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Sugar, Sugar

Ubiquitous in food, but how bad is it?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 7, 2012 10:51am ET

Although I don’t usually write about nutrition issues, the announcement last week that researchers associated with the University of San Francisco were going on the warpath against sugar got my hackles up. I have no problem with their findings—that Americans consume way too much sugar for our own good—what irritates me is how little these scientists consider quantity.

It’s just a coincidence that this came up the same week I wrote about the sudden and unexpected rise of sweet wines in the U.S. But there is a connection with wine, though it’s not what you might think. More about that later.

A paper by Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric and obesity professor at the University of California at San Francisco, and two of his colleagues, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, was published last week in the prestigious journal Nature, which summarizes the findings: “Added sweeteners pose dangers to health that justify controlling them like alcohol.”

I listened to an hour-long radio interview with Lustig and read lengthy reports on his contentions. Obesity is on the increase, and that parallels a similar increase in sugar consumption. The vast majority goes into soda pop and sweet doughy things, but the UCSF folks go beyond that. They say that too much of our processed food contains small amounts of sugar that make us feel hungry all the time. We never feel full, so we eat too much.

Those are scary thoughts. And I can understand a discussion of ways to deal with America’s thirst for sweet sodas and hunger for doughnuts and muffins. They provide a huge hit of sugar that can throw off our metabolisms. That muffin with syrup-laced coffee can’t be the best choice for breakfast. But is the same true of the dribs and drabs of sweeteners added to processed foods such as soup, bread and deli meats? Lustig argues that it is. It’s a controversial theory among scientists. No laboratory tests have proved a connection between obesity and small amounts of sugars. Lustig wants to do these experiments. He should. And if he finds a connection, then we can consider what measures are necessary to address it.

Equating hidden sugars in soup with the tsunami of soda pop Americans drink, as Lustig does in his interviews, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The amount of sugar in soft drinks and pastries dwarfs the dribs and drabs in the processed foods we don’t expect to be sweet. Besides, other cultures use sugar to sweeten their main dishes just as much as we do. Most Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes, for example, use sugar or something sweet as an ingredient. The Asian approach to taste balances our basic sensitivities to sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Those cultures traditionally consume very few sweet drinks or sugary pastries regularly. They don’t get big hits of sugar every day, and that strikes me as the obvious difference.

As a footnote, this inveterate tinkerer with wine-and-food matching has learned that the modest levels of sweetness in Asian dishes have a profound effect on what we drink with them. Dry wines can taste sour or bitter with them, which is why I turn to wines with similar levels of sweetness as the food, and why off-dry and lightly sweet German wines are so often recommended with Asian food.

I guess the same could apply to processed foods. Maybe that explains why sweet red wines have become so popular in the U.S.—they go better with the foods most people eat.

Eric Pennington
Ohio, United States —  February 7, 2012 10:28pm ET
Great insights! You've identified the real culprit in our ongoing battle with obesity. Once again moderation rules the day.
Kevin Munkholm
San Diego ca usa —  February 8, 2012 12:50am ET
Do fake corks have an impact, favorable or otherwise, on the sugars in wine? If not, are there any negatives to these new types of "corks."
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 8, 2012 1:21am ET
Thanks, Eric.
Kevin, I don't know of any adverse consequences of "fake" corks with sweet wines. They've been used on sweet wines for years.
Ray Ondrejech
San Luis Obispo, CA —  February 8, 2012 4:26pm ET
Growing up in Ohio in the 70's, neither I nor my friends would have been considered healthy eaters. I dread to think how many McDonalds french fries I consumed as a teenager. But obesity was a rarity. We played outside and rode our bikes. Nowadays the only excercise a lot of kids get is moving their thumbs on their video games. I would opine it's more of the lifestyle today than the sugar in the food...

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