Pure, white and deadly?

By Amanda Johnson 15/03/2012

It’s now 40 years since Professor John Yudkin (a Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of London from 1954 to 1971) published his controversial book Pure White and Deadly. It’s about sugar by the way, in case you didn’t know! Yet still the sugar debate rages on just as strongly today.

Over the last month it’s been a hotly discussed topic in nutrition circles. The latest surge of interest started with a commentary article in Nature at the beginning of February by Robert Lustig and colleagues. They suggest that added sweeteners pose such a danger to health that it is justifiable to control them in the same way that alcohol is controlled. Their suggestions include a ban on the inclusion of toys with unhealthy meals, a ban on television adverts for products with added sugar, the addition of taxes to processed foods with added sugars (including sugar-sweetened beverages), and even designating an age limit of 17 for the purchase of drinks with added sugars!

The Australian Science Media Centre contacted a number of experts for their opinion on this topic last month.

And, this whole issue has generated media headlines around the world, including articles in the UK’s Daily Mail and the New York Times

Also, a recent book about sugar — Big Fat Lies, by lawyer Davie Gillespie — has also added fuel to the debate. The author, whose previous work includes a book called Sweet Poison has already generated quite a bit of concern from nutritionists in Australia, who list a multitude of errors and inaccuracies in his work.

So what is sugar anyway? Well, there are lots of different forms of natural sugar in our diet. It’s found in foods such as fruit and honey (glucose and fructose) and in dairy products such as milk (lactose). The stuff that seems to generate the most controversy though is table sugar (sucrose) which is made up of half glucose and half fructose. It’s an excess intake of this as ‘added’ sugar that is likely to cause the most adverse health effects — tooth decay, and excess energy intakes leading to insulin resistance, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and even gout.

I think it is generally agreed by nutrition experts that excessive intakes of ‘added’ sugars are not good for health. However, I think some natural sugar in the diet — especially if derived from whole foods (cereals, fruits and vegetables) — is just fine.

Key advice: steer clear of the high-sugar, high-energy foods such as fizzy drinks, lollies, sweets, chocolates and sugary cakes and biscuits. These are foods that you just don’t need in the diet.

But is sugar a pure, white and deadly poison? No, it’s not! Sugar is a substance found naturally in many foods. For some people, small amounts of natural sugar can be a useful part of the diet — in the right quantity. It’s the excess intake of foods and drinks high in added sugar that causes problems.

It’s important to take a holistic attitude to diet and health and not to villainise one particular dietary component. There are no magic bullets and it’s an individual’s diet and lifestyle as a whole that needs to be taken into account. Diet is all about balancing your intake of different foods, with a focus on healthier wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, lean meat, fish or alternatives and low fat dairy foods. The right diet, along with a regular activity schedule, means you won’t go far wrong in terms of optimising your health.