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Once popularized as the food that helps the medicine go down, sugar is now blamed as the culprit behind a world-wide epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other manifestations of metabolic syndrome, even high cholesterol and heart disease.

Bodies In Motion Are Immune to the Ill Effects of Sugar, Within Limits

Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist and a specialist in childhood diabetes on the faculty of the University of California at San Francisco, even goes so far as to label sugar as "evil," in a YouTube video now seen over 1,000,000 times.


Dr. Lustig doesn't just call sugar a source of "empty calories." He labels all kinds of sugar, whether they are sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar and a sugar extracted from corn syrup), or glucose (the form of sugar our bodies make from starch) as pure poison. There are no healthy sugars, Lustig and his followers tell us, because sugar only kills.

This is very strong indictment for a compound our bodies can make from lettuce and collard greens and even excess amino acids when we eat lots of high-protein foods. What is the basis of the bugaboo about sugar?

Sucrose, Fructose, and Glucose Sugars

In the 1970's, the Nixon Administration decided that America's security depended on a reliable supply of home-grown food grains, especially corn. Massive subsidies to farmers encouraged production of huge amounts of grain, especially corn. The problem facing the Nixon Administration and the American agriculture industry in general was that massive production of a commodity lowers prices, unless a new use can be found for the crop.

That new use was high-fructose corn syrup. Corn starch can be treated with enzymes so that it releases a mixture of fructose and glucose. Fructose is about twice as sweet as glucose, which is used in some specialized applications, such as the sugar used to make decorations on cakes. Mass production of corn led to mass production of corn syrup, and an extensive advertising campaign to promote high-fructose corn syrup as the healthful alternative to cane sugar. At the time, high-fructose corn sugar was even promoted as a safe food diabetics and dieters.

Since the 1970's, hundreds of studies have found that massive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is associated with at least many health problems as massive consumption of cane sugar. And since the price of high-fructose corn syrup is lower than cane sugar, North American consumers are fed the corn starch derivative in practically every imaginable mass-produced food.

American health officials operate on the assumption that the problem is eating too much sugar of all kinds. American food marketers operate on the assumption that people buy things that are new to them, so they are now advertising mass-produced food products as containing no high-fructose corn syrup. But Dr. Lustig says they are both wrong, that both kinds of sugar are toxic.

The glucose the body digests from starches, Lustig argues, is used by every cell in the body. Fructose and sucrose (which is itself a combination of glucose and fructose), however, have to be processed in the liver. The problem isn't just consuming too many calories as sugar. The problem, according to Dr. Lustig and other influential commentators such as the New York Times' Gary Taubes, is that both fructose from corn syrup and sucrose table sugar "burn out" the liver's ability to store sugars and cause diabetes, overweight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even some kinds of cancer.

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  • Décombaz J, Jentjens R, Ith M, Scheurer E, Buehler T, Jeukendrup A, Boesch C. Fructose and Galactose Enhance Post-Exercise Human Liver Glycogen Synthesis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Mar 10. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Photo courtesy of Celso FLORES by Flickr :