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Monday, November 3, 2014

Finding a sugar conspiracy

In a recent piece on HBO, humorist John Oliver painted a scare tactic about how the "sugar industry" is ducking their responsibility for injecting so much sugar into the (unwilling?) American public. Though I usually chuckle along with John Oliver's rants, this one fails on the fact scale by sheer poor understanding of what sugar actually is.

So, let's start there - what is sugar? For most people, that term refers to the sweet crystalline stuff that comes from sugar cane or beets, used to cooking applications. But chemically, sugars are a catchall phrase for simple carbohydrates. You can hook sugars up into larger molecules, and when they get big enough, we start referring to them as starches (if digestible), or fiber (if indigestible). But break down this big molecules - and we get sugars again. The sugar most people are accustomed to dealing with directly is chemically called sucrose - we use such terms in science to be precise, and to avoid the confusion that happens when the same word is used to refer to different things.

And that is exactly the kind of confusion that John Oliver falls into when discussing Clamato. The label he points out (around 2:50) indicates Sugars 11g which he gleefully interprets to mean that the makers add 11 g of sucrose per serving. Notice the difference in reference? That plural form means a measurement of simple carbohydrates in the product, which does not necessarily mean it was sugar added to it. Let's look at one of those labels more closely.

This is a label from a popular apple juice brand known to have no added sugar. Notice that the sugars line is under Total Carbohydrates. That's because collectively, sugars are a type of carbohydrate - this section breaks down that out of the 34 g of measurable carbohydrates, 31g are classifiable as simple enough to be sugars. That could of fructose, glucose, maltose - and yes, even sucrose, but does not mean that 31 g of sucrose were mixed in. The underlying assumption with a lot of these politically charged food issues is a naturalistic fallacy that unless one adds sucrose to an item, it's free of sugars. And metabolically speaking, there's no good reason to go further than this - these simple carbohydrates are digested similarly, and this is the most useful measure. It is actually far more accurate - since it reports the total sugars content via direct analysis. Note, complex carbohydrates can break down into sugars during processing. 

The actual boondoggle here is the FDA proposal to require a further breakdown for "added sugar". The only basis for doing this is the naturalistic fallacy again - as if the intrinsic sugars content of the other ingredients (like apples, tomatoes, and yes, even clams) is chemically different from the added sucrose. The number currently reported for sugars already includes any added sugar (sucrose or otherwise). One cannot separate out the added sugar component via chemical analysis of the product - to get this number, the producer has to track the pipeline and account for this. The FDA then has to implement an audit system to ensure that this accounting is accurate and adds up. This does not replace the chemical analysis in the end - which still has to report the total sugars and other components in the food item. Of course the industry is going to fight this; it is a costly requirement that has dubious benefits for either consumer or producer. 

Instead of understanding the science, Oliver simply plays the easy card of big business taking advantage of the hapless American consumer. With a soundbite from Eric Stice, boom - sugar is cocaine. His example of a scientist is one James Rippe - a doctor heavily vested in "lifestyle medicine". At least understand what a scientist does. His staff casually interleaves sugary drinks consumption into the argument - a Gish galloping bouncing of topics to build  an entertaining, but ultimately fallacious case for this labeling initiative. If there is indeed some kind of sugar conspiracy - I see more evidence of an entertainer trying to spin a tale than an investigator uncovering facts. 

So, please stop forwarding this video on as if it validates anything. It simply preys on a basic lack of understanding of chemistry. 

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