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Health experts want ‘toxic’ sugar to be regulated like alcohol

Governments should tax added sweeteners and limit their sale to people over a certain age, say health experts who consider…

Added sweetners are contributing to a rise in diseases, experts say. Flickr/Tony Castillo.

Governments should tax added sweeteners and limit their sale to people over a certain age, say health experts who consider sugar just as toxic to our health as alcohol.

The consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years, they say, leading to an increase in chronic, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

“Sugar is pleasure. So too is alcohol, but in both cases, too much of a good thing is toxic,” write the obesity and health policy experts from the University of California, San Francisco. Their article, ‘The toxic truth about sugar’, is published today in the journal Nature.

But the controversial proposal to police sugar consumption would achieve nothing, Dr Alan Barclay, head of research at the Australian Diabetes Foundation, said.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s nutritionism at its worst - pick on a food and demonise it. Singling out one component of our diet will not solve the problem.

“The problem is that people today eat too much of everything and exercise too little. Exercise and activity are being increasingly removed from modern life.”

Last September, the United Nations announced that chronic, non-communicable diseases contributed to 35m deaths annually. For the first time in history, that toll outstripped the number of deaths from infections diseases.

“The UN announcement targets tobacco, alcohol and diet as the central risk factors in non-communicable disease,” the authors write. “Two of these three - tobacco and alcohol - are regulated by governments to protect public health, leaving one of the primary culprits behind this worldwide health crisis unchecked.”

“Consequently, we propose adding taxes to processed foods that contain any form of added sugars. This would include sweetened fizzy drinks (soda), other sugar-sweetened beverages (for example, juice, sports drinks and chocolate milk) and sugared cereal.”

Other tobacco and alcohol “control strategies” that could be used involve limiting the availability of sweetened products, mainly by reducing hours of opening for shops, controlling the location and spread of shops, and introducing an age below which it would be illegal to buy specified products.

The authors acknowledge that their proposal faces an “uphill political battle” against the sugar lobby, but they argue that “with enough clamour for change, tectonic shifts in policy become possible”.

In Australia and many other countries, people consume an average of more than 400 calories per day from added sugar, according to figures compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

But Dr Barclay said that in Australia, sugar consumption had dropped 23% since 1980. Despite this, over the same period cases of overweight or obese people had doubled, and diabetes had at least tripled.

“[Sugar] is only ‘toxic’ in unrealistic amounts and to suggest that consuming sugar is a form of abuse is one of the worst cases of puritanism that I have seen in a while. Just like anything else, sugar should only be eaten in moderation.”

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Excellent article. The paper "Public health: the toxic truth about sugar" by Lustig et al in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, volume 482, pp 27–29 (02 February 2012) (see: ) sensibly argues that added sweeteners pose dangers to health that justify controlling them like alcohol.

    This report was preceded 40 years ago by the famous book famous "Pure, White and Deadly" (1972) by Professor John Yudkin, Professor of Physiology…

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  2. Bruce Moon


    I suggest this article is misinformed, misrepresentative of the issue at stake, and misleading.

    To advocate an alternate view to the argument embodied in an article in a scientific journal, the editor interviewed a scientist to determine a contrary outcome.

    There is a growing and influential body of work showing the long term detrimental health effects of consuming too much refined sugar. Most of these impacts are related to disease onset.

    The disease focused upon by the editor is diabetes…

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  3. Paul Richards

    logged in via Twitter

    The article is interesting, if only it was just the sugar.

    Science has verified how eating protein and carbohydrates together can have the same affect as sugar. Our bodies store the protein as fat using the carbohydrates first. To much sugar combined with protein, fat, with other simple and complex carbohydrates is really the issue. We could eliminate the sugar, but any combination of carbohydrates and protein would still store fat by triggering the same insulin response.

    Not to mention the…

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  4. Sam Chafe

    Retired scientist

    I'm with Dr. Alan Barclay. This is preposterous nonsense.

  5. Rosemary Stanton

    Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

    Like most things, sugar is mainly a problem when consumption is high, although sugary foods and acidic sweetened drinks can be problematic for dental health at any level of consumption.

    Apart from sugar-sweetened drinks, few people eat much sugar on its own, so what accompanies sugar - and what sugar displaces - are also important considerations.

    Sugar makes fat taste good and we wouldn't eat most cakes, pastries, confectionery or desserts if sugar didn't add flavour to their saturated fat…

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  6. rory robertson

    logged in via email

    We should be very careful about taking any notice of Dr Barclay's views on sugar consumption:

    First, his most high-profile academic paper is highly flawed and features the spectacularly false conclusion that sugar consumption and obesity are unrelated. The paper is a serious embarrassment for the University of Sydney and a menace to Australian public health. Dr Barclay should do the right thing: get busy with his co-author and correct the public record.

    Second, as a member of the low-GI school at the University of Sydney, he has a major undisclosed conflict of interest when he argues that sugar is not a problem. Dr Barclay and the rest of the low-GI crew should disclose that major conflict of interest whenever they enter the public debate.

    It's all documented at #10 and #11 at