Andrej Shupilo ( Andrey)/PhotoSpin
An earlier version of this column first appeared on the Huffington Post.
I understand from colleagues at LinkedIn that the very same "sugar is poison, fructose is toxic" message that has made videos go viral and books fly off shelves is wildly popular at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year. Since I have argued for reduced sugar intake the entire span of my two-decade long career in public health, I really hate the job of refuting this message -- again. I'm not sure I would bother if my only concern were that the message is wrong. The message is wrong -- sugar is not poison. But honestly, that's the least of my worries.
Still, it's a good place to start: The message is wrong. Sugar, in general, is not poison. Breast milk contains sugar. The human bloodstream contains sugar, at all times, and the moment it doesn't, we die.
Human beings have consumed sugar, albeit at low levels, since before our genus Homo, became our species, sapiens. Homo erectus and even earlier ancestors ate fruits and honey, too. Nor are we alone. I trust you, as I, have seen nature programs featuring the audacity of a bear braving bee stings to raid a honeycomb.
Innumerable people living today in diverse cultures eat sugar, albeit at reasonable levels, and suffer no harm. The famous Mediterranean and Blue Zone diets indelibly linked to more years in life, more life in years, and enviably low rates of obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease, also happen to be home to such indulgences as baklava.
So, sugar, clearly, is not poison. An excess of sugar in the body is harmful, certainly -- but so is an excess of oxygen, potassium, iron, water, or calcium. Too much of any of these can kill us -- but just like the glucose that floats in our blood, so can too little.
So the only rational message about the peril of sugar is that an excess is harmful. But that message is already taken. Paracelsus, the father of modern toxicology, famously said, "the dose makes the poison.