Sugar Is Not The Enemy: Against The Demonization Of FoodS

Those of us with large amounts of Valentine's candy to polish off will be glad to know that food expert Brian Wansink thinks a little sugar won't kill you. However, his words on sweetness touched off a bitter battle.

Apropos of Domino's Pizza's decision to introduce a sweeter sauce, Salon's Sara Breselor interviewed Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, about the effects of sugar in food. Wansink says lots of sugar has been added to processed foods in response the demonization of fat, and that as a result, people who eat low-fat food may still be taking a lot of calories. But he's not out to strike fear into our hearts — his message is one of moderation. He says,

The thing is, there was a kind of witch-hunting phase where we demonized sugar back in the late '80s. But if you look at it, there's a really nice case to be made for sugar. Let's use chocolate milk as an example. If you're trying to get kids to drink milk, and you add just a little more chocolate and a little more sugar, and add 30 more calories to it, you know, I don't really think that's bad compared to them ordering Goofy Grape punch with the same number of calories and really nothing in it.

Breselor cites a Times of London article stating that even fruits and vegetables are getting sweeter, but Wansink counters, "the stuff is so mixed it's hard to be really sure. I know data that says yes and data that says no." And in response to criticisms of corn syrup and the corn lobby, he says,

There's a reason why corn syrup is a substitute — because it's cheaper. When people go, "Oh, we need to go all organic!" I think, gee whiz, who's gonna starve? It's not going to be you, Mr. Rich Yuppie. It's gonna be somebody else. I'm frightened to think what the unintended consequence would be of going back to cane sugar as a sweetener for everything.

Of course, there's a reason corn syrup is cheaper — it's subsidized by the government. If the same subsidies applied to all fruits and vegetables instead, perhaps it would no longer be true that a healthy diet is an expensive one. Still, Wansink's relative calm is a welcome addition to a food debate in which everyone seems to be warning us off some poison or another. For the diet industry, it's carbs, calories, and fat. And for organic food advocates, it's pesticides, additives, and corn syrup. I don't mean to equate the two — I wish organic food were affordable for everyone, and that our food system relied less on insecticides and antibiotics and other substances of questionable safety. But I also wish we could have this discussion without alarmism, and without treating people who enjoy a doughnut now and then like self-destructive crackheads. Unfortunately, the latter is pretty much exactly what Salon commenters do. Commenter The Entire Chinese Army offers this helpful tip:

Why not stop eating such processed food? I've got to say that fast food makes up maybe 5% of my family's diet on an annual basis. Just about everything else is made from scratch.

Comments about how healthfully one's own family eats are a staple of Internet food threads — a significant sector of the online population seems to believe that simply sharing their own righteousness will eradicate diabetes. Then there's tombug62, who writes,

Wow, Salon used to be this great site and seems to be quickly devolving into the Corporate Gazette. It doesn't take much digging and research to turn up some facts on sugar. It's ten times more addictive than heroin and wreaks havoc on the immune system. We all should be eating very little of it, not listening to some sugar industry shill in a Salon interview.

The reference to heroin may be based on a study in which rats who binged on sugar showed some of the symptoms of dependence and withdrawal seen in drug addicts. I couldn't find any support for the "ten times more addictive" figure, and the "havoc on the immune system" claim seems questionable as well. Obviously, Internet comments aren't fact-checked publications, and commenters often have less restraint than they would in person. Still, tombug and TECA illustrate some of the problems with the discourse of food in America: the demonization of various foods and ingredients at the expense of a holistic view of eating, and the holier-than-thou attitude that allows this demonization to occur. Maybe Wansink's a little soft on the corn lobby, but given a choice between him and his critics, I know who I'd rather have a meal with.

Sugar High: Why Your Food Is Getting Sweeter [Salon]