There was no better example than this week’s vaygeshray over Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times. Bittman, the paper’s former food columnist who rose to fame with his fast and easy recipes for modern life, got caught up in one of the biggest food battles on the planet: the sugar wars.
Is sucrose good? Bad? Toxic? Addictive? Causal of illness?
Bittman entered the fray with the effect of a chorizo in a Brooklyn shule: citing a new finding in PLoS One, he pronounced the study as conclusive proof that “obesity doesn’t cause diabetes, sugar does.”
You could almost feel the fat-acceptance league and the palm oil lobby thundering in the stands: It’s not our fault!
Unfortunately, Bittmann seems to have over-chewed the study, conducted by researchers from U.C. San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. What the report really found, as corrected in Wednesday’s New York Times:
Mark Bittman’s column on Thursday incorrectly described findings from a recent epidemiological study of the relationship of sugar consumption to diabetes. The study found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher rates of diabetes — independent of obesity rates — but stopped short of stating that sugar caused diabetes. It did not find that “obesity doesn’t cause diabetes: sugar does.” Obesity is, in fact, a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, as the study noted.
If you read the study, you find the opposite of what Bittman said: “Obesity,” the authors wrote, “exacerbates...diabetes.”
A question: why the rush to judgment by either side?
After all, we already knew, among other things, that:
(a) overconsumption of sugar in many--but not all--individuals leads to an increased risk of diabetes, dental carries, and many other medical conditions;
(b) obesity--in many, but not all--leads to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases of modern life;
(c) the connection between both obesity and sugar and diabetes is complex, idiosyncratic, fraught with genetic and epigenetic connections, and...
(4) that it is the “obesity lifestyle” of sedentary behavior and overconsumption of calories that puts one at risk. Biblical references would be gluttony and sloth - the politically unacceptable version of the favorite acceptable one in the public health establishment: “imprudent lifestyle decisions.”
For the record: invoking theological sins, as I did at the end of my book on obesity, Fat Land, some years ago, tends to stigmatize the obese, just as cavorting in San Francisco bath houses in the 1970s later stigmatized AIDs patients in the 1980s, when the city shuttered them, and by doing so eliminated a major source of infection. Bittman himself concluded his piece on sugar and diabetes: “Obesity is a marker of metabolic syndrome.”
Stigmas hold, but so does their underlying seed of truth. It’s not pretty.
The real reason behind the celebration lay elsewhere. As an email blasted from the famous West Los Angeles scold Laurie David, former wife of the comedian Larry David and an effective environmental advocate (she literally nagged the affluent community to give up their gas-guzzling SUVs a few years back): “It’s official: Sugar is toxic!”
Although I hew to this argument myself, the data supporting such is still weak, and--guess what?-- idiosyncratic.
But using the word “toxic” does something many have wanted to do for a long time: make obesity a 100- percent environmental illness, its resolution dependent on regulation and government action.
I am for more government action. I am a nanny!
But that action must be grounded in fact. Sugar, to the best of our knowledge, does not rise to the classic definition of either toxicity (acute damage to an organism leading to death) or addiction ( the need for increasing doses--bigger and bigger Big Gulps-- to achieve the same effect, and the onset of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation).
The data just isn’t there.
It would also be great if the opinion columnists is the last sacred trusts of editorial quality (the New York Times and the like) could be just a little more consistent and little less toadying to the food-elite. Bittman cites the epidemiological study at length, and nearly without question. But when it came to another report a few months ago, this one showing no increased nutritional benefits in organic vs conventional produce, all comity evaporated in “opinionator land.” The woodshed paddle was in full swing:
“Because the study narrowly defines “nutritious” as containing more vitamins. Dr. Dena Bravata, the study’s senior author, conceded that there are other reasons why people opt for organic (the aforementioned pesticides and bacteria chief among them) but said that if the decision between buying organic or conventional food were based on nutrients, “there is not robust evidence to choose one or the other.” By which standard you can claim that, based on nutrients, Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple.
But they’re not. And overlooking these key factors allows the authors to imply that there isn’t “robust” evidence to choose organic food over conventional. (Which for many people there is.) Under the convenient cover of helping consumers make informed choices, the study constructed a set of criteria that would easily allow them to cut “organic” down to size. Suspect conclusions derived from suspect studies are increasingly common.”
That last sentence--apparently we can all now agree with that.
Greg Critser is the author of Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. And you can read more of his articles here.