Sweet sweet sugar...
Sugar and its various guises is the common ingredient in most of the food items that line of our supermarket aisle. How sugar went from obscurity to king-status makes for fairly interesting reading.
For a long time the mechanism for obesity and diabetes was little understood. Obesity was attributed to gluttony and a lack of will power, but then, prior to World War 2, the Austrians and German begin to reveal there was more to the picture.
Rather than simply eating too much, they suggested that obesity could be a hormonal condition and has more to do with genetics, metabolism and the endocrine system than was previously given credit. Just as more support for this theory was gaining traction the war started which abruptly halted further research.
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s & 1960’s that the conversation was picked up again and science began to talk about the hormone insulin (significant in diabetes) and the fact that insulin could be the driver for obesity, and that sugar was a dominant driver of insulin.
In response to this, artificial sugars began to rise in popularity as a solution to using real sugar.....it’s at this point that capitalism at its greatest stepped-in. The sugar industry funded studies to show that artificial sugars were inherently bad for our health and so paved the way for global dominance. The sugar industry was quick to extinguish any threat to its economy.
Fly in the ointment
The conversation flared up again the next decade. In the 1970’s British nutritionist John Yudkin suggested that it WAS sugar that was the bad guy and the cause for obesity and diabetes. This again rattled the sugar industry who responded by funding a campaign that would suggest that saturated fat was the cause for obesity and diabetes and ultimately divert attention from the real culprit – Sugar!
At this point in time it was pretty easy to convince the public, FDA and government, since in 1958 Ancel Keyes (American nutritionist) had single-handedly convinced the US that saturated fat increased cholesterol which he proposed was the link to coronary heart disease. Keyes had presented his theory (lipid hypothesis) essentially demonising saturated fats.
His study (The Seven Countries Study) had simply cherry picked 7 out the 22 countries which aligned and supported his hypothesis. This was an epidemiological study which would lack credibility with today’s testing but was enough to get saturated fats over the line and begin the shift in attitude which is still being felt today – 60 years later!!
Sugar gets the green light
The vilification of saturated fat had left the door wide open for sugar and it would boldly begin its global dominance unhindered and untreatened. Since the 1960’s the prevalence of sugar has spread like wild fire and we’ve lapped it up with gusto, you only have to meander through your local supermarket or food court to get an understanding of how sugar is the dominant ingredient. Pretty much every processed food item will feature sugar to a great or lesser extent and let’s not forget that refined carbs (bread, cereals, pasta) have the same hormonal response as sugar – but more on this shortly.
I’m not just talking about the obvious sources of sugar. Sugar has penetrated 99.9% of processed, commercial food items….to understand it’s proliferation it’s necessary to read food labels
So why have we allowed the fire to spread some much. If we knew the health implications around sugar decades ago why didn’t we put the brakes on? To me the answer is multi-layered but two important reasons to consider are:
It's not me it's my hormones
As Homo sapiens we are genetically geared to crave and consume sugar. Let’s go back a few thousand years, as hunter/gathers sugar, in the form of honey, fruits, berries would have been seasonal and not perennial, as we see nowadays. When it was available we would simply gorge on it. We have to consider that our body’s M.O is to survive – this is its basal function! It’s the law of optimal foraging strategy – get as many calories in, in the most efficient way in order to preserve energy, but ultimately maximize intake of food - as the ‘cupboard’ could be bare tomorrow.