Sugar is ‘The New Tobacco’
Is Sugar the New Evil?
We Are All Sugar Junkies Now
Sugar and Spite
Are You a Sugar Addict?
Sweetness and Blight – The Mounting Case Against Sugar
These are all UK newspaper headlines from the last year or so, part of the increasing tide of aggressive sugar shaming that has come to dominate the agenda on diet and health. This year, the journalist Gary Taubes released ‘The Case Against Sugar’, one of a long history of similar titles stretching back over the last sixty years. From Abrahamson and Pezet’s ‘Body Mind and Sugar’ in 1951, through Yudkin’s infamous ‘Pure White and Deadly’ in 1972, William Dufty’s quite bonkers (but hugely influential) ‘Sugar Blues’ in 1975, and Starenkyj’s ‘Le Mal De Sucre’ in 1981, all attack sugar as a unique dietary evil, the underlying cause of much modern disease.
More recently, a succession of self-help, anti-sugar titles have been dominating the best seller lists in the UK and abroad. If you want to create your own, here is a quick guide –
Pick a word or two from this list –
Crystal, Pure, White, Toxic, Drug, Detox, Cold-Turkey, Quit, Poison
Add a lame pun using one of these words –
Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Sticky, Sugar-Coated, Candied
Then, provided you have good skin, tenuous qualifications and rich-girl hair – or a white coat and Hollywood teeth if you are male – then I guarantee you instant bestseller status.
(terms and conditions apply)
The vast majority of these books (including Taubes’) present opinions that are a distance from the scientific consensus on the subject. Most claim that sugar is both addictive and a metabolic poison, uniquely linked to obesity and many other deadly conditions. In contrast, every credible scientific review of the evidence (for example the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition’s 2015 Report, or the World Health Organisation’s 2012 meta-analysis), say that although we definitely eat way too much, sugar is a facilitator of excess calorie consumption, not an addictive poison. I have always struggled to understand why many serious commentators (and a few campaigning chefs) choose to believe poorly qualified new-age gurus above the consensus of scientific opinion, but I guess I should be thankful – people’s tendency to be fooled keeps writers like me in business.
A History of Shame?
Framing sugar as a poisonous anti-nutrient seems to appeal to some sort of mass cultural instinct, meaning such voices have huge influence in spite of the scientific evidence. Guilt and sweetness seem to go hand in hand, which does beg the question – why? Where exactly does our tendency to vilify sugar come from?
Perhaps it is just an artefact of some ancient, puritanical religious sentiment. Consumption of sweet things can be enjoyable, and religions have always been troubled by worldly pleasure. But when it comes to sugar, there is little evidence to support this. From its introduction to European cuisine in the eleventh century, all the way through to the late sixteen hundreds, sugar was highly valued for its medicinal properties, an important part of the healing armoury of Galenic medical practitioners. It was considered so important in ancient medicine that the saying ‘like an apothecary without sugar’ commonly meant a state of utter hopelessness. In these times, honey was considered vastly inferior, a primitive and dangerous sweetener, enjoyable but damaging to health. Sugar was white, refined, pure, and so hugely desired.
The First Sugar Shamers
The first murmurs of sugar disapproval came from the British medical community. In the seventeenth century there was a shift from the very qualitative view of health presented by the Galenic system, through to a more quantitative approach, and so associations between excess and disease started to be made for the first time. Thomas Willis, an influential and pioneering doctor, proposed that excessive sugar might be the cause of scurvy, noting that there was a strong correlation between high rates of consumption in England and a rise in the incidence of the disease (an often since repeated case of mistaking correlation for causation when it comes to sugar).
In the eighteenth century, the case against sugar took on political dimensions, amid growing disapproval of the brutal slave trade on which the industry depended. Sugar boycotts linked to anti-slavery movements became common, perhaps embedding a moral disapproval of sugar into our thinking. But it remained a highly desired food by many, and was still felt to be of great benefit to health, an important part of many medicinal preparations.
It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that sugar’s reign as a powerful medicine faded, with the move to production from beet making it cheaper and more accessible. Sugar shifted from the tables of the aristocracy to the plates of the proletariat, and as is often the case, a move down the social ladder led to it becoming imbued with poisoned morality – from cure all superfood to object of distain.
These days, our attitudes to sweetness have changed completely, although curiously not in a particularly progressive way. Although sweet goods still have associations with joy, childhood, social bonds and festive celebrations, they are also deemed as an unnecessary vice, especially when their consumption lacks a social context. To consume sweet foods alone, solely for pleasure, seems sinful to our modern minds, largely driven by the shiny new gurus of sugar-free happiness. We use sweet treats to bribe our children, to win favour with difficult colleagues, to gain approval, to offer thanks, or sometimes to seduce, but rarely allow ourselves to consume them alone, just for the hedonistic joy.
And it is perhaps for this reason that incredulous campaigners fail to understand why anyone might choose a sweetened soft drink as their hydration of choice. The answer ‘because it tastes good’ is somehow not considered enough in the context of sweetness. Yet many other risky pursuits are undertaken for pleasure alone, without the same moral judgement. How many of the anti-sugar campaigners treat themselves to a glass of wine on a Friday evening? Over-indulge at an expensive restaurant? Drive too fast for thrills? Send their children horse riding? Or go on expensive skiing holidays? Why are those pleasures not challenged in the same way? Why don’t they just have a glass of water instead? Why is sugar so different – deemed more needless and shameful than other sources of happiness? Could it be that the pleasure from a can of energy drink is just not middle-class enough? Is it the legacy of a sneering nineteenth-century aristocracy, still upset that their exclusive joys have been made available to all?
The Changing Face of Sugar
Little highlights more how our attitude to food, technology and progress has changed over the centuries. At one point, sugar’s purity was the reason it was so valued, its refined perfection giving it miraculous healing powers. Now, purity is the very thing we fear, the reason it is denigrated and attacked. How curious that the further we live from nature, the more we idolise the natural and untamed, the more we favour raw honeys or nectars. When our forebears first tasted the sweetness of refined sucrose, first held the clean white crystals in their fingers, they lived lives that were much closer to nature’s brutal power than our cosseted modern existence. They felt the violence and destruction of the natural world every day, with its disease, starvation and pestilence. For them, the purity of sugar’s crystals was a window into the future. It was cleanliness and safety, a welcome respite from terrors of nature. How they would have envied the industrialised food supply we enjoy today, a Nirvana they would never have imagined possible.
As we have tamed nature’s menace, the purity of sugar is now considered evil, addictive, our great modern sin. This is the guilt of a secular world, a last moral frontier, a place where self-righteous campaigners feel empowered to judge and shame with impunity. When it comes to sugar, people are openly attacked for selfish indulgence, and parents publicly humiliated for giving their children a simple treat. It is only sugar and smoking where this is still accepted, and for our modern day puritans, smokers are increasingly thin on the ground.
A succession of former addicts – reformed sinners – long to show us the error of our ways, offer us salvation, promise to save us from this refined poison. Yet we do not need to be saved. It is true that most of us could do with cutting down, and in doing so embrace a more varied and interesting diet, but I suspect that while sugar maintains its status as a moral battleground rather than just food, this will always be a hard thing to achieve.
Anthony Warner is a development chef in the food manufacturing industry. He blogs as The Angry Chef. His first book, The Angry Chef – Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating will be published on the 6th July.