Is sugar the new tobacco?

Apr 1, 2015 at 1:00 am

We know foods like doughnuts and soda can make you fat, but the effects of sugar on the liver and brain are less well-known. Dietary sugar can fry your liver in much the same way that alcohol can. This in turn can hurt your brain, leaving you with dementia-like symptoms decades too soon.

Most people associate liver disease with alcohol abuse or hepatitis. But another type, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD, which barely existed three decades ago) has quickly become the most common liver disease in America. It isn't caused by booze or a nasty virus, but dietary sugar, which causes a buildup of fat in your liver. Overweight people are likely candidates for NAFLD. Memory loss and diminished cognitive function are often the first symptoms, as the liver loses its ability to filter toxins that compromise the brain.

According to the American Liver Foundation, at least a quarter of the U.S. population has NAFLD, and that figure is expected to swell to 40 percent by 2030, apace with an accompanying swelling of the American body that's expected, thanks to the insatiable American sweet tooth and the corporate interests that feed it. A study published on March 25 further solidified the connection between sugar and NAFLD. It found that even moderate amounts of sugary drinks will stimulate the production of enzymes that deposit fat in the liver.

These are sour times at the Sugar Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group with a mission that appears increasingly impossible: "to promote the consumption of sugar through sound scientific principles."

Alas for Big Sugar, it's becoming ever more difficult to use even the most convoluted scientific principles to promote sugar consumption, much less defend it.

The Sugar Association once touted sugar as "a sensible approach to weight control," something we now know is roughly the polar opposite of the truth. In addition to non-alcohol fatty liver disease, sugar promotes a variety of other ailments, including heart disease, tooth decay, and diabetes. Meanwhile, new research is mounting that suggests sugar is behind Alzheimer's disease, which has been dubbed Type 3 diabetes, aka diabetes of the brain.

The case against sugar has grown steadily but quietly in the last four decades, in the shadow of dietary fat, which has widely been blamed for these ailments. Meanwhile, the Sugar Association has engaged in tactics reminiscent of those of the tobacco industry during the height of its denial, including the funding of sugar-friendly research, the installation of sugar-friendly (and sugar-funded) scientists on government advisory panels, and even threats to scientists and politicians who question the place of sugar in a healthy diet. The Sugar Association's general response to the circling wagons of anti-sugar, meanwhile, has been to claim a lack of consensus and inconclusive results. But despite these efforts, as with tobacco, this cat is proving too big for the bag.

In February, the recommendations of USDA's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were published. They include several significant sugar-related proposals, including a sugar tax. The recommendations take specific aim at added sugars, suggesting they be labeled as such, and kept below 10 percent of total caloric intake.

Identifying added sugar would distinguish it from sugar that's naturally in a food product. For example, a six-ounce container of plain yogurt has 7 grams of the sugar lactose, while a pomegranate yogurt has 19 grams of sugar, including 12 grams of added sugar, explains Robert Lustig, a specialist in pediatric obesity, in a March 20 op-ed in the LA Times.

The yogurt example hits home to me. My dad is diabetic, and used to eat sweetened yogurt daily. My son would eat sweetened yogurt every day too, if left to his own devices.

Added sugar is another way of saying "Big Sugar's bottom line," and on March 24 the Sugar Association requested that the added sugar recommendations be removed. In a bitter irony, its letter to DGAC complained that the committee "... selected science to support its predetermined conclusions."

In his op-ed, Lustig compared Big Sugar to a wild animal that has been cornered, and will fight with everything it has. But as with tobacco, the evidence against it is just too damning.

"Sugar starts to fry your liver at about 35 pounds per year, just like alcohol would at the same dosage. This is because fructose — the sweet molecule of sugar — is metabolized in the liver just like alcohol." Americans, Lustig notes, consume an average of 100 pounds of sugar per year. "That is why children now get the diseases of alcohol consumption — Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease — without ever drinking alcohol."

Big Sugar's last chance, he says, is by way of intra-agency dysfunction. "There are 51 separate agencies in charge of our food supply. That suits the food industry just fine. Their strategy is to divide and conquer. It's time for us to unite to tame this wild animal before it can sicken another generation of children."

While this power struggle runs its course, we have a choice between limiting sugar consumption, or dealing with its consequences by pumping children full of insulin, lipo-sucking excess fat from teens, and swapping out the livers of absent-minded middle agers.

While the dust settles and sugar consumption and labeling guidelines are inevitably restructured, you don't have to wait for any final word from government agencies. You can use your common sense, though willpower might be more of an issue.

Sugar craving is widely considered an addiction. It's an addiction that's complicated by the fact that eating sugar is entangled with the healthy, necessary act of eating. But research at MIT, published in January, suggests that compulsive sugar consumption follows a different neural pathway than healthy eating.

These findings open the door to more research into dealing with sugar addiction. Meanwhile, it's encouraging that your brain's sweet tooth can be retrained, before your memory deteriorates to the point where you forget where you even stashed the gummy bears.