Various countries and states have considered a tax on sugar over the past decade, and a few countries like Mexico have been successful at instituting a national sugar tax. The reasoning behind such a tax is clear: over-consumption of sugar in food and beverages is the primary driver behind our worldwide epidemic of metabolic disorders like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Health experts have long recognized the adverse health effects of these disorders on an individual and national basis.
The Toxic Sugar-COVID Combination
Our current worldwide COVID-19 epidemic has added a massive new layer to these considerations. Metabolic disorders like obesity and type 2 diabetes are now known to be two of the most substantial risk factors for contracting COVID-19 and dying from the disease. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a bullet in every chamber!
The Toxic Triad of Sugar, Alcohol, and Tobacco
When modern societies have recognized the dangers of consuming excessive amounts of certain substances such as alcohol or tobacco, they have responded with several specific measures:
- They initiated a public health campaign to inform the public about the risks of using excessive amounts of these substances, especially when it comes to children.
- They have restricted the advertising for these substances.
- They have placed heavy taxes on these substances.
Alcohol and tobacco have been hit with all three measures in this country and many others, which has resulted in a significant reduction in the use of these substances by the public. The public has also been educated about the possible adverse effects of consuming them, but it’s been a long slog. It’s been evident for eons that excessive alcohol is detrimental to health. At one point, the United States decided to eliminate alcohol through prohibition. Of course, that experiment didn’t work out so well. When it came to the harmful effects of cigarettes, the tobacco companies spent decades hiding the apparent risks of smoking. Unlike food, alcohol and cigarettes are not essential to life, and they could be eliminated without any health risks. Because of consumer demand, the solution was to tax both heavily and severely restrict where and when they could be used.
When Food Isn’t Real Food
We certainly can’t get by without eating food, but the key is understanding the nature of “food.” Throughout most of our evolutionary history, we consumed food that we collected, captured, or killed. Some would call this the original “Paleo Diet.” Our genetic makeup is adapted to eating this type of whole food. Over the past several thousand years, our diet gradually changed. With the introduction of agriculture, we began to grow various kinds of food, including different grains, fruits, and vegetables. Over the centuries, we learned to alter this food for consumption. We started to mill various grains making them more versatile and raising their glycemic index by removing fiber. Through selective breeding, we increased the fructose content of different fruits and vegetables.
The Evolution of Our Modern Diet
Over the past 100 years, we learned to process various seeds into oils to be added to other food elements or for frying. Sugarcane gradually entered our diet over the past 10,000 years. Over several thousand years, various cultures began to combine these dietary elements to create the first “processed foods.” This type of early processed food wasn’t particularly toxic, and it allowed the human population to increase rapidly. Processed food took a dangerous turn in 1894 when John and Will Kellogg introduced corn flakes into the Western diet. This is the first example of “highly processed food” in our diet, and since then, the food industry has combined sugar, grains, and vegetable oils in a zillion different ways. All of them disregard our genetic history when it comes to food. This type of toxic food is a combination of excessive fructose mainly from added sugars, high glycemic carbohydrates, mostly from grains, and seed oils from various vegetables.
Fructose—The Silent Killer
The most toxic of these is excessive fructose. Sucrose is a combination of fructose and glucose. We now know that when you consume more than 20 grams of fructose daily, the remainder is converted to fat, the primary driver of all metabolic disorders. Highly processed food is loaded with added sugars that are the primary trigger of these adverse metabolic outcomes. My friend Richard Johnson is one of the world’s foremost experts on fructose, and he has warned us about these issues for decades in his ground-breaking books “The Sugar Fix” and “The Fat Switch.” Pediatric Endocrinologist Rob Lustig has also been warning us about the toxic effects of sugar for decades in his books “Fat Chance,” “The Hacking of the American Mind,” and “Metabolical.”
Pick Your Poison
When it comes to alcohol and cigarettes, you know exactly how much poison you are receiving with each dose. Can we say the same for sugar-laden food? Let me give you an example. I recently purchased a bag of popcorn that I considered to be on the healthy side. It’s made by a company called “Lesserevil Brand Snack Co.” The first ingredient listed on the label is organic, non-GMO popcorn. It has <1 gram of sugar and no added sugars. The only fat is olive oil. Compare this relatively benign food to a brand of so-called popcorn that my dear wife recently purchased. It’s made by the “Double Good” company. The first ingredient listed is sugar, followed by Oreo cookie crumbs, many bad fats, high fructose corn syrup, and various other forms of sugar. Each serving has 18 grams of sugar and 16 grams of added sugar. Talk about a toxic sugar bomb! Unless you are paying attention, both are considered “popcorn” by our food companies and the general public. It’s as if one brand of alcohol has 20 times the alcohol of a similar product or a cigarette brand has over 20 times as many toxic chemicals as another brand. When it comes to health and consumer products, transparency ranks at the top of the list. This is a concept that seems to be utterly foreign to food companies. Perhaps my wife’s popcorn company should change their name to ”Double Bad”.
Highly Processed Food Fries Your Brain
I have introduced a new disease model to the medical profession based on the idea that highly processed food is neurotoxic and can lead to a form of food-induced brain dysfunction called Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome or CARB syndrome. I outline this new disease concept in my book “Brain Drain”. The lead symptom of CARB syndrome is craving sweet and starchy food, pushing people to consume more of the very food frying their brains. The Food Industrial Complex figured this out years ago, so they learned the simple lesson that adding more sugar to food dramatically increases that toxic food consumption. This is a setup for the disaster that we see playing out on the worldwide stage, magnified by the COVID-19 epidemic. From a scientific standpoint, there is mounting evidence that sugar is causing more health problems than tobacco.
The obvious solution is to tax sugar. Good luck with that! A few years ago, Philadelphia passed a tax on sugary beverages, and as a result, soda consumption did drop a bit in Philadelphia, yet it increased in surrounding areas. For a tax to work, it has to be statewide or preferably nationwide. It also needs to be combined with an aggressive public education program.
The Mexican Soda Tax
Mexico passed a tax of 1 peso per liter of sugary soda in 2014, and it did result in a modest reduction of soda consumption. It’s not clear that this is having much impact on the overall health of Mexicans. We have a condo in Mazatlán, Mexico, and it seems that everyone in Mexico loves to swig soda, especially Coca-Cola. Even the beggars on the street always seem to carry a two-liter bottle of Coke! They also have one of the highest incidences of obesity and diabetes in the world. To me, this makes it clear that if we are going to use a sugar tax to improve our national health, we need to tax all added sugar, not just soda. Sugar needs to join the toxic club of excessive alcohol and tobacco products. If that is to take place, we have a long and painful road ahead. Taking on the Food Industrial Complex will require a very high level of commitment and motivation.
Why not just tax “highly processed food,” the actual driver of most modern pathology? The main reason is that even though we can easily quatify the fructose content of modern food, the high glycemic carbohydrates and seed oils vary greatly between various foods, so attempting to develop a fair tax based on these three elements would be very challenging. Sugar is much easier to target, and if you take the sugar out of processed food, it loses much of its attractiveness to the general public. Because of its addictive nature, sugar drives the bus when it comes to highly processed food consumption.
The Food-Industrial Complex Has Its Way
In the face of this national disaster, why hasn’t a tax on sugar already taken place? The simple answer is the power of the sugar lobby. For decades this powerful lobby drove the narrative that fat rather than sugar is driving our health problems. This narrative dominated the medical and scientific scenes for decades, likely playing a key role in our current obesity and diabetes epidemics. As they say, money talks while health walks! Our current epidemic of COVID-19 gives us a unique opportunity to grab the bull by the horns. It could serve as our health “wake-up call”. By one simple measure (a universal sugar tax), we could dramatically improve the health, metabolic state, and brain function of our population. At the same time, it could dramatically reduce the morbidity and mortality of COVID-19.
Now Is the Time For Action
Now is not the time to be timid. Those of us in the medical field know all too well the consequences of our massive sugar addiction. We can choose the easy route and focus on “treating” type 2 diabetes and obesity, or we can take the long, hard road of preventing and reversing these disorders. I know where I stand. I hope my professional colleagues will join me. We also need to stimulate public opinion to bring about these changes. Where do you stand? Your decision will likely affect your health and the health of our population for the decades to come. The message is simple; sugar is a toxic substance that could be severely restricted in our diet without negative consequences (except for the food companies).
It’s Time to Act Together
I think it can also be beneficial for people to band together in groups that promote consuming a healthy diet. This provides you and your family with the support you will need to follow the right path when it comes to diet and exercise. The same is true for my family and me. My wife and I are both physicians, yet our profession provides little support for eating a truly healthy diet. Review the menus in your local hospital, and you will see what I mean! I have known Robb Wolf for many years, and he is a strong proponent for consuming a diet consistent with our evolutionary diet as outlined in his book “Wired to Eat.” I have also joined his group “The Healthy Rebellion,” a place where like-minded folks can support each other in living a life defined by healthy eating and exercise. I have found this group very supportive of our family values while attempting to sail in a storm loaded with highly processed junk food.
The next step beyond taking care of ourselves and our families when it comes to healthy eating is to move into the political realm and band together to tax toxic sugar. I challenge you join us in this important effort.