Big Sugar’s Secret Ally? Nutritionists

The first time the sugar industry felt compelled to “knock down reports that sugar is fattening,” as this newspaper put it, it was 1956. Papers had run a photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sweetening his coffee with saccharin, with the news that his doctor had advised him to avoid sugar if he wanted to remain thin.

The industry responded with a national advertising campaign based on what it believed to be solid science. The ads explained that there was no such thing as a “fattening food”: “All foods supply calories and there is no difference between the calories that come from sugar or steak or grapefruit or ice cream.”

More than 60 years later, the sugar industry is still making the same argument, or at least paying researchers to do it for them. The stakes have changed, however, with a near tripling of the prevalence of obesity in the intervening decades and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures reveal to be an almost unimaginable 655 percent increase in the percentage of Americans with diabetes diagnoses. When it comes to weight gain, the sugar industry and purveyors of sugary beverages still insist, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, so guidelines that single out sugar as a dietary evil are not evidence-based.

Surprisingly, the scientific consensus is technically in agreement. It holds that obesity is caused “by a lack of energy balance,” as the National Institutes of Health website explains — in other words, by our taking in more calories than we expend. Hence, the primary, if not the only, way that foods can influence our body weight is through their caloric content

Another way to say this is that what we eat doesn’t matter; it’s only how much — just as the sugar industry would have us believe. A 2014 article in an American Diabetes Association journal phrased the situation this way: “There is no clear or convincing evidence that any dietary or added sugar has a unique or detrimental impact relative to any other source of calories on the development of obesity or diabetes.”

The absence of evidence, though, as the saying goes, is not necessarily evidence of absence. If the research community had been doing its job and not assuming since the 1920s that a calorie is a calorie, perhaps we would have found such evidence long ago.

The assumption ignores decades of medical science, including much of what has become textbook endocrinology (the science of hormones and hormone-related diseases) and biochemistry. By the 1960s, researchers in these fields had clearly demonstrated that different carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, are metabolized differently, leading to different hormonal and physiological responses, and that fat accumulation and metabolism were influenced profoundly by these hormones. The unique composition of sugar — half glucose, half fructose — made it a suspect of particular interest even then.

The takeaway is that we should expect the consumption of different macronutrients to have differential effects on the hormonal milieu of our cells and so, among myriad other things, on how much fat we accumulate. These effects may be very subtle, but subtle effects can accumulate over a few years or decades into the anything-but-subtle phenomena of obesity and diabetes. In light of this research, arguing today that your body fat responds to everything you eat the exact same way is almost inconceivably naïve.

But don’t blame the sugar industry for perpetuating this view. Blame the researchers and the nutrition authorities.

The industry is in a perverse position: defending the core beliefs of nutrition and obesity research while simultaneously being accused by some of the prominent experts in these disciplines of following the tobacco-industry playbook and so acting as “merchants of doubt.” If this sounds like cognitive dissonance — well, it is.

I am a fierce critic of sugar and believe that it, in fact, may have prematurely killed more people than tobacco. The disorders for which it is the prime suspect — obesity and Type 2 diabetes — in turn elevate our risk of virtually every major chronic disease, from heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer’s. And yet on this issue, I think the sugar industry has a fair point in rejecting the comparison.

Cigarette companies are notorious for having worked to undermine the scientific consensus on tobacco, which was backed by compelling evidence. Tobacco executives knew as well as public health officials that nicotine was addictive and that smoking caused lung cancer. But the evidence implicating sugar as a unique cause of chronic disease has never been nearly so convincing. More to the point, the consensus among nutrition and obesity authorities has been completely aligned with sugar industry interests: Sugar advertisers have had to remind people only that what nutrition authorities believe to be true of all foods is therefore true of sugar as well.

So can we really blame sugar companies for seeking to rebut the contention of some nutrition researchers — that sugar might be a unique cause of diabetes and heart disease — by commissioning other mainstream nutritionists to make the opposite case? In the 1970s, when the industry paid Fred Stare, founder of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, to exonerate sugar in a lengthy journal supplement, “Sugar in the Diet of Man, all Mr. Stare had to do was enlist as authors some of the very influential researchers who were convinced that dietary fat was the real enemy (the conventional wisdom of the time that has now been largely overturned). No confusion needed to be sown. Their task was simply to reinforce the consensus.

“The method of science,” as the philosopher of science Karl Popper once put it, “is the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them.” In nutrition, the conjectures (their boldness is debatable) are that obesity is caused by lack of energy balance, and so a calorie is a calorie. But they have been accepted with such faith that attempts to refute them have been anything but ingenious and severe. That the attempts have failed may speak more to the quality of the science than the validity of the conjectures. To fully understand the dangers of consuming sugar, we need experiments, in humans, that can unambiguously test these 100-year-old conjectures. No matter how time consuming or expensive these studies are.

To the sugar industry, the nutritionists’ dogmatic belief that obesity is a calorie overconsumption problem and a calorie is a calorie has been the gift that keeps on giving. So long as nutrition and obesity authorities insist that this is true, then the sugar industry can rightfully defend its product on the basis that the calories from sugar are no better nor worse than those from steak or grapefruit or ice cream — perhaps even kale or quinoa. We can’t have it both ways.

Gary Taubes is a co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative and the author of “The Case Against Sugar.”

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 15, 2017, on Page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: Big Sugar’s Secret Ally? Nutritionists. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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Ten foods most nutritionists won’t eat

[Original Article]

SUSIE BURRELL, September 18 2013

As a human being, when we are told not to do something, our instinct can be to do exactly that. Indeed, this can be the case with food restriction but when you are a trained nutritionist there are some foods that you know offer so little nutritionally that you would rather not eat at all than get your energy from these particular options. Some of these may seem obvious while some may surprise you as they commonly masquerade as “healthy” options.

White bread

While it may claim to be as good as wholemeal or wholegrain breads with extra fibre and nutrients added, it is still not as good nutritionally as wholegrain bread. In fact, in the eyes of a nutritionist, pure white bread sends blood glucose levels skyrocketing in a similar way to confectionery or soft drinks. Yes, it is true that sourdough is a better option but it does not change the fact that for those who can tolerate it, grain bread is best.

Soft drink

This one needs no explanation, perhaps ranking the worst of all when it comes to nutrition cost benefit analysis. With nine teaspoons of sugar per can, and as liquid sugars are among the worst we can consume, you do not need a nutrition degree to know that soft drink is bad news.

Banana bread

The average doughnut will set you back at least 400 calories and 20 grams of total fat.
The average doughnut will set you back at least 400 calories and 20 grams of total fat. Photo: Marina Oliphant

If you consider that the average muffin or slice of banana bread contains more than 60 grams of total carbohydrate (the equivalent of four slices of bread), 20-30 grams of fat and at least four teaspoons of sugar, it is safe to say that there is nothing healthy about banana bread except the bananas, and it should really just be called banana cake.

Cheese-flavoured snacks

While you can find plain potato chips cooked in sunflower oil, cheese-flavoured snacks can be pretty nasty – packed with fat, flavours, colours and even MSG, the ingredient list itself explains why it is difficult to stop eating once you start but also why a plain potato chip cooked in sunflower oil is many times better than any extruded cheese snack.

Cheese-flavoured snacks, such as beloved Cheezels, can be pretty nasty.
Cheese-flavoured snacks, such as beloved Cheezels, can be pretty nasty. Photo: Jessica Shapiro


It does not matter if they are “natural” or “fruit” flavoured, lollies are basically pure sugar. Five to six individual lollies contain as much as three to six teaspoons of sugar. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a sweet treat occasionally but who can stop at just five or six. If you are looking for a sweet hit, a few squares of dark chocolate is a much better option nutritionally.

Chocolate nut spread

Lollies are basically pure sugar.
                             Lollies are basically pure sugar. Photo: Cathryn Tremain  

Popular in Europe, chocolate nut spreads are frequently present on Italian dessert menus but here we are encouraged to spread them on toast instead of jam or peanut butter. With the first few ingredients listed as sugar and vegetable oil, chocolate spread contains a lot more bad fat than it does good fat from nuts.

Fruit bars

There is a massive difference between a piece of fresh fruit, with all the nutrients and fibre it contains, and the compressed mix of fruit, sugar, gums and flavours that make up a fruit stick or strap. Not only are processed fruit snacks a nightmare for the teeth, they are also far more concentrated in energy than fruit itself. Eat your fruit the way nature intended it, not from a packet.


One of the relatively few foods that still contains a significant dose of trans fats, the type of fat that has been directly linked to heart disease, doughnuts are one of the worst baked goods nutritionally. Topped with high sugar icing and loads of fat, the average doughnut will set you back at least 400 calories and 20 grams of total fat, 10 of which are saturated.

Rice snacks

It doesn’t matter if rice has been made into a snack bar, cake, puff or crisp, rice is a dense source of high glycaemic index carbohydrate, which means that blood glucose levels rapidly increase after it is consumed, along with the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage in the body. Rice snacks are also low in protein and other key nutrients. They simply offer “empty calories” along with a rapid rise in blood glucose levels rather than long lasting energy. Better snack options when it comes to blood glucose control include corn- or rye-based cakes and crackers.


Spreads are a controversial food topic among nutrition professionals as the recommended switch from butter to margarine originally came from evidence that plant-based oils were better for the heart than animal-based fat. While this is true, nutritionists will generally recommend foods that are as natural as possible and when it comes to margarine it is an added fat that we do not “need” in our diet. In general, we get plenty of good fat from avocados, nuts, good quality oils, seeds and fish already. If you do choose to use a spread, at least look for a reduced fat variety.

Susie Burrell is a nutritionist and author.

Is there a food that you studiously avoid? Jump on the comments and tell us which one and why you don’t eat it.