Is Sugar Toxic?

Toxic is a strong word with strong implications, even though it seems to be thrown around pretty lightly lately. For the purposes of physical health, a toxin is a poisonous substance that has an ill effect on the body. We all know that sugar is a source of empty calories and is said to promote cavities, but is it toxic?

That is the complicated question Gary Taubes tackled in his lengthy New York Times essay last Sunday.

Partly inspired by a 2009 lecture Robert Lustig gave called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which was posted on YouTube (see on page two), the question has taken on a whole new legion of askers. And although it’s high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that has become Public Enemy #1, Lustig lumps both white granulated sugar (sucrose) and HFCS in the same messy, disease-causing bowl.

By the early 2000s, according to the U.S.D.A., Americans have increased consumption of sugar to more than 90 pounds per person per year. This increase happens to coincide with the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Taubes writes that in 1980, roughly one in seven Americans was obese, and almost six million were diabetic, and the obesity rates, at least, hadn’t changed significantly in the 20 years previously. By the early 2000s, when sugar consumption peaked, one in every three Americans was obese, and 14 million were diabetic.

Lustig’s argument is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it especially harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient amounts. If this is true, it would mean that sugar is the likely culprit for several chronic ailments considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles—heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.

As Taubes describes it, this means we can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different….and ultimately, he ponders, may possibly be leading to cancer

I encourage you to read the entire essay, but in the meantime Taubes writes (spoiler alert!): the answer to the question of whether sugar is as bad as Lustig claims is that it certainly could be. It very well may be true that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, because of the unique way in which we metabolize fructose and at the levels we now consume it, cause fat to accumulate in our livers followed by insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, and so trigger the process that leads to heart disease, diabetes and obesity–and possibly cancer. They could indeed be toxic, but they take years to do their damage. It doesn’t happen overnight. Until long-term studies are done, we won’t know for sure. That said, Taubes notes, many of the researchers studying this question have removed sugar from their diet…

Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods.

Sugar: the New Health Food?
Sugar’s Environmental Impact
Sweet and Lowdown: High Fructose Corn Syrup

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

jane richmond
jane richmond4 years ago

give me a break

Nancy W.
Nancy W.4 years ago

The mad and saddening part of the industrialization of our food is that it targets children the most, who for the most part are still developing and growing organs and tissues. It sets them on their path towards a pain filled stressed out and diseased future. This is insanity exchanged for profit. It will cost everyone in the end as people can not sustain and maintain their health and be productive members of society it slows the whole system down into a overwhelmed apathetic mess. Not to mention the cost of health care. Hope this information reaches far and wide the video is worth watching or listening to.

Masha Samoilova
Past Member 4 years ago


Jennifer C.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks for the amazing article.

Rita S
Rita S4 years ago

Research seems to show something wrong with
everything we eat. What to believe?

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener4 years ago


Dolly Torres
Dolly Torres4 years ago

Thanks for the info!

Lika S.
Lika S.4 years ago

I've been saying for years that all food isn't created equal. Obviously a whole potato with the skin on is better for you than the equivalent in instant mashed potatoes.

Moderation, people. Dark chocolate is good, if you only eat a little.

Franco Di Palma
Franco Di Palma4 years ago

Damn, why is everything I love habit forming and/or bad for me?