The Dark Side of Sweet

Sugar is everywhere and it may just be killing you

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Try to find a packaged food that doesn't contain some form of sugar. Pretty tough to do. In fact, it's nearly impossible.

The bitter truth is - we are drowning in sweetness. Food and beverage manufacturers add sweeteners to most processed foods because it's a cheap way to make just about anything tastier.

The impact of this obsession with sugar, some argue, has led to or is contributing to America's health crisis.

Robert H. Lustig, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco  Division of Endocrinology, makes a convincing case that sugar is toxic. His groundbreaking presentation - Sugar: The Bitter Truth - has been viewed on You Tube by nearly 1.3 million people.

What can't be disputed is the fact that as a nation, we're fatter and sicker than ever. Our children - even our infants - are part of an obesity epidemic. And some suggest - rather vehemently - that the key villain is sugar.

Some go so far as to say that sugar is killing us.

What exactly is sugar?

There's a lot of confusion about what sugar really is. In simplest terms, sugar includes the following:

  • Sucrose - table sugar that comes from sugar cane or beets
  • Fructose - naturally occurring sugar found in fruits
  • Glucose - a simple sugar that's found in all carbohydrates that our bodies use for energy
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is a manufactured combination of fructose and glucose

HFCS is sweeter than table sugar and a lot cheaper. It was discovered in Japan in the late 1960's and introduced in the United States in 1975.

Lustig says of sucrose and HFCS, "They're both equally bad - they're both dangerous - they're both poison."

Today, HFCS is found in virtually all processed foods - from the obvious sweet snacks and deserts to breads and pretzels and ketchup and sauces.

"We are being poisoned by this stuff," Lustig says, "It's been added surreptitiously to our food supply - every processed food."

How much sugar do we consume?

If you're just looking at fructose, each person in the United States eats about 63 pounds per person per year, according to Lustig. And adolescents in this country, he says, typically get about 12 percent of their calories from fructose.

"This is a disaster, an unmitigated disaster," Lustig says.

In terms of overall sugar consumption, the numbers are even worse. “Sugar Liberator” Connie Bennett, author of the book Sugar Shock, tells dailyRx, “The dilemma is that millions of Americans are overdosing—often without their knowing it, consuming roughly 150 to 200 pounds (if not more) of sugar and other sweeteners per year."

So is sugar really addictive?

Princeton University Professor Bart Hoebel and his team in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years.

"Craving and relapse are critical components of addiction, and we have been able to demonstrate these behaviors in sugar-bingeing rats in a number of ways," Hoebel said about his study published in 2008.

Neal Barnard, M.D., author of Breaking the Food Seduction, says that sugar is essentially a drug. He explains that  sucrose triggers a nerve impulse that goes to the base of the brain and opiate chemicals - cousins of heroin and morphine - are then released. Those chemicals, in turn, trigger the release of another brain chemical - dopamine - and that is responsible for everything that feels good.

This effect is a kind of pleasurable high that people like and want to feel again, which after lots of repetition, eventually leads to cravings for or an addiction to sugar.

Bennett says that biology and society work against us. “Unfortunately, we’re born into and grow up in a sugar- friendly—if not sugar-obsessive—society, where roughly 60-percent-plus of us are what can be best described as addicted."

What does sugar do to us?

In addition to tasting and feeling good, sugar does a number of not-so-sweet things to our bodies.

"All sugars are not created equal,"Plant-Strong Fitness Expert," Lani Muelrath, M.A., tells "Though a teaspoon of brown sugar on your oatmeal may be harmless in terms of helping you lose weight, it's a good idea to keep the lid tight on the refined fructose and all the places it lurks. Refined fructose, found commonly in HFCS promotes obesity by actually stimulating hunger so you'll eat more."

Muelrath adds that HFCS interferes with our brain's ability to let us know we're full. So again, we eat more of everything.

Beyond fat

And the facts are quite evident that not only are we eating more, but we're getting fatter as a nation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • In 1970, roughly 15 percent of Americans were obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0 or higher
  • Today, that number is 30 percent

Princeton professor Hoebel and his research team published findings last year showing that HFCS causes obesity in a way other sugars do not. In describing the results of this animal study, Hoebel said, "When rats are drinking high- fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they're becoming obese -- every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don't see this; they don't all gain extra weight."

And it gets worse. "These rats aren't just getting fat; they're demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides," said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. "In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes."

Baby fat

Children haven't escaped. In fact, they may be the biggest losers when it comes to sugar and what it does to their bodies.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), children of all ages are getting fatter. These figures show how obesity rates changed for boys from 1988-1994 and 2007-2008.

  • 11.6% to 16.7% among non-Hispanic white boys
  • 10.7% to 19.8% among non-Hispanic black boys
  • 14.1% to 26.8% among Mexican-American boys

Pediatricians are even seeing obesity in 6-month-old babies! This phenomenon is thought to be influenced by the mother's diet during pregnancy, in addition to the use of sweeteners in infant formulas and baby food.

One has to wonder if it's just a coincidence that obesity rates began rising and have continued to rise since the introduction of HFCS into the American food supply.

More than fat

Lustig illustrates his premise that sugar is toxic by discussing the biochemistry of what the body does when it's exposed to high fructose corn syrup over and over and over again. He shows that it leads to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated levels of uric acid which cause gout
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Lipid (cholesterol) problems
  • Insulin resistance which can lead to type 2 diabetes

And these are the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that can lead to serious, chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

So what we're seeing are raging rates of obesity that have put a large number of Americans on track for developing a number of chronic diseases, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver problems
  • Cancer

Bennett adds that eating too much sugar, along with other processed and refined foods such as white bread and potato chips, can lead to more than 100 different diseases and disorders - ranging from depression, headaches and fatigue to sexual dysfunction and Alzheimer's disease.

What you can do

To protect yourself and your family from the genuine health risks associated with sugar, be on the lookout for it.

Here are some of the other names it's disguised as:

  • Agave nectar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup

How to reduce sugar in your diet

At Lustig's pediatric clinic in San Francisco, obese children and their families are told to do four things to combat obesity and improve overall health:
1. Get rid of all liquids that contain sugar - drink only water or milk
2. Eat fiber with carbohydrates - add lettuce and tomatoes to a sandwich, for example
3. Wait 20 minutes before getting second servings
3. Make an equal exchange between screen time and physical activity  - 15 minutes walking for  every 15 minutes TV

This program works, he says. Kids do lose weight and get healthier.

Other tips for lowering your sugar use:

  • Add more fruits and sweet vegetables into your diet
  • Instead of adding sugar to your cereal, use fresh fruit like bananas or berries
  • Substitute unsweetened apple sauce for sugar in recipes (equal exchanges)
  • Use more spices to flavor foods - experiment with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice or ginger
  • When baking, eliminate a-third to one-half of the sugar the recipe calls for 
  • If you add sugar to coffee or cereals, cut back and use less and less until you add none
  • Avoid all sugary drinks, including soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit juices and flavored milks
  • Drink water with a little lemon or lime juice added 
  • Try to avoid any food that lists high fructose corn syrup high up in the ingredient list
  • "Find something you love more than the sugar high," Bennett suggests (For her, it's Zumba Fitness)

Sweet endings

What we know is that sugar is everywhere. What we also know is that too much of it can - and does - make us fat, which in and of itself, leads to the worst of the worst diseases.

Is sugar killing us?

While we may never have an official connection, sugar indeed seems to be a smoking gun.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 12, 2011
Last Updated:
November 14, 2011