Is Sugar the Next Booze?

Sugar is delicious. It makes a bad day a little brighter; it makes food taste a little better; it makes cupcakes and pies. Sure, it may not be good for us, but why would we ever want to get rid of it? Well, we wouldn't want to, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't. At least that's what a new commentary published in the most recent issue of Nature argues. It may not be a bad idea, but you can bet there will be a whole nation of sweet-toothed people clutching their candy necklaces and screaming, "Do not fucking touch my dessert!"

The commentary was written by Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, and his colleagues Laura A. Schmidt and Claire D. Brindis. They're basing the supposition that sugar consumption needs to be forcibly cut from our diets on the many studies that have shown the damaging effects excessive sugar consumption can have on a body. And our society is living proof. There are unprecedented levels of diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. There's also the famous obesity epidemic. Though what Schmidt tells CNN is that the traditional worry that sugar makes people fat because it has "empty calories" is not the real issue. Rather it's that sugar causes metabolic syndrome, which encompasses a number of chronic diseases (like diabetes and heart disease), and, as Schmidt says, "obesity may just be a marker for the damage caused by the toxic effects of too much sugar." Meanwhile, our consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years. Sugar is everywhere, and, according the authors, "people eat up to 500 calories per day in added sugar alone." In short, things have gotten out of hand.

They are not the only ones to notice this, of course. The drumbeat to reduce sugar's presence in our lives has been growing ever stronger. So far, these efforts have been aimed largely at reducing consumption by kids, by cutting out soda and junk food. But the piece in Nature is arguing for a more broad approach that would affect us all.

On the surface, the idea of regulating sugar—a substance which has been a common staple of nearly every kitchen in America for as long as we can remember—sounds absurd. But the authors argue that, in fact, there's not that much of a difference between sugar and alcohol. For one thing, they have many of the same health hazards. Okay, but eating a couple of cups of sugar doesn't incapacitate you. You can still drive under the influence of sugar; you can still do your job; and exercise good judgment. So shouldn't we be able to regulate consumption on our own? Maybe, but clearly we haven't been—and it's not all about us, it's about the impact that this mass consumption of toxins has on society.

That's part of why the authors argue that sugar meets the same standards for regulation as alcohol does: "it's unavoidable, there's potential for abuse, it's toxic, and it negatively impacts society." Sugar is also addictive, acting on the same parts of your brain as booze and tobacco, encouraging you to consume more and more. And we've already established that it's bad for your body. Be that as it may, is our society really ready to sober up? And if we are, how the hell would we do it? Ridding our diets of sugar seems about as easy as ridding our lives of the internet.

What the authors are proposing is that the government regulate sugar in the same way it regulates tobacco and alcohol. That means taxing certain products, putting age limits on consumption, and controlling the amount of sugar that's distributed. Fortunately, no one is proposing a total prohibition—we all know how well that worked last time... Though it might be worth doing simply so that people in the future could look back on photos of us crammed into dark speakeasies dipping Oreos in milk and feeding them to each other.

As tempting as it is to scoff at the idea and reject the notion of the government controlling something as personal as diet, this idea definitely warrants some serious consideration. It will only work if it's done correctly and done comprehensively. It's not as simple as just taxing sodas and saying people under the age of 18 can't buy candy bars. (Seeing people get carded at bakeries would be pretty hilarious, though.) Regulating a food that is so pervasive is much more complicated than regulating tobacco or alcohol, for many reasons, but foremost among them is because you have to eat something. You can just stop drinking beer or stop smoking cigarettes, and you will live. (It may not be as fun, but it's not going to be deadly.) You obviously can't stop eating.

So if you're going to take sugary foods away, you'll have to replace them with some other healthier option. That is a very thorny problem. At the moment, a lot of people are consuming massive amounts of sugar not because they want to but because it's all they have access to or the means to buy. And if the prices of sugary foods go up because of taxation, then—unless we figure out a way to produce healthier foods that are as affordable as the junk being sold now—we'll end up penalizing the people that can least afford it.

In an ideal world, we could just start regulating away and eventually sugar eaters would end up like smokers, relegated to paying through the nose and consuming their vice in the most unpleasant locations. But in reality, if we're going to do this right, it will require reshaping our entire food economy, top to bottom. Producers will have to change the way they do business, people will have to change their consumption, and the government would have to change its relationship to everything from the agricultural industry to the restaurant industry.

Even if the population could all agree to act in unison, there are still the incredibly powerful business interests—the sugar lobby, the corn lobby, to name just two—whose sole reason for existing is to prevent things like this from happening. Look at how insanely difficult it was to enact prohibition and tobacco regulation. If we had an even quasi-functional federal government, it might be possible to override some of the current obstacles, but at the moment it doesn't look too good in Washington.

Dr. Marion Nestle, nutrition professor and food studies guru, says she thinks it could be possible to achieve it down the line, if enough state and local governments enact policies, then the federal government can take it from there. Let's hope she's right, but there's a long way to go from here to there. There's no reason we can't start small by continuing to educate people on what they're eating, working toward making healthy food options available to everyone, and exerting whatever limited political influence we have to make sure the government is representing our interests and not Big Corn's.

But realistically, it's probably going to be a very long time—like we've all had to move to the moon kind of time—before federal agents are going door-to-door taking away our doughnuts and ice cream bars. But, as much as this kind of legislation appeals to me now, if and when they do come a knockin', I'll probably be in my basement, defending my stockpile of Reese's Peanut Butter cups to the death, because once we have lost those, we have lost everything.

Sugar should be regulated like alcohol, tobacco, commentary says [CBS News]
Opinion: Why we should regulate sugar like alcohol [CNN]

Image via Nixx Photography/Shutterstock.