Has The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
It’s obvious that sugar is in chocolate, soft drinks, and candies – but how many of us know that it’s also in our yogurt, chips, sauces, frozen dinners, and even sushi?
In fact, sugar has changed from once being a luxury ingredient for kings to now a staple in the American diets, whether we’re aware of it or not.
How did sugar become so pervasive, and what does this mean for our health?
Let’s look deeper at just how sugar took over and influenced much of our diet. From origins on Pacific islands, to becoming front and center of a lucrative industry, sugar has a hold over our health – and our lives – in a way most of us don’t fully realize.
In this book summary, you’ll learn:
how one single root forever changed sugar
how not all calories are created equal
how some of the deadliest diseases are linked to sugar
The Case Against Sugar #1: Sugar wasn’t always the main additive in our foods and was used more sparingly.
Sugar’s history spans thousands of years, to the natives of New Guinea, who first planted sugarcane for farming. Growing sugarcane was the only means to produce sugar for quite some time, though it was expensive. As the crop only grows in a tropical climate, it was a complicated and costly crop to export.
Therefore, sugar became a luxurious status symbol, something that only the wealthy elite at the time could afford. In fact, sugar was even given as a gift to the King of Spain, among other treasures such as pearls and jewels.
However, soon enough, more affordable methods of producing sugar became available, thanks to the sugar beet. A sugar beet can grow in mostly any climate, and once the process of extracting the sugar became easy and simple, it became a staple ingredient that was no longer hard to obtain.
Additionally, the steam engine, which triggered the Industrial Revolution, influenced the spread of sugar. Now, the refineries of the 1920s could produce the same quantity of sugar in a single day that it would take a decade to produce in 1820.
Refined sugar now made it easy to produce and sell sweet junk food and candies, the same kinds that are still in markets today. No longer was sugar used as an occasional sweetener for tea or coffee. With these new production methods, foods like ice cream and soda could be mass produced for a low price. Additionally, sugar was added to products such as white bread to influence the taste.
One product that expanded with refined sugar was Coca-Cola. It was first invented in 1885 by John Pemberton, who called it a “brain tonic.” Years later, when refined sugar was added, it was now marketed as “soda” and quickly became the most popular soft drink on the market.
The Case Against Sugar #2: Not all calories are equal, and the calories from sugar have the worst impact on our health.
You might have heard before, “a calorie is a calorie,” thinking that five calories from sugar equals five calories from an apple. However, this is far from true.
As with anything scientific, nutrition hasn’t always been as precise or advanced as now. For a while, most of us lived by misconceptions. The first: that all calories are equal, and the second: calorie intake is the cause of unhealthy weight gain.
The sugar industry loves these misconceptions, as it allowed them to promote sugar by making people think that a few teaspoons of sugar has fewer calories than an apple. However, modern nutritional science can show us now that regardless of what popular brands say, this is not the case, and not all calories are the same.
In the 1960s, accurate information about nutrition emerged, with a breakthrough in measuring hormones in our blood. This allowed scientists to see that our hormones work hard to extract energy from stored fat cells.
However, one hormone in particular did exactly the opposite: insulin.
Insulin is produced when blood sugar (or blood glucose) level rises, causing the body to immediately store insulin as fat cells instead of turning it into energy. Once our blood sugar level drops back down to normal, the conversion stops.
What can cause this spike in blood sugar levels and lead to an increase in fat storage? Foods high in carbohydrates – which means sugar. This conversion right to fat storage shows that the calories gained from sugar are not created equal like any other calorie.
Even with this data, the sugar industry has continued promoting this message of being “low-calorie.” With ongoing persistence, the theory is quite persuasive, even enough to fool some scientists. In 2015, a NewYork Times article published information that showed how some scientists still blamed an overall “calorie surplus” as the main cause of obesity.
The Case Against Sugar #3: The sugar industry has worked hard to protect its brand and fight competitors who try to discredit them.
If anyone had ever said to you: add more sugar to your diet, you wouldn’t think to believe them, right?
This, however, is just what the sugar industry wanted to promoted in 1928. In that year, the Sugar Institute was created as a campaign to increase sugar demand. Through this, ad campaigns actually would label sugar as a “health food.”
The Sugar Institute saw sugar as having a variety of benefits: in summer, it was refreshing; in winter, it boosted your immune system; in autumn, it helped avoid afternoon fatigue.
As diet trends emerged and continued on through the 1950s, the United States obesity rate began to increase. It was around this time that the sugar industry introduced the “a calorie is a calorie” concept and argued that other foods should be eliminated from one’s diet for weight loss, but not sugar.
Then, an alternative to sugar launched when manufacturers and consumers embraced artificial sweeteners in drinks like diet soda. Now, it was clear that artificial sweeteners such as saccharincontained fewer calories that sugar and were seen as a healthier substitute.
Because of this, the sugar industry went as far as trying to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban artificial sweeteners. And, in 1958, the Food and Drugs Act was changed to add that no additive could be labeled as safe if it can lead to cancer “when ingested by man or animal.”
The FDA has always greatly influenced the US food industry through giving certain foods a “GRAS” status, which means: Generally Recognized As Safe. Because of this, the sugar industry tried between 1963 and 1969 to remove the GRAS status from cyclamate, spending $4 billion on studies to try to prove it wasn’t safe.
They spent that money testing artificial sweeteners on rats, which ultimately led them to conclude that cyclamate could be “possibly carcinogenic,” the product was banned. However, they left out that fact that one would need to drink 550 cans of diet soda a day to equal the amount of cyclamate given to the rats daily.
The Case Against Sugar #4: The sugar industry also continues to spread misinformation about other foods.
There’s another popular idea that saturated fat can cause heart disease. The actual truth isn’t as simple as this basic claim makes it seem – and also might even be entirely false.
How did this misconception become so accepted?
Here, it was a scientist named Ancel Keys who made the link known between fatty foods and heart disease.
In the twentieth century, when heart disease was becoming more prevalent, people wanted an explanation. Therefore, Keys’ theory was easy to accept.
However, under a closer examination, Keys’ theory had a conflict of interest: his research was paid for by the sugar industry. Additionally, Key is the inventor of the food packets used by the military called K-Rations– which are full of sugar.
Of course, this was just another way that the sugar industry was trying to find more evidence so they could say that sugar wasn’t bad for your health.
This propaganda was largely successful, convincing the public that fat was the biggest enemy in food. By the 1980s, any scientist who tried to stand out and talk about sugar causing heart disease risked being called out in public and discredited by the sugar industry.
Despite this, the overwhelming evidence pointed at sugar being the real culprit. And, all throughout the twentieth century, heart disease rose in the West, along with obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
It was becoming more clear and harder to ignore - this wasn’t a coincidence. These diseases had to be related and there had to be some factor in the Western nations where this was happening. When examining the changes in typical diets of the West, the one additive was clearly to blame: sugar.
Additionally, scientists all looked to fat and began to think it wasn’t all that bad. For example, the Inuit people of Alaska and the Masai in Africa had always typically eaten a high-fat diet, and typically lived long and healthy lives.
All of this evidence was leading to the conclusion that these diseases were only prevalent in countries where sugar-rich foods were introduced.
The Case Against Sugar #5: An abundance of sugar can result in insulin resistance and metabolic diseases.
For diseases that can be linked back to sugar, the strongest association is with diabetes, especially when thinking about the way sugar can cause an insulin resistance.
As mentioned before, the hormone insulin is released when blood sugar rises. When insulin is active, fat is stored, and blood sugar is reduced.
This means that when you eat sweet foods, the food’s glucose will raise your blood sugar. To prevent this spike and to stay in a healthy range, the pancreas releases insulin so the glucose can be used as fuel or stored as fat. As blood sugar levels normalize, energy again comes from stored fat.
If your body starts to become resistant to insulin, then the hormone no longer works to use the glucose – your cells become resistant to it. This creates a problem within the body, as the best way to lower your blood sugar is to introduce more insulin into the bloodstream.
Though it’s not 100% proven, it is extremely likely and believed that sugar is what causes this insulin resistance. In a Stanford University study, rats were shown to develop a resistance to insulin after being fed fructose, a fruit-based sugar.
This is more proof that not all calories can be treated the same, as one hundred sugar calories will show different results in the body as one hundred calories of fat – especially when it comes it regulating insulin release.
Insulin resistance can also lead to metabolic syndrome, generally a precursor to diabetes or heart disease. Metabolic syndrome is due to a few factors: obesity, high blood pressure, and inflammation. These are all symptoms of having too much sugar in your diet.
In the final section, we look at how insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are linked with almost every Western disease.
The Case Against Sugar #6: Sugar has a connection to a range of common Western diseases, including cancer.
Not yet convinced of the dangers of sugar to your health? Well, let’s look at a community of people living on the island of Tokelau, which is right off the coast of New Zealand. This population had the world’s highest rate of diabetes in 2014 – 38 percent of its residents had the disease.
This problem has only increased in the last few decades for this island. It began back in the 1960s, when New Zealand established a program that allowed them to emigrate to the mainland.
From this program we can track the changes in their diet and overall health. With access to the mainland, consumption of sugar was up to 55 pounds per year for the islanders. Before this, the average Tokelau diet consisted of coconut, pork, fish, chicken, and fruit. More than half of all calories were coming from healthy fats. Then, sugar was only a measly 2% of their diet, or about 8 pounds a year. Then, only 12% of the population was diabetic.
Now, one out of every five women who emigrated to the mainland became diabetic. Additionally, obesity became a problem, as well as an onslaught of different Western diseases, ones the islanders never had to deal with before. This story is convincing proof to show the deadly effects of sugar.
Additionally, sugar has also shown as having a substantial link to cancer. This study was done on patients who had metabolic syndrome with an insulin resistance. The results of the research concluded that patients with increased levels of insulin in their blood had a greater risk of developing cancer.
This data is also supported by a study done in 2005, where Scottish researchers examined diabetic patients taking the drug metformin in order to reduce insulin resistance and insulin levels. Studying these patients revealed that they had a significantly lower risk of developing cancer than those who didn’t take a drug to lower insulin levels.
With the overwhelming evidence, it’s clear to see that we should all keep our sugar intake to an absolute minimum.
The final message of this book:
There’s overwhelming evidence that sugar is the main cause of many Western diseases. This is due to how sugar causes insulin resistance, which studies have concluded as a precursor to deadly diseases. Doctors have been warning against sugar consumption for years; however, the sugar industry is powerful and has tried for decades to silence the reality of sugar.
Actionable advice: Begin to live your life without sugar.
Many consume sugar daily and can’t imagine cutting it out. This is true of anyone suffering from an addiction: they can’t imagine a life without their vice. Eventually though, once you cut back on the thing you’re craving, you come to realize how much you didn’t need it at all. This goes for sugar: it begins with realizing just how easy it is to live without it.