Sugar and spite
February 23rd 2017, 18:12
It's a belief that still underpins our most popular weight-loss programmes and, if truth be told, somewhere deep down you probably believe it too. It's this: the more you eat, the more weight you'll put on.
It seems logical enough, but it's not entirely true. The idea of the equality of calories was started by the sugar industry in the late 1950s, and has been endorsed and promoted by supposedly independent researchers and our health guardians ever since. The National Institutes of Health in the US states that obesity is the result of "an energy imbalance"—you're eating more than you're burning off—and the UK's National Health Service tells us that "obesity is generally caused by consuming more calories—particularly those in fatty and sugary foods—than you burn off through physical activity. The excess energy is stored by the body as fat".
But calories aren't equal, of course, and it's more to do with what you eat than the quantity, as perhaps we're all slowly starting to realize.
The self-evident 'truth' of the equality of calories had inauspicious beginnings. It saw the light of day in a newspaper advertisement the sugar industry paid for to counteract the publicity shots of President Dwight D. Eisenhower following doctor's orders and using saccharin to sweeten his coffee.
The advert explained that there was no such thing as fattening food. Instead, "all foods supply calories and there is no difference between the calories that come from sugar or steak or grapefruit or ice cream." A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and the source doesn't matter.
The trouble was, there was barely any evidence to support the claim. So the sugar industry paid to get some, as some papers uncovered last year have revealed.1
They paid the equivalent today of $50,000 to three Harvard scientists to 'prove' that sugar wasn't the problem, but saturated fats—mainly from meat—were.
The seminal paper was published in the prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, which helped launch the low-fats industry. The report also threw off the scent any researcher who might have been suspecting that sugar also had something to do with weight gain.
And these weren't just the shenanigans of a dim past: in 2016, scientists announced that diet drinks—manufactured by the sugar industry—were about the same for losing weight as plain water. However, it was later revealed that the lead researcher was sponsored by Sugar Nutrition, which itself is funded by the sugar industry, and six of the 11 researchers who helped him had some association with the sugar industry too, with sugar manufacturers directly employing two of them.2
All the while, real science was going on, but it wasn't sexy and it wasn't supporting the sugar industry. As health researcher Gary Taubes explains in his new book, The Case Against Sugar (Knopf, 2016), endocrinology—the study of hormones and hormone-related diseases—and biochemistry were making extraordinary discoveries.
Even as early as the 1960s, scientists knew that we metabolize different carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, differently. It may be subtle, but over the years, these differences add up, and consuming the 'wrong' sugars long term has created the obesity epidemic we're seeing today.
Taubes is a fierce critic of sugar, believing it to be more deadly than tobacco. "The disorders for which it is the prime suspect—obesity and type 2 diabetes—in turn elevate our risk of virtually every major chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer's," he writes.3
But he doesn't just blame the sugar industry. Like a mother hen protecting its chicks, the sugar industry has been defending its commercial interests and those of its stakeholders and shareholders.
Not so the scientists-for-hire, who were happy to say exactly what their paymasters wanted them to say. The Harvard researchers were recruited by the sugar industry, which also paid them and told them the results they were expecting.
Like schoolboys eager to please, the researchers sent their paymaster early drafts of what they intended to write. "Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind, and we look forward to its appearance in print," wrote back their funders.
It's hard to believe how these scientists, and the many others who followed them, could believe they were practising objective, without-fear-or-favour science.
No, they took the money and duped generations of trusting people who, influenced by their 'discoveries', accepted that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.