But as with most things in nutrition science, the answer requires more nuance than the average attention-grabbing headline permits.
That said, the truth is that the biggest problem isn’t sugar in and of itself – but rather what we’ve done to it.
As with many things, nature got it right the first time. In fact, nature actually designed three very smart things into sugar that should have protected us from our hardwired appetite for the sweet stuff.
Revisiting these three simple ideas, present since the dawn of time, can give us some simple rules for how we can – and should – continue to enjoy sugar in the modern world.
1. Sugar comes with its own antidote.
The first big problem with sugar is what we’ve historically done once we find a good source of it. Namely, pull it out of its intended package, refine, and concentrate the heck out of it. One of the most outspoken critics is Dr Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease. While he has his detractors, there is far less debate about one of his central points:
…Naturally occurring fructose in fruit comes with a boatload of fiber, which limits its absorption. Refined sugar has no fiber. You absorb it all immediately — that’s how the damage is done.
Consider where table sugar itself comes from: sugar cane. Ever seen a piece of sugar cane? It’s just about the most densely fibrous stalk of grass you could imagine. You could barely bite into it, let alone swallow it. But even if you did, the relatively high amounts of sugar it contains (about 16%) would be largely offset by the proportional amounts of fiber (about 16% again). In other words, according to Lustig, the antidote is built right into the poison.
2. Sugar comes with its own deterrent.
There is really only one form of “refined” sugar in nature: honey. But honey is protected by swarms of angry, stinging bees who technically never sleep and will literally chase you for miles if disturbed. Think about that for a second. Back in the day, even assuming you were a particularly tough breed of Mesolithic man, you would still likely only come across a hive once every few months that you’d be willing to breach. Which helps explains why our ancestors could only manage to consume the equivalent of about 20 teaspoons of sugar each year. We consume at least that amount each day. We feed our kids even more. And this ignores the fact that accessing that concentrated sugar required a whole lot more physical exertion than it currently takes me to unwrap a Snickers.
3. Sugar comes with its own schedule.
Fruit is one of the primary source of sugar in a natural diet, and, while relatively abundant, is only available for a short window of time in most climates. And, once plucked, most fruit doesn’t keep particularly long, unlike certain hardier roots, grains, and vegetables. This seasonality is another important signal we’ve chosen to ignore. Not only does it force us to take breaks from eating fruit, it also invites a certain variety into our diet. If sweet peas are only truly in season for about two weeks a year, we cannot (nor should we) rely on them as a staple of our diet. Beyond the environmental impact of shipping produce all over the world, all year long, part of the problem with the American diet is how divorced we’ve become from our food sources themselves. Understanding the role of seasonality in a healthy diet can be one of the first steps towards becoming more nutritionally literate.
Bottom line? By ignoring nature’s three simple rules for sugar consumption – keep it whole, keep it scarce, and keep it seasonal – we’ve ended up eating 90 pounds more sugar each year than nature expected we would. And that’s using the conservative estimate. Other research puts it at closer to 150 pounds. If the dose truly does make the poison, then this statistic alone is a pretty stark reminder that we’re leap frogging nature’s safeguards to almost comical proportion.
This is not to say that nature has all the answers, all the time, for every challenge of the modern world. But it almost always helps us ask ourselves the best questions.