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Sugar, my precious - What evil lurks behind your sweet vale?

Thomas Secrest's picture

Processes sugar is ubiquitous in our diets. Does it do any harm? The jury says probably yes.

It has always been hard to study how things affect humans. Scientific ethics, usually, but not always, prevents research in which humans are used as guinea pigs, although we normally use mice, but the words "human mouse" is just not as emotive as "human guinea pig."

Therefore studies using mice must be carefully extrapolated to humans. Sometimes the extrapolation is spot-on and sometimes not. However, even when the extrapolations are wrong, they are usually only wrong with regard to degree. What that means is that what we see in mice also happens in humans, but sometimes not to the degree we expected.

There are stories about the evils of sugar that date back decades. Most of the early work was based on the differences in the diet humans evolved to eat and the diet they currently eat. Every evolutionary biologist knows that there hasn't been enough biological time for modern humans to have evolved a physiology completely adapted to modern foods. Since the biggest change in our diets is sugar content, that is what they railed against, in particular GLUCOSE & FRUCTOSE. They knew that these substances were only present in our prehistoric diets in very small amounts, and probably in the form of honey.

These biologists couldn't and wouldn't believe that we, as humans, were well adapted to have 25% to 50% of our calories coming from processed sugars. All in all, they had a very logical argument; an argument that is still valid today.

Seeing a forest without seeing the trees

A recent study, in mice, authored by Wayne Potts, PhD and James Ruff, Ph.D. at the University of Utah, looked at the subtle changes or hidden manifestations that occur when mammals (yes, humans are mammals too) are fed diets with processed sugar in the same percentage as the average human diet. We know, from lots of research, that there are no overt dangers to eating sugar, if there were, a bag of sugar would carry the same warning label as a pack of cigarettes.

We do know that processes sugar is not good for those with diabetes, in fact it is one of the first things diabetics are told to control in their diets. However, as I said, there are few conclusive studies that show that sugar is a risk for those without diabetes. Although, there are now studies that are starting to draw connections with sugar consumption and obesity and sugar consumption and development of type 2 diabetes. It seems that the better science gets, the worse sugar looks.

As I said, the Utah study looked at some very subtle changes that are normally very hard to detect. Their study looked at health and vigor in a population of typical house mice, not those genetically modified ones that now bare little resemblance to Micky and Mini.

In the wild, mice behave, well like mice. They compete for food, mates and territory. While you may not realize it, humans evolved to do the same thing. However, now we do it in socially acceptable ways that minimize social conflicts. From an evolutionary point of view, we have not had enough time to evolve past these behaviors, in much the same way that our digestive and metabolic system has not had enough time to adapt to the large amounts of processed sugar present in our modern diets.

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By looking at the health an vigor of a large population of mice the researchers were able to detect changes that might be invisible or impossible to detect in small sample studies. Specific studies often look a genes, enzymes and metabolic pathways. The effect seen on the population at large, might be very hard to find in individual mice, if for no other reason than you might not know what to look for. It's like looking down from an airplane -- you know there is a forest below, even if you can't see the trees.


The researchers observed the following:

  • After 32 weeks in mouse barns, 35 percent of the females fed extra sugar died, twice the 17 percent death rate for female control mice. There was no difference in the 55 percent death among males who did and did not get added sugar. Ruff says males have much higher death rates than females in natural settings because they compete for territory, “but there’s no relation to sugar.”
  • Males on the added-sugar diet acquired and held 26 percent fewer territories than males on the control diet: control males occupied 47 percent of the territories while sugar-added mice controlled less than 36 percent. Male mice shared the remaining 17 percent of territories.
  • Males on the added-sugar diet produced 25 percent fewer offspring than control males, as determined by genetic analysis of the offspring. The sugar-added females had higher reproduction rates than controls initially – likely because the sugar gave them extra energy to handle the burden of pregnancy – but then had lower reproductive rates as the study progressed, partly because they had higher death rates linked to sugar.


The researchers concluded the following:

“Our test shows an adverse outcome from the added-sugar diet that couldn’t be detected by conventional tests,” Potts says.


Those old evolutionary biologists may have been right about their "gut" feelings. At the time they didn't have the technology to test their feelings or their hypotheses. The technology is now starting to arrive. There is still no "smoking gun" and you can be sure that the processed sugar corporations will fight, try to discredit and undermine every piece of research that threatens their multi-billion dollar industry, however, the logic of those old biologists, and I include myself in that old group, is becoming harder to ignore.

When it is so easy to reduce the amount of processed sugar in your diet, why not take a stab at it. Think of it this way, maybe the same things that happened to the mice in the study are not happening to you, however, there is something happening. It may be years before we have a handle on what it is, but deep down, in places you can't see, processed sugar is affecting you and from the study results, it appears to be affecting you in a negative way.

Pott's said, “I have reduced refined sugar intake and encouraged my family to do the same,” he adds, noting that the new test showed that the 25 percent “added-sugar” diet – 12.5 percent dextrose (the industrial name for glucose) and 12.5 percent fructose – was just as harmful to the health of mice as being the inbred offspring of first cousins.

And it only takes a quick look at the Royal family to see the disadvantages of inbreeding.