Do you Eat Sugar?

Since I write about the history of sweets (and I have a M.S. in nutrition), people sometimes ask me whether or not I eat sugar. I do. People also ask me whether I think sugar is really bad for us. I do. Go figure.

In the period that I research (1900s-1930s) most people thought that sugar was a healthful source of calories. While there had always been naysayers, they were mostly considered quacks. In the 1930s a few dentists and a new generation of quacks renewed the panic about sugar, which had dwindled since the 19th century. Weston Price, for example, was a dentist who traveled the world examining people’s teeth and bone structure. He concluded that sugar and wheat were destroying civilization, an insight that I write about in my book (which is tentatively titled Sweetness and Civilization).

Price has recently gained a number of new adherents, and has achieved a cult-like status, which I find a bit odd given what I know about him. Popularized by cookbook author Sally Fallon, Price’s followers advocate eating a diet of grass-fed meats and dairy and eliminating all processed food including soy, sugar, and most wheat. They suggest fermenting fruits and vegetables. The Weston Price Foundation publishes a lot of information about this philosophy. The front page of the website shows an attractive family with the caption, “They’re happy because they eat butter.” Fair enough.

In terms of contemporary discussions of the place that sugar ought to have in our diets, the Weston Price folks represent one variant of the extreme anti-sugar position. Another vocal proponent of this view is Gary Taubes. He has written several books and a number of articles for the popular press. Here are two recent articles by him from reputable publications.

Gary Taubes, “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies,” Mother Jones, November/December 2012,

Gary Taubes, “Is Sugar Toxic?,” The New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2011,

In the second article he discusses research by Robert Lustig, another prominent anti-sugar advocate. Lustig is a pediatric neuroendocrinologist who researches diabetes in children. Here is a radio interview and excerpt from his book, Fat Chance, in which he argues that one’s weight does not matter as much as what one eats. Sugar in all forms, he argues, messes with the body’s ability to regulate itself.

Both Taubes and Lustig argue that it doesn’t matter what kind of sugar–sucrose is just as bad as high fructose corn syrup. There is another camp that singles out HFCS as especially pernicious. One early proponent of this view was food journalist Michael Pollan. He points out that HFCS has become ubiquitous in our food supply since the 1970s, thanks to federal subsidies.

“When a Crop Becomes King,” The New York Times, July 19, 2002,


Pollan is not a nutritionist, but his ideas seem to have stimulated nutrition researchers to look more closely at whether HFCS functions differently in the body than other types of sweeteners. The corn industry has also responded by sponsoring a lot of research to disprove this hypothesis. Whether or not HFCS is metabolized differently, researchers have shown that it does stimulate appetite differently.  And geographer Julie Guthman is very critical of Pollan’s elitist view of the American diet. See, for example,

Julie Guthman, “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos,” Utne Reader, February 2008,


On the other hand, many nutrition researchers, including NYU’s Marion Nestle, argue that energy balance is the most important factor in maintaining a healthy weight (and controlling related health problems). An expert in the politics of food, she says that calories in and calories out matter more than where those calories come from. Thus, sugar is fine in moderation. Butter is fine in moderation. Etc., The problem comes when people super-size their portions while leading sedentary lifestyles. Here  is a list of Nestle’s many publications.

Julie Guthman criticizes much of this research, and questions the extent to which there even is an obesity “epidemic.” She summarizes recent research pointing not towards food as the cause for metabolic changes among Americans, but instead to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Here is a New York Times Opinion piece where she presents this view.

Julie Guthman, “Enough With the Calorie Counting! – Room for Debate,” The New York Times, July 25, 2011,


Not sure what to eat after reading all of this? Me neither!


About aprilmerleaux

I am an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University. My research and teaching focuses on the 20th century United States in international context. My book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness was published by UNC Press in 2015.
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4 Responses to Do you Eat Sugar?

  1. kew says:

    Don’t forget the gut microbes!

  2. Kody says:

    My general nutrition philosophy is, “Nobody really knows, so eat what’s delicious and makes you feel good.” Followed by shoving cake in my mouth.

    Still interesting to read about, thank you!

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