In 2005 there was a best seller called “Freakonomics” by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. This book was an entertaining romp that demolished some cherished and widely held beliefs. Later these authors started a blog and a radio podcast that aims at other popular subjects. In April of this year they did one on sugar called “There’s a war on sugar. Is it justified.”
They start by pointing out that nutrition science is not very scientific and when it comes to sugar is it food or additive or “GRAS – generally regarded as safe?”
There are two camps in this sugar war. The anti-sugar one is spoken for by Dr Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, also a member of their Institute for Health Policy Studies and the president of a nonprofit known as the Institute for Responsible Nutrition whose job is to try to treat obese children and now, also, alter the global food supply. He is easily confused by my with Dr.David Ludwig who has many similar views and campaigns about sugar that we’ve mentioned in several of my “fat science ” columns. Lustig-Ludwig. Dr. Lustig feels that sugar meets the definition of addictive potential shared by alcohol, tobacco, and heroin.
The other camp is spoken for in this podcast by Richard Kahn who was the former chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association but has been a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association so many would dismiss him. He points out that there are many contributors to the obesity epidemic and the evidence against sugar per se as the cause is weak. Sugar is not tobacco. The evidence for sugar causing obesity is minuscule compared to the evidence that tobacco causes all the mayhem that is does. And this evidence such as it is, indicates that the laws being proposed against sugar are not going to do much.
Then there is this exchange:
DUBNER: Right now, we’re talking in the year 2017. A lot of people now are convinced that the U.S. government and many others erred terribly in declaring fat to be the cause of obesity. Many people now believe, as you argue, that sugar is a much bigger villain. How do we know you’re not the guy that’s wrong this time, that you’re not just another — perhaps well-intentioned — big-brained do-gooder who is making a massive mistake?
LUSTIG: An awfully good question. This is known as the pessimistic meta-induction theory. What it says is, ‘Everything we knew 10 years ago is already wrong, and everything we know today will be wrong 10 years from now. Why should we do anything differently when we know that whatever it is that we believe today will end up being wrong?’ If you play that game, then you might as well never do any research, never do anything at all, and live with the current dogma.”
So there you have it. Science just doesn’t work. But if you allow it to operate on it’s principles it should self correct. It’s like Democracy. Democracy just doesn’t work. Sometimes we elect real bloopers. But if you allow it to keep working by it’s principles it should self correct.
In the end the Freakonomics guys don’t really come down hard on a definitive answer to their title question “is the war on sugar justified?” Sure everybody agrees we eat too much sugar and should cut down if we want to lose weight, and why do they have to sneak added sugar into spaghetti sauce and soup? But they point out that people are probably not ever going to stop eating a lot of sugar.
John DiTraglia M.D. is a Pediatrician in Portsmouth. He can be reached by e-mail- firstname.lastname@example.org or phone-354-6605.