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A Skeptic's Glance: Is Sugar Really Toxic?

On April 1st, 60 Minutes shined a spotlight on the dangers of sugar intake, broadcasting a report from Dr. Sanjay Gupta questioning whether or not the ubiquitous sweetener is actually "toxic."

If "toxic" is taken in the dictionary sense -- an adjective meaning "harmful" or "poisonous" -- sugar, in moderation, is not toxic. One jelly bean isn't a poison pill. A lump of sugar in your camomile won't transform your tea into a deadly cocktail. Consuming a single candy bar won't single-handedly clog your arteries.

Don't Overreact

There are numerous studies out there that might confuse one into believing that many things in our diet are dangerous in any quantity, despite the reality that when eaten sparingly or in moderation, they are harmless.

What follows are a few examples of this research and corresponding examples of how not to react to them:

A recent study has associated red meat with DEATH. Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health followed 37,600 men over 28 years and calculated that for each daily serving of red meat, the risk of dying increased 12 percent. No filet mignon for me, I guess. Drat!

Over the years, countless studies have told us that salt can be toxic. Sounds scary, I better get rid of that from my diet, too.

Uh oh, refined grains such as white rice and white bread can lead to the build-up of visceral fat, which has been strongly linked with many forms of heart disease. No more Asian food for me. This stinks.

Whoa, and apparently water can be toxic! Better stop drinking that stuff...

As illustrated, one should definitely not overreact to every piece of damning dietary information.

But What About Sugar?

I took a high level of skepticism into my viewing of 60 Minutes' piece on sugar, but I must admit, my skepticism was stifled within the first minute of watching Dr. Gupta's measured and well-rounded report. Scientists have amassed some pretty convincing research which demonstrates that the amount of sugar consumed in the diet of most Americans can indeed be harmful, dare I say, toxic, to their health.

628x471.jpg Photo: DAVID J. PHILLIP

/ AP

Some of the most convincing evidence has come from Dr. Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at UC-Davis. For her research, Stanhope houses subjects at her facility for weeks at a time in order to meticulously control all aspects of their nutrition. In one such study conducted under these rigorous conditions, Stanhope discovered that consuming a diet in which 25% of calories come from sugar -- which is not entirely inordinate compared to the average American diet -- can affect measurable increases in LDL cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease in as little as two weeks.

I still hold fast to my skeptical stance that sugar is not a toxin, but it's obvious that sugar's sweetness is a double-edged lollipop, and it's adversely affecting America's collective health and national economy. One can't be skeptical about that.