By Alvin Powell
Harvard Staff Writer
Sugar was in the dock at Harvard Law School this week, accused of a prime role in the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes sweeping the country.
Science journalist and author Gary Taubes ’77 made his case that sugar consumption — which has risen dramatically over the last century — drives metabolic dysfunction that makes people sick. The hour-long talk was sponsored by the Food Law and Policy Clinic and drawn from Taubes’ new book, “The Case Against Sugar.”
A reputation for “empty calories” — devoid of vitamins and nutrients but otherwise no different from other foods containing an equal number of calories — has allowed sugar to maintain a prominent place in the U.S. diet. Taubes is dubious. First, all calories are not equal because the body metabolizes different foods in different ways. More specifically, there may be something about eating too much sugar — in particular fructose, which is metabolized in the liver — that implicates it in metabolic disease.
“I’m making an argument that sugar is uniquely toxic,” said Taubes. “It has deleterious effects on the human body that lead to obesity and diabetes.”
Taubes laid out a case that he admitted was “largely circumstantial,” though one he considers compelling enough that it would gain at least an indictment from an impartial jury. The problem with the evidence, he said, is that public health researchers haven’t focused enough attention on sugar.
“The research doesn’t exist beyond reasonable doubt that sugar is to blame,” Taubes said.
Diabetes, Taubes noted, was once a rare disease. He traced its rise through the 1800s and 1900s from just a fraction of 1 percent of the cases seen at Massachusetts General Hospital to a condition that afflicts nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That increase, he said, coincides with an increase in sugar in the American diet.
He tied today’s problems to both the sugar industry and some of the scientists responsible for informing the public about diet. Two researchers prominent in Harvard’s history didn’t escape blame: Elliott Joslin, the founder of the Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center, and Frederick Stare, the founder of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Nutrition Department.
(Published with permission from Harvard Gazette.)