The Big Read

Book review: The Case Against Sugar beautifully told, but its view is blinkered

A candy store in a mall in Vina del Mar, Chile.
A candy store in a mall in Vina del Mar, Chile.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sugar is a slow-acting poison that rots the mind and body, science writer Gary Taubes says in The Case Against Sugar

It has become a staple of everyday life in the past 60 years or so to demonise a certain food as the root of all illnesses. Butter, coffee, eggs, nuts, rice, sausages and tea have at various points in that period been "in or out", as they say in the world of fashion - and then in again, depending on which scientific study you choose to believe.

In the 1920s, for example, American athletes scarfed down sugar cakes in between practice sessions, believing that the highs they got helped them to break sports records. Their ancestors even saw sugar as medicine that aided digestion, soothed nerves and made the weak suddenly strong, which is why consumption of sugar in Britain and the United States went through the roof between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Now, however, it has become fashionable to finger sugar as the root of all illnesses, from diabetes to Alzheimer's disease. Last Thursday, The Guardian published an account by Dr Giles Fraser, a priest who is recovering from a heart attack and is now convinced that "sugar is poison".

He noted that in September last year, The Journal Of The American Medical Association published papers, previously buried deep in the archives of Harvard University, that showed how some big players in the global sugar industry paid Harvard scientists throughout the 1960s to stress that fats, not sugar, caused heart disease, despite available - if not conclusive - evidence that sugar might be a culprit too.

Much of the same story forms the meat of a new book by American author Gary Taubes, who writes for the journal Science and whose work has been lauded by his compatriot Michael "Cooked" Pollan, who is himself no slouch in the area of writing about foods that harm and heal.

Taubes, a married father of two, has written four other books, two of which deal with issues of nutrition - that is, the role of fats in one's diet and the boon and bane of counting calories.

  • THE CASE AGAINST SUGAR

  • By Gary Taubes

    Portobello Books/Paperback/ 365 pages/$32.21 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 641.336 TAU

After avowing upfront in this book to prosecute sugar to the hilt for slowly rotting everyone's mind and body, and not just teeth, he takes the reader on an absorbing, if alarming, armchair journey into what sugar is, how it seized the world and how human beings came to crave it such that most of them down about 18 teaspoons of it a day, largely through the processed food they eat.

  • A double celebration next week

  • Thanks to the strong support of The Straits Times readers, The Big Read Meet turns four next Wednesday.

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai in marking this milestone that day from 6.30pm in The Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    It will be a double celebration as the meet will also mark the National Reading Movement's second anniversary and its chosen theme Asean, with a talk by Asean political security expert Hoang Thi Ha. Ms Hoang, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who worked at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta for 10 years, will talk about the region's dynamics, especially on issues such as Asean's future and how the organisation might approach some of its members' competing territorial claims with China in the South China Sea.

    Sign up for the evening at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary and look for "The Big Read Meet Asean Special".

In condemning candy, his approach is to treat sugar as the only suspect in the global epidemic of diabetes and obesity today, and so he need not consider the possibility of accomplices, such as overeating and under-exercising.

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 How and why did sugar as a product spread from the tropics to the rest of the world?

    2 Why is sugar an addictive substance?

    3 Who have advanced people's understanding of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease?

    4 How do big industries vilify scientific studies that are against them?

    5 To what extent is science still limited in its ability to crack the question of why certain foods can hinder good health?

To any observer worth his salt, this should be a red flag. You may, say, chance upon a person clutching a bloodied knife over a corpse, but that does not necessarily mean he is the murderer. As a famous mystery by the late Agatha Christie had it, that person may just be the last in a line of 12 people who stabbed the victim with the same knife.

Blinkered view aside, most of Taubes' beautifully told anecdotes will have the reader's hairs standing on end - and rethinking his consumption of sugar.

Did you know, for example, that if you marinate tobacco leaves in a sugar solution before processing the leaves for cigarettes, that makes the smoke from the lit-up cigarettes easier to inhale? Which is why, Taubes charges, the number of smokers succumbing to lung cancer soared after this sugar-cured tobacco became a hit from the 1940s.

Rats in scientific experiments, he notes, actually choose to take sugar over heroin or cocaine even if they are addicted to the drugs; such is sugar's overwhelming hold on their brain and tastebuds. And should a person give a newborn sweetened water before he has a chance to taste his mother's milk, which is also sweet, the baby will smile and pucker up excitedly for further infusions of sugar.

The best thing about this book is that Taubes has researched his points of view very deeply, perhaps bordering on obsession. The drawback is that the last five chapters of this 11-chapter book is rather a plod for readers, as Taubes trots out study after study to prove his case.

There is as yet no definitive study to show that sugar is as deadly as, say, arsenic.

As the author, to his credit, admits in the book's introduction: "The sugar industry and purveyors of sugar-rich products are right when they say that it cannot be established definitively, with the science as it now stands, that sugar is uniquely harmful - a toxin that does its damage over decades. The evidence is not as clear with sugar as it is with tobacco."

Taubes, however, deserves your time for shedding much light on the tortuous evolution of medicine and humanity's understanding of nutrition.


In a nutshell

THE GOOD

This book by American science writer Gary Taubes is a model on how to crunch hard and deep data such that even secondary school students would be able to grasp the complex ideas and views of his subject with little difficulty. That comes largely from his unstinting and comprehensive approach to research. As a bonus, he has a good raconteur's eye for telling details that would pique the curiosity of even the most casual readers.

THE BAD

Taubes prosecutes sugar in a clear and measured way throughout this book, but still cannot muster a convincing case in the end because of tunnel vision. Many doctors and scientists have called him out, on mainstream as well as social media, for "cherry-picking" the scientific studies that back his case against sugar and ignoring those that do not. You do not have to know any of these studies to see their point; just consider Taubes' lavish and repeated praise of the Japanese for their healthy diet of rice, barley and fish, and then wonder why he says nothing about the fact that the Japanese also produce and consume a wide variety of sugar-laden snacks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Sugar and spite'. Print Edition | Subscribe