We Need to Talk About Sugar, But Not Like This

Anti-sugar advocates like Lustig have adopted a fire-and-brimstone approach: Demonize a macronutrient. Tell people they should consider removing sugar and sugary foods from their pantries, that it is toxic, that we need to regulate it like cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs of abuse. Remember his analogies to cocaine and heroin.

But before we ransack our kitchens to rid them of ketchup and jam, it’s worth pausing to heed a warning from Stanford epidemiologist John PA Ioannidis. In his seminal 2007 article, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, Ioannidis helps explain the endless flipflopping on nutritional guidelines. “For many current scientific fields,” he writes, “claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

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Real science, as Ioannidis reminds us, is slow and humble. Only time will tell if the current level of sugar alarmism is warranted, or if many years from now the comparison of sugar to cocaine will look a bit ridiculous. Should that be the case, governments and policymakers will be in the unenviable position of backtracking on yet another dietary guideline, further undermining the public’s trust in science as an enterprise. The research on sugar might be right – but our history of bias shows that we have a tendency to jump the gun on sugar due to moral furor.

That doesn’t mean that excessive sugar consumption is safe, nor that we should accept sugar’s role in our national diet. Caloric excess is often due to sugary treats, and companies market sugary foods rapaciously to children. So how do we address these problems?