Have you seen The Secrets of Sugar? It’s a riveting documentary originally aired by CBC/Radio Canada on October 4, 2013. If you have store-bought cupcakes, Coca Cola, Eggo’s, Campbell’s tomato soup, or even a Healthy Choice chicken dinner in your pantry, this film’s for you. Once you’ve watched it, take a look at the nutrition facts labels on your food. What you find may surprise you!
If you can’t access The Secrets of Sugar online or don’t have time to watch it, check out my reconstruction (a slightly edited and shortened transcript) below. The story is just as fascinating in writing as on the silver screen, and a whole lot speedier.
Meet the Breedons
When the Breedon family goes shopping, like most Canadians, they try to buy healthy. But like most Canadians they don’t always succeed.
A lot of what they eat is processed. They assume it is healthy, but they have never paid attention to what exactly is in the food they buy, and have no idea how much sugar is hidden inside. Registered dietitian Jacqueline Pritchard is about to help them figure it out.
The label on a Nesquik cereal the family has bought says there are 10 g of sugar for each serving of 3/4 cup. Jonathan Breedon consumes eight servings of this cereal for breakfast. Pritchard informs him that this amounts to over 80 g sugar, or 20 teaspoons. Jonathan is shocked – he had no idea.
An industry in search of your bliss point
Whether it’s the white stuff you bake with, the brown sugar you sprinkle on your cereal, honey, molasses, or the high fructose corn syrup you find in soda pop, chemically it is all pretty much the same thing, and we consume a lot in Canada – 26 teaspoons of sugar per person per day, or 40 kilos (88 pounds) of sugar per year.
It’s what sweetens the products and spikes the profits of some of the most powerful and familiar companies in the world. The food industry is one of the biggest industries in North America – nearly a trillion of Canadian dollars in sales every year – and it couldn’t do it without sugar.
“Sugar is one of the basic, essential, ingredients used in 99% of processed foods out there,” says former food industry executive Bruce Bradley, who used to work for Pillsbury, Nabisco, and General Mills. “It’s something that drives a lot of the taste and appeal in the products to consumers. So it’s one of the basic building blocks. “
And make no mistake: The amount of sugar in our food is no accident. The food industry goes to great lengths to figure out what makes us crave a product, the exact combination of ingredients it calls “the bliss point.”
“Everybody asks, ‘What is the bliss point?’” explains Dr. Howard Moskowitz. He is a long-time food industry consultant and widely known as “Dr. Bliss.” He says, “Do you drink coffee with milk? So if you add more and more milk, you like it more and more, up to a certain point where you like it the most. And then you add a little bit more milk, and you say, ‘Oh, it’s too milky, gosh!’ and a lot more milk, and you say ‘It’s horrid!’ So it’s goldilocks, it’s the middle, it’s the best, where you like the product the most.”
A Harvard-trained mathematician, Moskowitz uses models that track people’s reactions to different versions of a product. Once he’s found the bliss point, the product hits the shelves. From soda pop to spaghetti sauce, his magic makes money.
“Everybody wants to sell just a bit more,” says Dr. Bliss. “How do you get that immediate increase in acceptance? Those in the know realize you can add a little sugar.”
A little? The first thing to know is that 4 grams is one teaspoon. With that in mind, let’s look at a few products. It is well known that Coca Cola Classic contains loads of sugar: 40 grams a can, or ten teaspoons. But most of the sugar we eat is hidden in products we don’t necessarily think of as sweet. For example, fat-free vanilla-flavored Greek yogurt from Liberté has nearly five teaspoons in just half a cup. You can find sugar added to bread, soup, all kinds of condiments, and hot dogs. Even this chicken dinner sold under the brand “Healthy Choice” has 5 1/2 teaspoons of sugar in every serving.
Bliss now, weight gain later
Is obesity the result? There is no question that as our consumption of sugar has grown, so have our bodies. Canada doesn’t keep good statistics, so we’ve used American ones. And those statistics raise the troubling question: Are we changing our evolutionary shape?
Look at the graph pictured below. The red line shows our sugar consumption for the last fifty years. The blue line is the number of people who become overweight and obese. Now look at the green line for cases of type 2 diabetes and the yellow line for diseases of the heart. They all are rising in conjunction, indicating that there is a connection.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s we used to blame lots of these mounting health problems on dietary fat. So we took fat out of our foods. Did the incidences of disease go down? No. That got a lot of doctors and nutritionists asking “Why?” The answer, according to an increasingly vocal group, is sugar.
Professor Lustig talks poison
“Which is worse, the sugar or the fat? The sugar – a thousand times over,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, medical professor, author of the book Fat Chance, and one of the leaders of the anti-sugar campaign. “The fact is: Our food supply has been altered and adulterated under our very noses and in plain sight over the last thirty years.”
In addition to treating obese kids, Lustig is a YouTube sensation. His lecture on sugar has been seen by nearly four million people around the world.
When told “You use the words ‘poison’, you use the words ‘toxic’” for sugar, he replies, “I certainly use those words. I mean them. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the real deal. Everybody thinks that the bad effects of sugar are because sugar has ‘empty calories.’ And I’m saying that no – there are lots of things that do have empty calories and they are not necessarily poisonous.”
He uses the term “poisonous” because of what too much sugar does in our bodies. Let’s take a look at that. Sugar is made up of two molecules: glucose and fructose. When they separate in our gut, the glucose circulates throughout our bodies, feeding our muscles and our brains. But the fructose goes right to our liver, and it’s in our liver where all kinds of problems begin.
Says Lustig: “When you metabolize fructose in excess, your liver has no choice but to turn this energy into liver fat, and that liver fat causes all of the downstream metabolic diseases.“
We’ll tell you more about those diseases in a moment. First, however, let’s talk about your brain. Too much fructose, says Lustig, shuts down the part of your brain that tells you when you are full: “It doesn’t get registered by the brain as having eaten. So if you prep a kid with a soft drink and let him loose on the fat food restaurant, does he eat less or does he eat more? Turns out he eats more. “
Phyllis Tanaka, who speaks for the biggest food companies in Canada – Pepsico, General Mills, and Kraft -, doesn’t buy Dr. Lustig’s theories and thinks consumers shouldn’t either. Her view: “It’s more important that we sit back and look for ways to educate and help consumers fit sugar into a healthy dietary pattern.”
But the industry sure doesn’t make this easy. Look at this nutrition label for a breakfast bar. There is sugar near the top of the list of ingredients, but there are four more sweeteners. Did you know that chemically they are all the same?
Then there is this tomato soup from Campbell’s. Who knew that it had added sugars, too? The only information on its label is 14 grams of sugar in half a cup. Do you know what that means? You shouldn’t have to be a dietician to figure out how much sugar you are eating.
Jacqueline Pritchard is a dietician, and she has added up all the sugars Jonathan Breedon eats in a week. It’s pretty scary: 245 teaspoons.
The Breedons purge their pantry
Having discovered just how much sugar is in their food, the Breedon family is on a purge. They are still surprised at how many products contain sugar. But they are also determined: Out it goes. Of course, they still have to eat. So to help them learn about life beyond processed foods, we have made them a deal: For three weeks, we’ll provide all of their meals professionally made, without any added sugar. They will stick to the diet and submit to medical tests.
They are only in their mid-twenties, but according to medical standards, both Jonathan and Anna are obese. Five-year-old Ruby is hovering on the edge. We started our experiment by having their blood tested and analyzed by obesity specialist Dr. Dan Flanders. The family, he says, is heading for trouble: “Looking at these results, I would say I am very concerned. If they don’t make meaningful changes to their lifestyle relatively soon, there is a higher chance that they are headed for a lousy quality of life and early death.”
Like most of us who are getting fatter and sicker, the Breedons might be forgiven for their nutritional ignorance. But the food industry has known and discussed links between processed foods and disease for decades.
A meeting in Minneapolis
It was Minneapolis, 1999. Obesity was only an emerging problem back then, when the heads of America’s biggest food companies arrived for a rare meeting. Among them were Kraft, Nabisco, Nestlé, Coca Cola, and General Mills.
Michael Moss, a reporter for the New York Times and author of the best-selling book Sugar, Salt, & Fat, describes these industry leaders: “These are executives who normally are fighting each other for space in the grocery store. They don’t get together very often. But in 1999 they got together to talk about obesity.”
He says, “They had been pulled together by a cabal of insiders within the industry who had become increasingly concerned about the industry’s responsibility and culpability for these things.”
They gathered at the Pillsbury company headquarters, 31st floor. The message they got was uncompromising. And it was delivered by two of their own: Michael Mudd, a top executive at Kraft, and Jim Hill, a leading nutrition researcher. In a slide presentation the two men gave it to the bosses straight: There were too many warnings, Mudd told them. Then he drew a parallel designed to make them uncomfortable: Tobacco companies had recently settled a lawsuit in the face of evidence that their product caused disease. Did the food industry, he asked, want to be next?
Mudd continued: “If anyone in the food industry ever had doubts that there was a slippery slope out there, I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.”
Graphics drove home the point. Maps showed obesity rates rising and spreading across the United States like a rash.
Jim Hill jumped in: “What are the health implications of all this? Studies show that obese individuals are at a higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. “
Topping the list of contributing factors were the many inexpensive and good-tasting, super-sized, energy-dense foods on the market. These were the very foods that the CEOs in the room were in charge of selling.
At that meeting Mudd and Hill were hoping for money to study the link between food and obesity. Instead, they got a tongue-lashing. Michael Moss says it started with Stephen Sanger, the head of General Mills: “He was rather furious at Mudd for bringing this to them and blaming them for this. His defense was: ‘Look, we already offer consumers a choice. If they want low-fat-this or low-sugar-that, we have these products in the grocery store. We feel we are already being responsible – both to consumers from a health perspective and to Wall Street.’”
In other words, the executives didn’t want to know.
The silence of the scientists
It is one thing to silence troublesome voices in their own companies – Michael Mudd eventually left the food industry out of frustration. But the people who profit from sugar have proven themselves very adept at crushing dissenting voices everywhere, including in the halls of science.
Take John Yudkin, a British nutritionist who in 1972 wrote a book the sugar industry did not like. Entitled Pure White and Deadly, it was the culmination of decades of research, according to Yudkin’s son Michael. It led Yudkin to what were then controversial conclusions.
His son explains: “He started to wonder late in the 1950s whether sugar might be a culprit in heart disease.” Asked if his father deemed sugar more significant than fat, the son adds, “More significant than fat. Certainly more significant than fat. But sugar was also involved in a number of other undesirable conditions, particularly diabetes and obesity.”
That thesis quickly put Yudkin in direct conflict with sugar’s biggest apologist: American nutritionist Ancel Keys. Keys would later be exposed as having been funded by the industry, but not before he helped destroy John Yudkin’s reputation.
Science writer Gary Taubes, who authored the book Why We Get Fat, comments: “As early as the 1950s he had started producing publications suggesting that dietary fat was a problem. Keys successfully managed to stain Yudkin with this smell of quackery. From then on anyone else who did research on sugar was accused of being just like Yudkin. “
Michael Yudkin agrees: “There was a systematic campaign to discredit or ignore his work.”
Taubes adds: “Because of the actions of the sugar industry in the 1970s, no research was being funded. There was this idea that if you study sugar, you’re just like Yudkin, and he was a quack.”
So scientific research on the connection between sugar and disease ground to a halt.
The Breedons learn about healthy food choices
It’s week one of the documentary’s sugar challenge. The Breedons are getting a cooking lesson. Chef James Smith is teaching them that real foods – all the fruits, vegetables, and grains of a healthy diet – can also be fast and delicious, even without any added sugar at all. And that may prove to be a good thing, because after decades of silence there is new scientific research linking sugar to all kinds of chronic disease.
Jonathan’s blood suggests that he may be on the verge of getting on. Dr. Dan Flander says, “His results suggest that he is prediabetic. If we don’t make some changes to his lifestyle soon, diabetes is coming.”
How much proof is proof enough?
Today in North America it is estimated that more than 100 million people are diabetic or prediabetic. Dr. Robert Lustig is quite sure that he knows why:
“I can categorically say to you that sugar is the proximate cause of diabetes worldwide. We have hard and fast data to show that.”
His data comes from his own study, done over a decade, comparing diabetes rates in 175 countries with people’s diets. “We asked the question: When you adjust all of the factors that we know are relevant, what about the food supply predicts diabetes rates worldwide? Answer: Sugar. And only sugar.”
Dr. John Sievenpiper, a nutrition researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, is skeptical: “These studies are generally considered a very weak level of evidence. A lot of other things happen at the same time [and confound the results].”
Sievenpiper argues that Lustig’s methodology is flawed: “Methodologists will tell you that there is a lot of potential for bias there. Let me give you an example: Over the same time as sugar has gone up, so has bottled water. But there is no real plausibility in the link between an uptake in bottled water and obesity. We have to be careful to put too much biological plausibility in patterns that we see.” His point is that it is hard to tell what exactly causes disease.
Healthy students turn out markers of disease
Inducing disease in humans under controlled conditions would keep Sievenpiper’s confounding factors in check and allow scientists to determine the causes of illness, but ethically this is not feasible. What they can do is test for markers, warning signs that disease may be coming. That’s what they are doing here, at the University of California at Davis.
In this lab students are the guinea pigs. The scientists are feeding them sugar to figure out if it raises the markers for heart disease.
Every time they run the test, says Dr. Kimber Stanhope, the results have been the same: “We saw increases in visceral adiposity – that’s the fat within the abdominal region, the fat surrounding the liver and the intestines and the kidneys. It’s the fat that is associated with increased risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
The Breedons are now familiar with that fact. Anna and Jonathan have already been diagnosed as having fatty livers. This puts them at risk for raised insulin and raised levels of triglyceride, which is the fat in our blood.
When Dr. Stanhope tested the blood of her college guinea pigs, who are all healthy kids with healthy livers, she was shocked by how quickly problems arose: “Within two weeks we see increases in the risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the blood.”
Those kinds of study don’t impress everyone. After surveying a number of studies, including Dr. Stanhope’s, that look at sugar and heart disease, Dr. John Sievenpiper sees no reason for alarm: “When we look at these trials very carefully, we find that as long as you match for calories, fructose does not behave differently than any other form of carbohydrate, namely starches, refined starches, or glucose. That’s not to say that they are benign – we should not have a lot of glucose. But it’s not behaving any differently.”
Stanhope can’t speak to the other studies. But she says she tested for all kinds of things, and it was only the fructose that caused the problems: “If I had results this strong for a brand-new food additive, that additive would get pulled [out of circulation] very quickly.”
The rock star of cancer research
In the world of cancer research, Lewis Cantley is a rock star. Five years ago the Cornell University professor was chosen to head a scientific dream team, a group of America’s top cancer specialists, brought together to supercharge the search for a cure.
His findings may not be accepted by everyone, but in the cancer world, when Cantley talks, people listen. Asked whether he believes that sugar consumption causes cancer, Cantley responds: “Yes, I think eating too much sugar can definitely increase the probability of cancer and also make the outcome for people who already have cancer worse.”
How so? Let’s review what sugar is made of: one molecule glucose and one fructose. We know that when there is too much sugar in the liver, it sets off a chain reaction. The pancreas produces more insulin. What Cantley now believes is that excess insulin changes cancer tumors, telling them to gobble up the glucose: “We are now learning that some cancers, particularly those that correlate with obesity and diabetes, have insulin receptors on the cancer cell. The tumor, by expressing the insulin receptor, tricks the glucose into going to the tumor rather than muscle and fat. As a consequence the tumor can use the fructose as a fuel to grow.”
If sugar can fuel existing tumors and make them grow, can it also cause tumors to form in the first place? The science on that isn’t as clear yet, but Cantley is taking no chances: “It scares me. I do eat fruit, and fruit has sugar in it. But if I can avoid eating any sugar at all in drinks that I drink or in processed foods, I will certainly do that.”
Alzheimers might just be type three diabetes
One of the criticisms of the anti-sugar scientists is that too much of their evidence comes from animals, not from humans. That said, here at Brown University in Rhode Island, they are doing studies they think should make a lot of humans nervous.
This rat in this picture is perfectly healthy. Whenever you put him in a vat of water, he finds his way to safety. Now look at this much heavier guy, who has been eating the equivalent of a North American diet, complete with all the fats and sugars we regularly consume. Put him in the vat of water, and he doesn’t know where to go. His brain has been damaged.
Professor Suzanne de la Monte of Brown University says, “These rats were totally normal, and then they turned into demented animals. They don’t remember [what they learned the day before]. And as the challenge gets harder and harder, they fail more and more, just like a human with Alzheimer’s disease.”
In this lab the belief is now that Alzheimer’s is really diabetes of the brain, that it is linked to insulin levels, which can be affected by too much sugar. Professor de la Monte: “We now know that insulin resistance can occur in any organ. It can occur in the muscles, which is what diabetes is. It can occur in the liver, which causes fatty liver disease. It can occur in the ovaries, which is polycystic ovary disease, and it can occur in the brain, and we think that is Alzheimer’s.”
It is important to remember that none of this research represents mainstream thinking. The case against sugar has not been proven. On both sides of the Canadian border, the professional associations for Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, plus the Food and Drug Administration, know about this research, and yet none of them is warning about links between sugar and disease.
But there is one important group that is raising the alarm. The American Heart Association now recommends that people cut back dramatically on added sugar. Women should have no more than six teaspoons a day, men nine. Don’t forget, the daily sugar intake in this country, Canada, is 26 teaspoons per day.
Worldwide few industries are more powerful than the processed food industry or the sugar industry that feeds it. And yet for all their power, we know remarkably little about how they work. Cristin Couzens is determined to change that. As a community care dentist in Colorado, she had always been interested in sugar. But it wasn’t until she unearthed a 1,500 page-strong stash of documents from a sugar company that had gone out of business that she got a peek into a very secretive world.
She says, “The first folder that I pulled out opened up to a memo with the blue letterhead of the Sugar Association, and it had the words ‘confidential’ underneath the letterhead. I looked at that and wondered, ‘Oh my God, what have I found?’”
What she had found was a directive from the 1970s, a memo to industry executives about a newly published scientific white paper, a paper that concluded sugar was not only safe but also important.
Couzens points out, “It was clear after reading further that the Sugar Association had funded this white paper called ‘Sugar in the Diet of Man.’ They were trying to make it appear that it was an independent study.”
Did Big Sugar pioneer the strategies of Big Tobacco?
Today Couzens is pursuing her research at the University of California in San Francisco. She is doing it under the tutelage of Stan Glance, to whom this sounds all too familiar: “The amazing thing I learned from her is that strategies that I thought the tobacco companies had made up in the 1950s, had been done by the sugar industry even before that.”
Stan Glance is famous in litigation circles as the man who first publicized secret tobacco industry documents that proved cigarette companies knew their product was dangerous. In the new sugar documents he sees lots of parallels: “One parallel is simply trying to undermine science. Another one is working to attack and intimidate scientists and others who are coming up with results that these big corporate interests don’t like. Another one is trying to subvert sensible regulations.”
The sugar industry has had decades of practice in that. In 2003 the World Health Organization in Geneva was looking at a resolution recommending people reduce their sugar intake to just ten percent of what they eat. The resolution had broad appeal among health experts, but then the industry weighed in.
Michael Moss: “The sugar industry went to their friends in the U.S. Congress. They got these very influential Congressmen to write letters saying that this is simply unacceptable, and that the U.S. would pull its funding from the World Health Organization if this report continued.” Five months later the recommendation quietly disappeared.
Professor Glance says blaming the victims for their disease won’t do: “For people to blame the consumer, to blame the victim in all of this – just as the tobacco industry blames the twelve-year-olds they go out and make addicted – is just not fair, because people aren’t given the information they need if they are trying to make a good choice.”
Former food industry executive Bruce Bradley believes what’s needed is government action: “This isn’t a blip. We don’t need a minor course correction. We are on a completely wrong trajectory with our health. I think the honest answer is that we need government to step in and become an advocate for consumers.”
For three weeks the Breedons have been eating the food we’ve supplied. They are still eating the kinds of foods they like and as much as they like. The only difference is that none of it is processed, and none has added sugar.
Has it made a difference? In three weeks, Jonathan has lost 1 1/2 inches around his waist, or 8 1/2 pounds. Anna’s weight is down too. Her waist, where all that dangerous fat can accumulate, is down by five inches.
What effect did all that have on their blood work? Their physician, Dr. Flanders, is positive. He tells Jonathan: “I am glad to say that there are some real signs of things improving. Your cholesterol has gone down by ten percent. That is fabulous. Your triglycerides have gone down by twenty percent. “
Anna’s results are equally good. While this three-week experiment is far from a scientific proof for anything, Dr. Flanders is pleased. Even if nothing else is changing, at least the Breedons are on the upswing.
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Intrigued by what you’ve read? Then it’s time to check the nutrition facts labels in your cupboard for sugar content. Remember: 4 grams of sugar equal 1 teaspoon, and the grams of sugar listed on the label are per serving, not for the entire container of food!