Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 3, 2012

Sugar: the bitter truth

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

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
  • Lifesavers
  • Pepsi-Cola
  • Prego tomato sauce
  • Progresso
  • 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.


  1. Good post, Lou. I take it your blood test didn’t indicate Diabetes? If so, you’re lucky.

    Comment by David Altman — April 3, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

  2. …and so the phrase “Sugar Daddy”.

    Comment by Gulf Mann — April 3, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

  3. Excellent post (I have diabetes and high cholest.) It’s all about the sugar. but this means that eating too many simple carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, and especially potatos and pasta) are *particularly* bad. Avoid them, or, as George Burns noted “take smaller portions”.

    I never drank soda or ate candy but I was a huge consumer of fruit juices and fruit. All gone now except a small apple or peach now and again. It’s tough at that level.

    Pizza. When I was in NY for the Left Forum I of course partook in one of the 3 basic food groups of any New York (1. pizza, 2. donuts and 3. coffee) and went to my new favorite pizza place in Brooklyn Heights on Henry Street for a slice. I ate about one slice every day. This means that the white flour in the crust (NYC’ pizza is ‘healthier’ because they have very thing crusts) was my carb portion for the day.

    By cutting down, but not eliminating carbs, my cholest. went down to complete normal (along with the drugs I’m on). But avoiding hyper-glcymia is a real pain, anyway.

    Comment by tialsedov — April 3, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  4. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are also major culprits in cancer, as I found out 11 years ago when I was treated for it. Considering that over half of my acquaintainces in my age group (62) have had some form of cancer, and a number of passed away from it, I’d say that the hidden use of corn syrup in all kinds of ingredients is probably a factor.

    Comment by Tom the Printer — April 3, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

  5. It seems that many people upon aging will have higher cholesterol, that is, the so-called bad kind. I have high cholesterol but also high good stuff. Some doctors say one cancels out the other, others don’t. Sugar also comes with all fruits. A banana for instance has 19-20 grams of sugar in each banana. Apples have more. I refuse to take statins. Carbs create the sugar. I too watched that 60 Minutes session. Aging brings one closer to the body shutting down and changing its composition. Sometimes a shift in sleep habits also occurs with aging as some say less sleep is required. As I write this I am baking cookies with organic sugar. Does it make a difference that it’s organic? I don’t think so. Politics and sugar as opium and politics have a long history, viz. Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti. Sugar can make the unpalatable more palatable, in moderation. Marijuana seems to increase the craving. As the Buddhists say, seeking pleasure results in pain.

    Comment by rivercook — April 3, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  6. From Sixty Minutes:

    And it turns out, sugar has become a major focus in cancer research too. Lewis Cantley, is looking at the connection.

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta: If you limit your sugar you decrease your chances of developing cancer?

    Lewis Cantley: Absolutely.

    Cantley, a Harvard professor and the head of the Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center, says when we eat or drink sugar, it causes a sudden spike in the hormone insulin, which can serve as a catalyst to fuel certain types of cancers.

    Lewis Cantley: What we’re beginning to learn is that insulin can cause adverse effects in the various tissues. And of particular concern is cancer.

    Why? Nearly a third of some common cancers — including breast and colon cancers — have something called insulin receptors on their surface. Insulin binds to these receptors and signals the tumor to start consuming glucose.

    Lewis Cantley: This is your body…

    Every cell in our body needs glucose to survive. But the trouble is, these cancer cells also use it to grow.

    Lewis Cantley: So if you happen to have the tumor that has insulin receptors on it then it will get stimulated to take up the glucose that’s in the bloodstream rather than go into fat or muscle, the glucose goes into the tumor. And the tumor uses it to grow.

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta: So you’ve just seen that tumor turn blue which is essentially reflective of glucose going into it.

    Lewis Cantley: That’s right.

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta: So these cancers, much in the same way that muscle will say, “Hey, I’d like some of that glucose, the fat says, “I would like some of that glucose,” the cancers have learned how to do this themselves as well?

    Lewis Cantley: Yes. So they have evolved the ability to hijack that flow of glucose that’s going by in the bloodstream into the tumor itself.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 3, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  7. I am convinced that every food item known to man either has been, or eventually will be, found to be dangerous in some way to a person’s health … AND, that those very same foods, at some point in the past, or in the near future, will be found to have “benefits” to a person’s health. There’s no way to win. I say, stop studying the goddamned stuff and just eat it. Eat what you want, be sensible, all things in moderation. And pass the pizza (to me).

    Comment by David — April 3, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

  8. This article, enlightening to be sure… having ended all the soda and Max Velocity type drinks i thought that i’d could drink more milk with ‘chocolate’ in it… well as the article suggests it’s full of HFC’s so that won’t work ! 2 Gallons of milk from Costco is 5.99 but two gallons of applejuice are 9.99 dollars (or close to it) looks like more water for me.

    Comment by akismet-72473829c8ac575165fb598db916fb3e — April 3, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  9. When it comes to altering eating habits, and choosing healthier foods low on the glycemic index, I’ve had luck using periodic fasts. I usually do a couple a year. Right now I’m experimenting with a raw food fast for 2 weeks, supplemented by brown rice protein powder smoothies with frozen fruit. Not only does it help to detox and cleanse the liver, energy levels actually get really boosted after only a few days.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — April 3, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

  10. Staying away from soft drinks is probably the easiest way to improve one’s health, teeth and save money. Good tap water is a political struggle that starts with use.

    Comment by purple — April 4, 2012 @ 1:34 am

  11. Good luck finding good tap water, with all that Erin Brokovich chromium.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — April 4, 2012 @ 1:35 am

  12. Both NYC and SF have excellent sources of water, and to my knowledge, no chromium issues.


    Comment by tialsedov — April 4, 2012 @ 3:52 am

  13. When I read articles like this, I am reminded of the principle that bad food can kill you, but no food will definitely kill you. We tend to forget that not so long ago, even people in the developed world lived in fear of not having enough food. My mother in Mexico perhaps ate meat a handful of times a year, and she’s four feet nine inches tall. I am not saying that sugar is poison, or isn’t poison, it is just that it would be flawed logic to assume that nature and the natural course of things is “good for us”, Maybe in the Marxist utopia we all dream of this will be the case. But where we stand now, we die, and are always dying (nascentes morimur) and one thing we might think may be good for us today may be toxic to us tomorrow. I am still waiting for someone to write a Marxist reflection on death, though I might have to do this myself.

    Comment by El Pelón — April 4, 2012 @ 11:31 am

  14. I think any aging person should have a good look at fats and cholesterol levels. They are often indicators of vascular disease, especially corornary artery disease.

    My levels were not off the chart by any means and I have been a very active gym rat for all of my life, but I was nearing the end of a short term contract with a VA hospital and decided to get a CT of my Chest, abdomen and pelvis (no contrast) which can be obtained with one breath hold- 15 seconds. I did this because we discovered lots of asymptomatic treatable disease in the VA population and many of the VA patients had and have multiple system disease, much of it a result of PTSD which leads to chronic musculoskeletal disease, joblessness, homelessness, cirrhosis, multiple addictions, malnutrition and the general run of diseases of poverty.

    My CT showled lots of coronary artery calcification and it scared me, so I packed up my good and headed home to see a cardiologist stat. I had a CT angiogram followed by a heart cath and was found to have significant disease and the cardiologist could not get a stent in my right coronary artery, but had a large left coronary artery, so I am on plavix and the Esselstyn diet, lost 20 pounds (I was not overweight) and am doing fine.

    I would advise a CT of your coronary arteries if your insurance covers it, and if not, go on the diet anyway. Just google it.

    Comment by roger — April 4, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  15. In Sweden there’s a food revolution going on. People are staying away from carbs (all of them, not just the fast ones) and instead filling up with fat (all of it, not just the “good” fat). This new way of eating is called LCHF and I tell you, it really is big movement, growing bigger every day. The theories behind it are quite easy to understand but none the less very interesting. I urge all of you to check it up. People on LCHF are losing weight, their diabetes stops undermining their lives, they feel overall happier and best of all – they eat really good food which tastes great and which keep them full all day. I know, it sounds like science fiction but it works 100%.
    Best Regards and thanks for a great blog! Fredrik, Malmö, Sweden

    Comment by Fredrik — April 4, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

  16. By the way, here’s a short intro in english written by Andreas Eenfeldt, one of the persons who’s written most extensively on this subject. His blog, “the dietdoctor” is one of the most read blogs in Sweden today and his book, “The Food Revolution” one of the best sellers of the last years.

    Comment by Fredrik — April 4, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

  17. […] 2. Louis Proyect, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” […]

    Pingback by The Pathology of the Processed Food Industry » Counterpunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — February 22, 2013 @ 10:00 am

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