Skepchick Quickies, 4.20


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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    1. And about half of them were “poison,” “toxic,” and “evil.” Certainly not red flags for hysterical ideological pseudoscience. It’s telling that Gary Taubes is reporting on this–he’s been beating the anti-carb drum for a decade and Lustig definitely bolsters his preconceived notions.

    2. No kidding, and poorly written to boot.
      The author obviously believes that Robert Lustig is correct, that sugar is toxic, and is using a lot of bad journalism to make his point.
      Scientists say; it appears; some authorities; the weasle words abound and through it all he hasn’t even made his point.
      Why is the question not “do we eat too much sugar?”, a question I believe he may be able to answer, instead of the more sensational “is sugar toxic?”, a question that (dispite offering no opposing opinions) he doesn’t even make.
      Q: How is sugar toxic? A: We eat too much of it and our bodies metabolize it differently. I agree but it doesn’t answer the question
      I don’t doubt that we eat too much sugar and that it is related, at least to some extent, to the increase in obesity and diabetes. But this doesn’t prove that sugar is toxic, and his sloppy reporting does nothing more than assert it to be so.
      It actually dovetails nicely with Chris Mooney’s Mother Jones piece about why we don’t believe science. Mr. Lustig (and the author, he doesn’t deserve a plug) have decided that they are right and will use whatever evidence they can find to back up their belief and ignore all evidence to the contrary.
      Is sugar toxic? I don’t know, but reading this article got me no closer to answering that question. I do know that some people seem to have a hardon for find something to blame for all illness.
      Very crappy reporting, I expect more from The New York Times (Magazine); it appears I may be expecting too much.

      1. This was pretty much my reaction when I read this the other day. But I was so relieved that the author spent several paragraphs explaining that sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are the same damn thing. Seriously, people need to stop pretending that sugar is somehow healthier than HFCS.

        But yeah, the rest of it was crap. It struck me as a very “Look at this maverick scientist going against the status quo!” kind of piece. And yeah, Robert Lustig could be right, but he needs to provide evidence that he is right before making the kind of claims that he makes.

        It is good fodder for a game of “Name that Logical Fallacy,” though.

  1. “In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

    I love that last sentence in the Mother Jones article! That is one reason why coming out as a skeptic is so important. If your coworkers, friends, colleagues observe you as a skeptic, acting ethically, compassionately and intelligently, they may stick around and listen to your ideas on say, vaccine science.

    The article also brought home how vigilant we have to be as skeptics when it comes to motivated reasoning! I know I am not immune. I just hope that if aliens arrive, I will not miss out because I scoffed and ignored the claims that go against my preconceived notions.

  2. The one good thing about the sugar article is that at least it pointed out that cane sugar is basically the same as HFCS. While sugar certainly isn’t toxic or poisonous, it’s certainly not a health food either and it drives me nuts when people think swapping out HFCS with cane sugar will suddenly make them skinny and healthy. But I guess a balanced view like “sugar is neither poison nor health food” isn’t controversial enough to generate page hits for advertisers.

  3. If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

    Unless you are trying to be a dick, of course.

    I wish my friends (and I do know several of them IRL and like and respect them and think of them as friends) currently bickering and engaging in ad homs on the cover art and Granite State posts would consider this…

    Hey, everybody, Buzz is being an accommodationist concern troll. Let’s all go beat him up!

    1. Oh shit. blockquotes don’t work any more, and preview and edit are gone.

      The first and last paragraphs were supposed to be blockquotes.

      1. Hmmmm, maybe that’s why Rebecca was so snarky about Dale’s post. She’s been trying to fix the site for over a week. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (literally, if I can dig up the URL, I’ll post it…)

  4. I actually think that there is some good evidence for the theory that Taubes is presenting. Although I read it with that bias, I thought that the article was fairly well argued, and not over the top hyperbolic. I’m usually fairly sensitive to poor arguments, even from my own side.

    He didn’t present conclusive proof that ‘sugar is toxic’, but he also explicitly said that no conclusive proof exists, but that there is suggestive evidence and listed several lines of evidence that indicate that we should be concerned about the effects of high-doses of fructose. Even if we don’t know where the line delineating ‘high-dose’, precisely exists (As Taubes said), it’s certainly important to examine the possibility that it is within the range of an average North American’s sugar consumption.

    Obviously ‘the dose is the toxin’, but we can comfortably describe alcohol as a toxin while recognizing that moderate amounts aren’t going to harm us. If sugar is metabolically disruptive and can lead to diabetes at levels that are commonly consumed, I think that considering it a toxin is perfectly reasonable. I avoid eating it as a part of my daily diet, but I’m not going to turn down the occasional slice of cake at a party, much like I treat alcohol.

    I only tentatively accept the theory, but I’m willing to change my behaviour because there’s no downside to eating less sugar. I don’t believe it’s ‘the’ cause for obesity, metabolic syndrome, etc. but possibly a significant contributor and we’ll see where the evidence leads in the future.

    1. No conclusive proof exists, yet the thrust of this article (and what the average reader will take away) is not that more research should be done, but that the answer to the question is “yes”.

      It was particularly cringe-worthy when the author re-interpreted the FDA’s “no conclusive evidence” statement as “even the FDA can’t show Lustig isn’t right.”

      I have to admit I was expecting this article to show up among my (sometimes epistemologically challenged humanities) colleagues on facebook, and I was not disappointed. Ah, well.

  5. Is sugar toxic? Short answer: No.

    Long answer: Toxic: containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.
    Poison: a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism.
    Sugar simply doesn’t fit these definitions without some serious shoehorning. After all, everything is toxic depending on the dose …
    Or perhaps we’re including maffia style “lead poisoning” too, because then even bullets are toxic.

  6. From the article:

    The fructose component of sugar and H.F.C.S. is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose)…In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.

    Am I missing something, but if fructose goes straight to the liver to produce fat, shouldn’t we stop eating fruit.

    1. Precisely.
      Like I said before, there may be more to this idea, there is little doubt that we eat too much sugar for example, but this article is written like a diatribe against the sugar/H.F.C.S. lobby.
      And it uses the tired tropes of pseudoscience; animal studies as “proof”; old studies that were “overlooked” at the time; and hyperbolic language like “toxic” and “poison”, throw in some conspiracy talk and stir well and you get, to quote Jeff Goldbloom, “a big pile of shit.”
      It sounds suspiciously like the “slow carb” nonsense epitimized by Scott Abel and his 5-Day Body book. He takes some half-truths and mixes it with “it worked for me” and sells it as the answer to everything.
      Whenever someone starts pushing strongly for or against one particular dietary “thing” as the answer I get really suspicious.
      To put it another way, the language and rhetoric would not be out of place coming from Age of Autism, or Mercola, or Mike Adams health ranger and that can not be a good sign.

    2. He doesn’t go into detail on that point in the article, but Dr. Lustig does in the online lecture that’s referenced. The short answer is that fructose in fruit comes along with fibre, so it’s more slowly absorbed, and, it would be very hard to obtain the levels of fructose we can get through sugar consumption by eating fruit. He is definitely not against fruit consumption, but he is against fruit juice consumption, for the same reason: little/no fibre and much easier to consume a lot of fructose.

      1. I haven’t had a chance to see Dr. Lustig’s talk (and can’t right now since I can’t see video at work) so I can’t address it directly, I suspect it may be far more open in its conclutions then this article would suggest; and the “idea” of slow-carb (or to be more acurate, low-glycemic index) diets being effective is not necessarily the problem (it is the recomended diet for diabetics), most of my problem stems from a very poorly reported story, with a sensational headline and logical fallacy after logical fallacy, in The NY Times Magazine.
        More bad science reporting, knock me over with a feather, I know. It just burns me that crap like this passed muster at what used to be the flagship of journalism in this country, if not the world. And we wonder why Americans are scientifically illiterate.
        And if I sound angry its because I am, this is just a sample of why. I am tired of stupidity being considered a good thing.
        I know they are bumper sticker aphorisms, but I can sum up my mood right now with two sayings.
        “If you aren’t outraged you aren’t paying attention.”
        “Where are we going & why are we in this handbasket?”

  7. Maybe I’m repeating old info, but a) I’m still a skeptical n00b, b) I’m too lazy to go searching, and c) even so, it bears repeating, even so.

    I think that the problem with science communication is that it doesn’t always deal in absolutes, like other areas (religion, for example) do. Creationists “know” that God put Adam and Eve on the Earth to propagate the species, whereas an evolutionary scientist can only say that the evidence we have found supports the theory that we were all created in a pond of goo. Conspiracy theorists “know” that President Obama was born in Kenya, and that his birth certificate is a fake, but all that the authorities can say is that no, it isn’t a fake, and you have to trust us on that.

    And to say something that we cannot know, like evolution, or the Big Bang, with absolute certainty is to denigrate science into a different kind of religion. Politically right-minded people tend not to believe you, even when presented with a mountain of evidence, because there is almost always a chance (however infinitesimal) that the evidence has been misinterpreted in some way.

    And it’s that small chance that conspiracy theorists in particular glom onto and use to spin their dissent.

    1. Dear Ms. Watson,

      Please see the above grammatic travesty. This is what you get for no longer allowing me to edit my posts. ;)

  8. actually, ANY cell in the body can process fructose – just look at the glycolytic pathway, it’s just that the liver does it a bit differently and the significant feature of that fructose metabolism is that it bypasses a key regulatory step that tells the body “no more stuff down this route”. so, now that it’s past that regulatory step, the fructose dumps straight to the bottom where the body then would regulate whether to take that bottom product (acetylCoA, if you’re interested) and either run it through the energy producing pathway (TCA cycle) which is VERY tightly regulated or into liponeogenesis – let’s make FAT! why is fruit a better source than a cupcake? fiber??? p’shah! quantity. it’s probably the amount of sugar in the item that determines the problem. that cupcake has a lot more sugar (oops, definition – table sugar – glucose-fructose disaccharide – sucrose) than that apple and you’re more likely to have more than one cupcake as it tends not to give the same level of full feeling as the apple. fiber MIGHT slow down the uptake process but i’d be willing to bet it has more to do with concentration than with fiber somehow “holding” the sucrose. Sucrose actually doesn’t get absorbed, it’s broken down into glucose and fructose on the surface of the wall of the small intestine. but once inside, some of the fructose would STILL fall down through glycolysis and probably still make fat. dose makes the poison.

  9. I’ve listened to the Skepticality interview, and I wasn’t really impressed. For example:

    paraphrasing: ‘The experts say to lose weight, you need to exercise more. But exercise makes you hungry, so you end up eating more.’

    Yes, but if you eat properly…

  10. For anyone that’s still interested, I did a little fact-checking whilst watching Lustig’s video (said colleague insisted that real research existed there).

    As it turns out, many of his claims are dubious or outright fabricated, and he seriously misrepresents some of the studies he cites. Just to give one example, to support his claim “fructose causes de novo lipogenesis and insulin resistance in humans” he posts a graph from Faeh and Schwarz in Diabetes (2005).

    From the article: “Our study design involved administration of an extra amount of fructose while leaving the other dietary intakes unchanged. It therefore resulted in both energy and fructose overfeeding. As such, it is representative of a condition where increased dietary fructose intake would not be compensated by a reduction of calories from other sources. It cannot, however, truly differentiate the effects of high-fructose intake per se and of energy total carbohydrate overfeeding. Only comparative studies involving subjects overfed with fructose versus starch or glucose will be able to address this issue.”

    The extra fructose administered was 25% over normal daily caloric intake. The study, by the way, was about whether fish oil decreased triglyceride levels. Not the health effects of fructose. Also the sample size was seven college-age men.

    This is actually the BEST evidence he presents to tie sugar to disease.

    Also, his definition of “poison” as “any foreign substance that needs the liver to metabolise and produces some byproducts that can cause health problems at excess levels” is actually broad enough to include protein.

    1. On this note, I would love if some skeptic more qualified than I am (on the biochem side at least) could do some more detailed fact-checking and post it to a blog or on Science Based Medicine. Lustig seems to be circulating in alt-med HuffPo circles and he may not go away soon.

      You’d think just claiming that the Japanese didn’t have fructose until “we introduced it after WWII” is a bizarre enough lie to trip anyone’s pseudoscience alarm, but seemingly not. (He also claims Italians don’t eat sugar…bwuh?).

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