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Scandalous Sugar

Talk about mixed metaphors! Our cultural response to sugar is so confounding that an English major is nearly at a loss for words, groping for three different figures of speech and cobbling them together in an effort to express the complicated and unholy grip on humanity that sugar has enjoyed since its discovery.

First, there is the jocular question, “Where does an 8oo-pound gorilla sit?” The answer, of course, is “Anywhere it wants to.” Then, there is taxonomy, the science of categorization and classification, and the related folk wisdom of common sense: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Also, there is the colloquial expression, “the elephant in the room,” which grudgingly references an unpleasant fact that everyone present is aware of, but tries and hopes to avoid acknowledging — which is about as easy as ignoring a standard elephant in a typical parlor.

So now, we’ve got a gigantic duck in the room, who sits wherever it pleases (like, in the majority of manufactured food products) and whose existence and significance no one wants to admit. Its name is sugar, and it acts so much like an addictive substance that brilliant academicians have to exert themselves to the max and strenuously warp logic in order to explain that it really, actually, is no such thing.

Anti-sugar sentiment got off to a roaring start with the publication of William Dufty’s Sugar Blues in 1975. Most of what people think of as “the Sixties” really took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for a revolutionary book like this, the timing was both good and bad.

Good, because people were finally waking up to massive amounts of truth about matters to which they had never given much thought. And bad, for the same reason — because people were just overwhelmed by revulsion toward the new facts that were revealed on a daily basis, about the beliefs, institutions, history lessons, and fellow humans they had thoughtlessly accepted and taken for granted all their lives.

One of the points Dufty clearly made was the unbreakable connection between sugar and slavery. That alone was enough to turn off a lot of people, for the same reasons that they give up eating meat — because the amount of suffering associated with its production is morally repugnant, and their consciences will simply not accept that burden.

And just in case slavery alone was not abhorrent enough to give them pause, the readers were also educated about the connection between sugar lust and various wars. Oh, and repelled by the blatant hypocrisy and shameless lies perpetrated by the Department of Agriculture, the American Medical Association, the Harvard School of Nutrition, and other respected bodies.

Here is a passage from Heidi Boudro’s review of Sugar Blues:

Dufty’s food and illness story is a familiar tale of unconscious, unwitting sugar addiction (1930’s style), and the accompanying weight gain, mysterious ailments, and incapacitating migraines; and the less familiar final act of sugar withdrawal. (“I knew enough about junkies to recognize reluctantly my kinship with them.”)

Of course, the health-related facts the author revealed were no more acceptable than the historical ones:

Sugar contains no nutrients… Refined sugar is an antinutrient: instead of providing nutrients to the body, refined sugar drains nutrients from the body.

Sugar can be accused of numerous sins. But as Dr. Pretlow points out, it makes a lot more sense to talk about “eating addiction” than “food addiction,” because evidence points to various foods being triggers, although not legitimately addictive substances in and of themselves.

Sugar is the equal-opportunity trigger. People of any age can get their hands on it, no questions asked. With a little imagination, people of any economic status can acquire it for free. Adults dote on witnessing children’s enjoyment of it. Professional cooks who come up with new ways to present sugar are glorified. Sugary treats feature prominently on the holiday menus of almost every variety of human, in every corner of the globe. Of all the edible substances that serve as eating addiction triggers, including salt and fat, sugar is surely the most undeniable of the class — one might even say, the 800-pound duck!

Written by Pat Hartman. First published March 22, 2024.


“Sugar Blues by William Dufty,”, undated.

Image Copyright: Ken Gage and Dream A.I., used with permission.


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