The sugar conspiracy seems so brazen in retrospect:
Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. A 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has now been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.
A year or so before the video was posted, Lustig gave a similar talk to a conference of biochemists in Adelaide, Australia. Afterwards, a scientist in the audience approached him. Surely, the man said, you’ve read Yudkin. Lustig shook his head. John Yudkin, said the scientist, was a British professor of nutrition who had sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.
“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.
When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated.
Not just defeated, in fact, but buried. When Lustig returned to California, he searched for Pure, White and Deadly in bookstores and online, to no avail. Eventually, he tracked down a copy after submitting a request to his university library. On reading Yudkin’s introduction, he felt a shock of recognition.
“Holy crap,” Lustig thought. “This guy got there 35 years before me.”
Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled. Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.
At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe.
We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees. When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream.
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