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Is Sugar Really As Toxic as Alcohol?

February 5, 2012

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For years, science has supported the theory that sugar can be as addictive as alcohol or tobacco. Does it then follow that this commonplace but potentially harmful substance should be similarly regulated?

According to researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), absolutely.

In their study, "The Toxic Truth About Sugar," published in the scientific journal Nature, the authors advocate taxing sugary foods and controlling sales to children under 17.

According to their statistics, reported on CBS New’s HealthPop, worldwide sugar intake has tripled in the last 50 years, and the average person is taking in a whopping 500 calories from added sugar in processed foods alone.

But is sugar really "toxic," like the authors of the Nature article say? In those quantities, yes.

Contrary to popular belief, sugar intake is not just a problem when it leads to obesity. In and of itself, sugar can wreak havoc on the body when over-consumed. Like alcohol, sugar alters the state of mind, along with metabolism, blood pressure, and hormones. Over time, excess sugar consumption can also lead to liver disease. The similarities between the substances make complete sense when you consider that alcohol is just distilled sugar.

Professor of pediatrics and author of the UCSF study Robert Lustig explains, "There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats…. But sugar is toxic beyond its calories."

This challenges conventional thought that a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source. The ill effects of sugar are even more pronounced when the calories come from a food that contains little to no nutritional benefit. Soda is the worst culprit. Without nutritional substance, the body does not feel sated, and seeks more sweets - hence the addictive quality of sugar.

Will regulation work? Other countries, like Denmark and France, have recently imposed soda taxes, but the outcomes remain to be seen.

Opponents of the tax contend that people will find a way to eat unhealthily regardless of regulation, but perhaps those opponents miss the point. The goal is not prohibition, but inhibition as well as awareness. If soda prices spike, people may be incentivized to at least observe their sugar intake, if not curb it.

Do you think sugar should be qualified a “toxic” substance? Should we adopt a sugar tax to curtail over-consumption?