Friday, February 3, 2012

Toxic Sugar: Should We Regulate It Like Alcohol?

Should sugar be regulated like alcohol? That's the premise of a new position paper, published today in the journal Nature by three leading obesity researchers from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

They argue that added sugar in all forms -- sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup alike -- is as perilous to public health as a controlled substance like alcohol. Bolstering their argument with statistics on obesity and other chronic disease, as well as evidence that our bodies process sugar in a way that is harmful to our health, they advocate for regulation to temper sugar consumption worldwide.

The researchers' main impetus came from a 2010 United Nations report revealing, for the first time, that more people are dying from chronic, non-communicable diseases, so-called "lifestyle diseases" like heart disease, than from infectious disease. "The UN announcement targets tobacco, alcohol and diet as the central risk factors in non-communicable disease," wrote the researchers. "Two of these three -- tobacco and alcohol -- are regulated by governments to protect public health, leaving one of the primary culprits behind this worldwide health crisis unchecked."

The paper's lead author, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, is well known for this line of argument, most notably in his popular lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" -- a YouTube phenomenon with close to 2 million hits. It's rare that a medical researcher achieves world-wide renown -- or that an endocrinology lecture goes viral, for that matter -- but his argument is a compelling one. He explains that our bodies process fructose in much the same way they process alcohol and other poisons. Sugar isn't just a source of empty calories, responsible for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, in this scenario: at high quantities, it is a full-fledged toxicant and contributes to many of the major fatal non-communicable conditions, like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

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