Yes, Gary Taubes, the “prosecutor” in the provocative, eye-opening book The Case Against Sugar, took his 8-year-old son trick-or-treating in his Oakland, California, neighborhood on Halloween.
“Clearly I don’t think any of us should eat sugar, and I try to stay away from it,” he says during a call to his home (built by the founders of the Clorox Bleach company) in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood that he shares with his two boys and his wife, the author Sloane Tanen. “But it would be foolish to deny my experience as someone with children and as someone with a sweet tooth.”
Which brings us to the perplexing question raised in his opening chapter: Is sugar a food or a drug? Taubes reports on some astonishing scientific studies of newborns’ first responses to sugar that strongly suggest sugar has addictive properties that are quite different from other carbohydrates. Taubes himself seems to regard his own sweet tooth as an addictive response to sugar (as well as to high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar substitute). “I realized that in thinking about the history of sugar, I had to keep in mind that you might be thinking about the history of a drug,” says Taubes, who speaks rapidly, softly and with passion.
Taubes’ historical account of the rise of the consumption of sugar, covered in the early chapters of the book, is fascinating. For example, this reader had no idea that the addictive power of blended tobacco in cigarettes—beginning with Camel cigarettes in 1912—was created by the introduction of sugar.
“It’s an amazing story!” Taubes exclaims. “It turns out that increasing the sugar content of tobacco leaves—or marinating the leaves in a sugar sauce—has the effect of making the nicotine much more inhalable so that you can bring it into your lungs, which is much harder to do with cigar or pipe tobacco. As such, it made it much more addictive and allowed the carcinogens in smoke to get to this huge surface of the lungs.”
Almost every page of The Case Against Sugar resounds with such revelations. But the heart of Taubes’ prosecution of sugar challenges contemporary beliefs about the underlying causes of obesity and diabetes. His question is this: Why has sugar not been more directly implicated in the dramatic rise of obesity and diabetes? Citing a study of Arizona’s Pima Indians, whose sudden increase in diabetes occurred as they adopted a Western diet early in the 20th century, Taubes says, “The question was, what was causing that? Sugar should have been a major suspect. In the 1920s very influential public health authorities were blaming the epidemic increases in diabetes and obesity on the prevalence of sugar. And then it vanishes from the conversation. The question is, why did it go away?”
In a chapter called “The Gift That Keeps on Giving,” Taubes documents how the sugar industry was let off the hook when medical and nutrition sciences decided that obesity caused diabetes, and that obesity was caused by an updated, scientific Puritanism that blamed sloth and gluttony—overeating and a sedentary lifestyle.
"The book is basically saying that the prime suspect of what’s causing insulin resistance is sugar."
“We are seeing worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes, and the diseases associated with them—heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s,” Taubes says when asked about our ingrained belief in the sloth-gluttony narrative. “It’s undeniable that as populations begin to eat Western diets, you see these epidemics come along. We now know that both obesity and diabetes are disorders of what’s called insulin resistance . . . and that is a fundamental disorder in what we now call metabolic syndrome. . . . The book is basically saying that the prime suspect of what’s causing insulin resistance is sugar.”
If that’s true, why did medical and health researchers get it so wrong? Taubes, who has at least once refused the food industry’s monetary support for his journalism, is surprisingly agnostic on the ethical issue of who pays for the research. “The industry needs people who are critical of the data,” he says. “And the only way they’re going to get them is to pay them. Nobody is ever going to do this for free.”
Nevertheless, Taubes is vigorously critical of the ethical and scientific standards of current nutrition research—often funded by the food industry—as he has been in the previous bestsellers Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories. He says that in earlier books such as Nobel Dreams and Bad Science, he cut his journalistic teeth by looking at experimental scientists in physics, chemistry and nuclear physics. “I was taught by these exquisite scientists how to think about these issues critically and skeptically,” he says.
Turning to contemporary health research, he was shocked to find a lack of similar rigor.
“Critical aspects of the methodology of public health and nutrition research are incapable of establishing reliable knowledge, which is the goal of science. Because they can’t do it, instead of being hypercritical as they’re supposed to be, they sort of take this philosophy that it’s the best they can do, therefore it’s good enough. The counter to that is—and I’ve actually given lectures where I’ve said—if that’s the best you can do, get out of the business! Sell shoes, take guns away from gang members, do something useful.”
Taubes says his approach in this book is deliberately prosecutorial. “I really want to get the facts across,” he says. “I’m synthesizing massive amounts of data. It’s based on hundreds of interviews that might spread over years, and it’s invariably based on an unconventional take on the evidence.”
Given his unconventional take, The Case Against Sugar seems destined to be controversial. So does he expect pushback?
“I expect this book to give everybody something to dislike,” he says with a laugh. Then again, New York magazine has recently asked him to write an article. The working title? “How I’ve Been Vindicated.”
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.