Last week my twitter friend Stacey asked me for my thoughts on the mention of “toxic levels of sugar” in this article by Aviva Goldfarb: My healthy eaters are consuming toxic levels of sugar. Your kids probably are too.
Before I go any further I think that we should stop and have a quick refresher on what toxic means as it seems to be a term that’s bandied about all too often these days. A toxic substance is a poisonous substance. There are a couple of ways in which something can be toxic. The effects of acute toxicity are fairly immediate adverse reactions to a substance. The effects of chronic toxicity are a result of long-term low-level exposure to a substance. Of course, the dose makes the poison. Large enough quantities of pretty much any substance can be acutely toxic. We need oxygen to survive but pure oxygen will kill us.
Now that, that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the claims in the article at hand. According to Aviva, her children are consuming above the level of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association. The recommendation is no more than 3 teaspoons (or 12 grams) of added sugar a day. And she’s right, it’s easy for children, even children who snack on kale and edamame, to consume well over that amount of sugar in the course of a day. I mean, many cookies contain more than that amount of sugar. You can easily consume 3 teaspoons of added sugar from a bowl of cereal, a glass of juice, or a bowl of pasta with jarred tomato sauce. One meal or one snack and you’ve met your limit for the day. Does that mean that you (or your child) is consuming a toxic amount of sugar though? Probably not.
To my knowledge, there is no known dose of sugar that is toxic. Oh yes, I know that many of you, like Aviva will point to Dr. Lustig’s research and say that many MDs believe sugar to be toxic. I will argue that there are many MDs (and RDs and other critically-minded individuals) who dispute Lustig’s findings. I’d also like to remind you that Lustig has a serious conflict of interest. He’s built his entire career on convincing people that sugar is poison and written several books on the subject. If his study were to find that sugar was innocuous can you imagine the damage that would do to his career? He’d be finished. I’d also like to take the time to point out that, despite many others who have been fingered by the anti-sugar crusaders I have no conflicts of interest. I do not receive money from any industry groups, I have not made a career on pushing sugar, I don’t even like pop.
While it may well be that sugar is chronically toxic, there is not sufficient quality evidence to support a specific consumption recommendation. The number chosen by the AHA, the WHO, and others is completely arbitrary insofar as I can tell. What makes matters even worse is that these recommendations pertain only to added sugars. Despite our desire to believe that there is something inherently superior about the sugar in an orange, the fact is that it’s structurally identical to those vilified added (or “free”) sugars.
Sure, an orange comes with loads of excellent nutrients like fibre, vitamins, and minerals but that doesn’t change the fact that when it goes through your digestive system, the sugar in it is broken-down in just the same way as the sugar in a candy. If we are going to say that sugar is toxic then we can’t give “naturally” occurring sugars a pass. Surely we can easily consume more than 3 teaspoons worth of sugar from fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products in the run of a day. One glass of white milk and you’re already at 12 grams. Boom, done. Off to die.
Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic. But really now, enough with the fear mongering. Yes, most of us could stand to improve our diets by some measure or another. Undoubtedly, many of us would be well-served by eating fewer sweets and more leafy greens. That doesn’t mean that we need to start policing our children’s diets and denying them ketchup with their (gasp) fries. Honestly, I’d worry more about the negative effects of my children finding me surrounded by empty marshmallow bags and spent containers of Nutella than I would about enjoying the occasional sweet treat. I’d also worry more about the effects of counting grams of sugar they’re consuming and instilling the notion of toxic food choices than I would about a cookie.
Yes to more mindful food choices. Yes to preparing more meals at home using basic ingredients. Yes to more sitting down and eating as a family without distractions. No to more fear mongering and demonizing of single nutrients.