How Sugar—and the Food Industry That Pushes It—May Be Driving the Obesity Epidemic

By Sophie Bushwick | June 14, 2012 10:02 am

High-fructose corn syrup ups the sugar content of many
processed foods.

As the obesity rates continue to climb in developed countries, and research about hunger and how our bodies process food advances, researchers are finding more clues that the epidemic’s cause is more complex than simple overeating. And one contributor may be the increase in the amount of sugar in processed foods, especially with the rise of mass-produced, cheaper-than-cane-sugar high-fructose corn syrup in the 1970s.

At The Guardian, documentary maker Jacques Peretti has written a detailed history of the food industry’s role in popularizing high-fructose corn syrup and fueling obesity. Peretti’s story begins with corn overproduction in the 1970s causing a surplus, which led to the mass production of corn-based foods, including high-fructose corn syrup, long before worries about obesity had arisen.

But another health issue was on the radar: heart disease, and in the mid-70s, a fierce debate was raging behind the closed doors of academia over what was causing it. An American nutritionist called Ancel Keys blamed fat, while a British researcher at the University of London Professor John Yudkin, blamed sugar. But Yudkin’s work was rubbished by what many believe, including Professor Robert Lustig, one of the world’s leading endocrinologists, was a concerted campaign to discredit Yudkin…Yudkin’s colleague at the time, Dr Richard Bruckdorfer at UCL says: “There was a huge lobby from [the food] industry, particularly from the sugar industry, and Yudkin complained bitterly that they were subverting some of his ideas.” Yudkin was, Lustig says simply, “thrown under the bus”, because there was a huge financial gain to be made by fingering fat, not sugar, as the culprit of heart disease. The food industry had its eyes on the creation of a new genre of food, something they knew the public would embrace with huge enthusiasm, believing it to be better for their health – “low fat”. It promised an immense business opportunity forged from the potential disaster of heart disease. But, says Lustig, there was a problem. “When you take the fat out of a recipe, food tastes like cardboard, and you need to replace it with something – that something being sugar.”

According to Peretti, anti-fat attitudes indirectly kept sugar levels in processed food high, particularly sugar derived from corn. And that sugar not only made people fatter, it also messed with their brains and drove them to overeat (an outcome not undesirable for the food industry). While Peretti’s account does not contain any new revelations, it does weave together previously discovered information into a compelling tale, as he openly asserts that sugar is the primary cause of the obesity epidemic. Peretti’s version is probably not the whole story behind obesity—he includes no discussion of other factors influencing weight gain (e.g., the increase in serving sizes) or strong counterpoints in defense of sugar—but his story is interesting and certainly suggests that sugar’s role in the current epidemic is worth exploring.

Image courtesy of Daniel_Bauer / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • ganesh

    This is very interesting to hear about, although food industry complicity in the prevalence of health problems should come as no surprise to those working in it or studying it. For another take on the obesity “epidemic” and the endocrine-disrupting role of our food environment, I would point readers to a book by Julie Guthman of UC-Santa Cruz. Entitled “Weighing In,” it questions how obesity (and by extension other eating disorders) is defined and what their causes may be, including tendency of many substances in our food to mimic hormones and throw our metabolism out of whack.

  • Rocky

    The obesity epidemic is not down just to the sugar industry but more generally to the massive increase in food production over the past few decades, fueled by government subsidies. (E.g. google “Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food” or “A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity”.) This made food much cheaper, which is why you have ridiculous serving sizes in the US these days.

    That said, the biggest part of the problem is indeed the refined carbohydrates like HFCS, which (as the article says) screw with your brain function. It’s basically as if the government were making heroin really cheap by paying farmers to grow poppies, and the poppy farmers were paying off the politicians to keep things that way.

  • http://Facebook TAMARA

    Now that I am 54 and suffering from heart disease, after a lifetime of watching my fat intake….it is disturbing to read articles now telling us that sugar is the culprit in increasing heart disease and we all were sold a lie. If I reflect on the fact that our corn is genetically modified on top of it being added to everything its no wonder many of us are over weight despite our best efforts, and suffering a wide array of illnesses esp. diabetes, High Blood Pressure and cancer. But, hey this is great for the pharmaceutical companies!!! Now take in the disturbing fact that our government (controlled by corporations) refuses to provide universal health care for Americans, it all falls into place. Huge profits for all.

  • Fern

    If you have 1.5 hours to spare, Dr. Lustig’s Youtube video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” is well worth watching and very enlightening on how sugar is more culpable than fat when it comes to today’s obesity epidemic.

  • Iain

    Fructose. Well named! Well gamed! I believed (for many years) that fructose was a fruit sugar. LOL! It’s just corn syrup or something close to that. And ya! sugar is important in weight gain. But consumption of fat isn’t going to go away as another weight gain tool. Something else that helps out is over consumption (for whatever reason) and lack of exercise!
    Gosh who woulda thunk it?

  • Awnshegh

    If you want to know more you should read ‘Sweet Poison’ by David Gillespie. He covers all of these in his book telling how he lost 40 KGs simply by cutting out sugar (which is 50% Fructose) from his diet and letting his body regulate how much he ate – returning to a healthier body weight naturally over about 2 years.

    In the book he gives links to the first had literature he quotes so if you need to know more it’s only a step away.

  • floodmouse

    For years I did the low-fat diet, and I was always hungry. Finally I got fed up and decided to start using butter and whole milk again, as well as free-range eggs cooked in olive oil. Also I occasionally use a teaspoon full of coconut oil. I haven’t gained any weight and I don’t feel hungry all the time. I read somewhere that eating fat triggers a feeling of fullness, so you eat less. I’m not sure what it will do to my arteries . . .

    Over the last year or so, I cut out all foods that have sugar added. This turned out to be very difficult as most processed food has hidden sugar in it, and I don’t have time to cook my own food. I think I’m finally dropping off some of those office weight gain pounds. An interesting thing that happens is that a couple months after you stop eating products with added sugar, fruit and bread start tasting REALLY sweet. You almost lose the craving for syrup in your coffee and sugary desserts. When you actually make an exception and eat something like ice cream, it tastes TOO sweet, and you wish they’d tone it down a bit.

  • http://CarlHeldMD.COM Carl Held, MD

    The subject of sugar: if  they can’t or won’t cut back on super, the pain
    will keep coming back. And there’s
    nothing I can do about that. I know of no anecdote.
    What will work, is to substitute erythritol or pure stevia, not the kind
    that is way more maltitol than stevia. Same story will all the other
    propiatary 30 or more words which labels contain. The food industry knows
    full well how these manufactured terms do you the same damage and are as
    addicting as sugar. Be careful, the food industry tries to be one step ahead
    and smarter than you. And deception abounds, like a “protein” (milk solids
    and egg white) powder “bulking” in a health food store read in big letters
    at an angle, “no sweetener”, but read the label, and the first ingredient
    was “sugar” And don’t be fooled by the “no fructose” trick, like if you
    consume sugar, not fructose, you’re better off. No, they’re both sugar, are
    equally addicting, and have the same pain producing effect.
    Another equally deceptive practice is reading “evaporated liquid came”. Only
    that’s what sugar is. Unless its sugar from beets. No difference, it’s still
    sugar. I’ll bet that’s fooled a lot of people. Because it’s been going on
    for years. Did I say, “deception abounds?”
    I once told my son, “you can’t find bread on a shelf in the supermarket that
    won’t make you sick”.  You’ll have to go to a health food store.”. But be
    wary. Read the label carefully.

  • Rodger

    Ah yes! the three essential food groups in fastprocessed food
    Sugar, fat and salt….

  • Kip Hansen

    “Peretti’s account does not contain any new revelations,”, neither is it based on scientifically proven facts…it is what can be called ‘narrative science’ — a nice story. Now all he has to do is all the science necessary to back up his ideas.

  • pctek

    We die more now from heart disease, stroke and cancer because we have stopped dying from things like typhoid, cholera, TB, malaria, pneumonia, plague and so on.

    We even survive accidents more than we used to.

    Certain countries/races don’t so much as others? It’s not what they eat, it’s how much and what sort of medical care and treatment they get.

    It’s funny no-one has done real studies of this, or perhaps not, it’s become fashionable to tweak studies and statistics to suit the desired end result, not really look into reality.

  • Brian Walpole

    There is nothing real or natural anymore about the food we eat – all the smells and flavours are artificially created, to trick our brains into grabbing more and bringing on a host of health issues like hypertension, diabetes and obesity that have become typical of the modern age. To add to the woes, it is the corporate shielding government policies that are fuelling the conflicting interests between a callous profit hungry industry and the social, environmental and nutritional welfare of the general populace. It is indeed ironical that the very industry, intrinsic to our well-being should be the cause of the obesity epidemic under which much of the industrialised world is reeling. So what’s the solution? Have we and our highly capitalistic society really succeeded in the true sense of the word? More of my thoughts on this in my blog post


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