A couple of months ago, after I began taking naps almost every night over a three week period—something that was unprecedented for me—my wife urged me to get a check-up. So alarmed was I about my changing sleep patterns coming at me with the force of jet lag that I broke with my ostrich-like aversion to medical exams and made an appointment. At the age of 67, I knew that it was better to find out about some frightening condition even if medical science lacked the means to overcome it.
My overall attitude toward such matters was profoundly fatalistic. I could not help but think that my body was like a car with over 100,000 miles on it. It might get me from point A to point B for the time being but eventually it would be done in by the organic counterpart of rust. To extend the motor vehicle analogy further, by the time I had reached the age of 50 I began feeling like Yves Montand driving that truck filled with dynamite in “Wages of Fear”. No matter how careful you were, death would catch up to you. I might have spent over 45 years defending socialist ideas, but before that I was a hard-core existentialist. It was hard not to think in existential terms, after all, when it came to matters of life and death.
By the time of the appointment, my sleeping patterns had returned to normal. But the report I got back from my blood test left me feeling a bit rattled. My cholesterol levels were high and the doctor recommended a change in diet and more exercise. About five years ago I took a blood-pressure test in a cafeteria at work and was told that it was slightly elevated. That persuaded me to cut down on salt and start using a butter substitute. With respect to exercise, there’s not much more I can do beyond the 10 to 12 miles per week that I have been jogging since 1970. I may not be very fast but I am consistent.
After getting this report, I tried to figure out where the bad cholesterol was coming from. Most nights, a typical meal at home is fish or some white meat with vegetables. I have a couple of eggs on Sunday morning and a bit of cheese in the evening before dinner, but that’s about it when it comes to dietary fat. I began to feel like someone who has been told that they are HIV positive. But instead of trying to figure out which one-night stand had made me ill, I looked back at some of my foolish flings with fast food. Was it the Kentucky Fried Chicken I used to eat 2 or 3 times a week when I lived in Kansas City in 1978? Or maybe all the slices of pizza I’ve enjoyed over the years in New York City? Like Christopher Hitchens telling an interviewer that he would have not have forsaken booze or tobacco, even if he knew early on that it would lead to esophageal cancer, I had difficulty imagining what life in New York would be like without pizza. Given all the shit you have to put up when living here, such small pleasures make it worth it.
Last Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” had a segment that cleared things up for me. It turns out that sugar is the main cause of high cholesterol rather than fat nowadays. Titled Is Sugar Toxic?, it focuses on the crusade of Dr. Robert Lustig, a California endocrinologist whose main concern is with the impact of sugar on young people. Among the people interviewed is Kimber Stanhope who conducted an experiment on young people whose sugar intake was measured carefully hour by hour. This is what she reported:
But now, studies done by Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis are starting to back him up. She’s in the middle of a groundbreaking, five-year study which has already shown strong evidence linking excess high fructose corn syrup consumption to an increase in risk factors for heart disease and stroke. That suggests calories from added sugars are different than calories from other foods.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: The mantra that you hear from most nutritionists is that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.
Kimber Stanhope: And I think the results of the study showed clearly that is not true.
Stanhope’s conclusions weren’t easy to come by. Nutrition studies are expensive and difficult. Stanhope has paid groups of research subjects to live in this hospital wing for weeks at a time, under a sort of 24-hour lockdown. They undergo scans and blood tests – every calorie they ingest, meticulously weighed and prepared.
Kimber Stanhope: They’re never out of our sight. So we do know that they are consuming exactly what we need them to consume.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And they’re not sneaking any candy bars on the side.
Kimber Stanhope: Yeah, right, exactly.
For the first few days, participants eat a diet low in added sugars, so baseline blood levels can be measured.
[Research assistant: So remember you guys have to finish all of your Kool-Aid. ]
Then, 25 percent of their calories are replaced with sweetened drinks and Stanhope’s team starts drawing blood every 30 minutes around the clock. And those blood samples? They revealed something disturbing.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And what are you starting to see?
Kimber Stanhope: We found that the subjects who consumed high fructose corn syrup had increased blood levels of LDL cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: How quickly did these changes occur?
Kimber Stanhope: Within two weeks.
Kimber Stanhope’s study suggests that when a person consumes too much sweet stuff, the liver gets overloaded with fructose and converts some of it into fat. Some of that fat ends up in the bloodstream and helps generate a dangerous kind of cholesterol called small dense LDL. These particles are known to lodge in blood vessels, form plaque and are associated with heart attacks.
Unlike most people, I don’t have a sweet tooth. I have a teaspoon of sugar with my coffee in the morning and a piece of cake or a cookie on Saturday afternoon but that’s about it. Perhaps the fact that I have had only one cavity in the past 20 years testifies to what I thought my ostensibly good dietary habits supported.
But it turns out that the real culprit was probably the fucking corn syrup that is almost universal nowadays in just about every product found on grocery shelves:
Lustig says the American lifestyle is killing us.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And most of it you say is preventable?
Dr. Robert Lustig: Seventy-five percent of it is preventable.
While Dr. Lustig has published a dozen scientific articles on the evils of sugar, it was his lecture on YouTube, called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” that brought his message to the masses.
By “bad food” Dr. Lustig means the obvious things such as table sugar, honey, syrup, sugary drinks and desserts, but also just about every processed food you can imagine, where sugar is often hidden: yogurts and sauces, bread, and even peanut butter. And what about the man-made, often vilified sweetener, high fructose corn syrup?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Is it worse than just table sugar?
Dr. Robert Lustig: No. ‘Cause it’s the exact same. They are basically equivalent. The problem is they’re both bad. They’re both equally toxic.
Since the 1970s, sugar consumption has gone down nearly 40 percent, but high fructose corn syrup has more than made up the difference. Dr. Lustig says they are both toxic because they both contain fructose — that’s what makes them sweet and irresistible.
Dr. Robert Lustig: We love it. We go out of our way to find it. I think one of the reasons evolutionarily is because there is no food stuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous to you. It is all good. So when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinian signal that this is a safe food.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: We were born this way?
Dr. Robert Lustig: We were born this way.
Central to Dr. Lustig’s theory is that we used to get our fructose mostly in small amounts of fruit — which came loaded with fiber that slows absorption and consumption — after all, who can eat 10 oranges at a time? But as sugar and high fructose corn syrup became cheaper to refine and produce, we started gorging on them. Americans now consume 130 pounds per person a year — that’s a third of a pound every day.
Perhaps the widespread use of corn syrup might have something to do with all the commercials for products that contain it, including “Sixty Minutes” that has been sponsored by:
- Campbell’s Soup
- Prego tomato sauce
- Werther’s butterscotch candies
If you go to Prego’s website, you will be deluged by all the “nutritional” buzzwords like organic and healthy, but except for its Heart Smart brand that only came into existence as a result of consumer pressure, all their products contain corn syrup.
Campbell’s, which owns Prego, has also adapted to consumer pressure but most of its soups contain high fructose corn syrup, including the Classic Tomato Soup I used to eat growing up.
Even if I was to be more careful in looking for corn syrup in anything I buy in the store, there’s not much I can do about the food I eat at lunch, which has come from Fairway’s kitchens over the past 5 years since I have been working on West 131st Street in West Harlem. Almost all their hot meals come with some kind of sauce that is calculated to taste good, even if it is larded with corn syrup (and salt for that matter.) I am trying to be more selective in what I take out from Fairway but in the final analysis I will have to wait until I retire to make sure that I control what goes down my gullet.
But ultimately sugar is a political problem rather than an existential one. In an article I wrote five years ago on Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” I cited a passage that dealt with the role of sugar in the capitalist economy, especially as a way of “lubricating” the de facto machinery that human labor represents. It is well worth repeating:
Mintz sketches out the early consumption of sugar, which was a commodity as precious as gold. When the Venerable Bede died in 735 A.D., his fellow monks inherited his trove of spices, including a package of sugar. Besides its tastiness, sugar–like salt and other spices–had importance as a preservative. That is why it was important to the Venerable Bede and the average European. Until the “discovery” of the Americas, sugar was a luxury imported good from the East that was largely confined to the ruling classes. In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)
When the British East India Company was chartered in 1660, one of its chief goals was to increase tea imports into Great Britain. A century later tea was the drink of choice in Great Britain, even more popular than malt liquor–and considerably cheaper. The rural poor had used malt liquor to moisten their bread, but a tax on malt made it relatively expensive. Meanwhile, factory workers relied on tea and sugar for a jolt that could help them keep pace with the rigors of the assembly line.
Tea, by comparison to malt liquor or gin, was cheap. You just needed sugar to make it more palatable. Hence, the irony that two key consumer goods of the British lower classes–tea and sugar–relied on the super-exploitation of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. This obviously sets the pattern for Wal-Mart today. Sugar also supplied a cheap substitute for complex carbohydrates, just as it does today. Oatmeal porridge was mixed with molasses–so-called “hasty pudding”. Mintz’s description of consumption patterns in the 18th century seem depressingly similar to those today:
The first half of the eighteenth century may have been a period of increased purchasing power for laboring people, even though the quality of nutrition probably declined at the same time. Innovations like the liquid stimulants and the greatly increased use of sugar were items for which additional income was used, as well as items by which one could attempt emulation of those at higher levels of the social system. But labeling this usage “emulation” explains very little. The circumstances under which a new habit is acquired are as important as the habits of those others from whom the habit is learned. It seemes likely that many of the new tea drinkers and sugar users were not fully satisfied with their daily fare. Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate. A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless “hit the spot,” perhaps particularly for people who were already undernourished.