorter a time a population has had agriculture the higher the prevalence of (Type 2) diabetes. Aboriginies, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans all have way, way higher rates than Asians or Europeans. The Arab world has had agriculture for at least as long as anyone else and they have diabetes out the wazoo though in the more developed parts, perhaps a side effect of really, really liking sweet tea and incredibly sweet treats.

[0] Designed things and evolved things are not even remotely equivalent in an argument about evolutionary changes. Minds can make things better ludicrously faster than the Blind Idiot God.


You seem to have found a weird comparison that I didn't intend in my comment. The point I was trying to make is that the man-made thing, water bottles, is better suited to our evolved hands than the natural thing, free-flowing water. Similarly, there is no reason why any food we made ourselves is likely to be worse for our evolved body than any food that was around when the digestive system evolved. That idea, that "paleo" foods are inherently better for us, feels right, but is ultimately fallacious. (I mean, some might turn out to actually be ideal, but it isn't deductively true in the way that many advocates want it to be.)

> there is no reason why any food we made ourselves is likely to be worse for our evolved body than any food that was around when the digestive system evolved

Of course there is. Take an organism, throw it into a random environment. Chances are that it's not going to do as well as it would in the one that it's evolved for.

That's essentially what we're doing when we eat a modern diet - sugar, starch, wheat, beans, etc. are not what we ate when we were hunter-gatherers. It's not particularly surprising that it causes lots of weird and/or bad side-effects.

have you tried prunes? cheap, keep forever (powdered prunes are added to other foods to make them last longer) and loaded with antioxidants and fiber. I found it much easier to keep a bag of prunes around than trying to find decent quality berries.

> Americans are now consuming nearly 130 pounds of added sugars per person, per year.

I have always found this statistic utterly astounding, esp. considering that sugar is a new world product. In 1500 England, say, the average person consumed 0 pounds of added sugar per year.

Life is toxic. You'll eventually die of it.

Really, if you remove everything harmful to health from you life (including everything related to a computer), you'd probably die of boredom, depression and frustration real fast.

OK, let's try this: Is honey toxic?

Honey has a lot more nutrients in it than sugar, so generally it's better for you, and doesn't spike your insulin so hard. Here's a round up which has some links to further research: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/is-honey-a-safer-sweetener/


Is there seriously anyone left at this point who doesn't think sugar is toxic?

I think "toxic" is a strong word. Sugar occurs naturally in fruit which is relatively healthy and sugar in moderation (ie, not added) is completely fine.

Not sure why the downvotes.

I looked around a bit further and it's even clearer that sugar, sucrose, fructose, etc, by themselves are not poisons.

Nothing by itself is a poison. But it's pretty clear that what they are saying is that refined sugars are toxic in the level that they're being consumed by Americans today. You can try to pretend they're talking about bananas all they want, but as soon as you stop willfully misrepresenting what they're saying your argument falls apart.

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