A bitter pill to swallow

By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Research has shown that salt, fat and sugar all have a downside when it comes to our health, but one of them far exceeds the other two—sugar.

While we know there are healthy fats, and salt is a requirement for our bodies, sugar may be as dangerous and addictive as any substance humans have encountered.

But why has sugar gotten a pass for so long?

The insulin shot heard round the world was the “study” conducted by the sugar industry in 1967 in which they paid scientists at Harvard University to conclude that fat and cholesterol were largely to blame for heart disease, and all but exonerate sugar.

Simultaneously, in a desperate effort to find a use for the excess of corn we were sitting on, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with the new nectar of the gods: high fructose corn syrup.

We didn’t associate an ingredient that all humans have access to and costs less than a cup of coffee with setting the stage for a potentially life-threatening addiction until only a few years later.

Computed tomography scans of the human brain after consuming dessert or a full-size candy bar look identical to those of someone high on cocaine.

Sugar alters metabolism, damages the liver, contributes to heart disease, cancer and diabetes, alters mood, and has addictive properties. It affects behavior by releasing dopamine which triggers the brain’s pleasure receptors, can lead to an overdose effect in some people, and a gradual tolerance build-up in others. Robert Lustig, of University of California, San Francisco, does not candy-coat it. He says sugar is a poison, plain and simple. It is a chronic, not acute, dose-dependent toxin.

Today, the typical U.S. grocery store has, on average, 600,000 food items. Of those items, 82 percent contain added sugar cleverly disguised in no less than 44 names.

To add to the confusion, I once saw a bag of Publix brand sugar with packaging that read “sugar free.” That surely begged the question, “then what exactly is in that bag?”

Additionally, the website Live Science estimates there are 250,000 illicit drug-related deaths worldwide each year. Congruently, the website Healthline estimates 180,000 sugar-related deaths each year. Those figures are fairly close.

Have we simply lulled ourselves into a syrupy, lethargic hypnosis? Or are we hopelessly punching a giant, heavy bag of refinery sugar that will always get the best of us? Perhaps big tobacco should have taken a few cues from big sugar.

But, and this is a big but, our brains require sugar. It is the brain’s main fuel source and we cannot do without it. So what are we to do? How do we fight against such a pervasive substance masked in many varieties and behind new, unrecognizable names every year? Do we put sugar into the ever-expanding category of “everything in moderation?” Maybe.

But the idea that weight loss is as simple as calories in versus calories out is no longer viable. Lethargy and laziness are not the cause of obesity, they are the result. Most processed foods contain far too much sugar to give the average child or adult a fighting chance. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.