The No. 1 poison in our food

August 8, 2011 —

NPR is running an interesting series, “Living Large: Obesity in America,” that explores what it means to live in a nation where one in three adults is obese. It looks at how the obesity epidemic is changing life in our homes, at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, on the factory floor and at the airport.

Fructose casts an increasing shadow over our foods and our health.

What’s behind our ever-expanding waistlines? I came across one explanation by Robert H. Lustig, M.D., professor of pediatrics in the University of California-San Francisco division of endocrinology, in a talk titled “Sugar: the Bitter Truth,” which he gave in 2009 as part of UCSF’s Mini Medical School and now posted on YouTube. He argues that too much fructose and too little fiber “appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic,” which is occurring among people as young as six months and in nations around the world.

Yes, we’re all eating more calories per day than we did 20 years ago, but that’s not the only issue, Lustig says. It’s what’s in those calories – namely, carbohydrates. And too much of those carbs are fructose.

Our increased consumption of sugar blew up from “the perfect storm” that Lustig describes occurred in America:

  • In 1972, President Nixon set out to do whatever possible to curb rising food prices to prevent it from becoming an election issue.
  • High fructose corn syrup, invented in 1966 in Japan, was introduced to the American market in 1975. Guess what: it’s cheap.
  • Around that time, the USDA, American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association called for the reduction of dietary fat to stop heart disease. That led food manufacturers to replace fats with sugars, largely fructose, as well as sodium.

Lustig then explains the biochemical impact on the body from the consumption of foods loaded with fructose, which each of us in America consumes 63 pounds per year. We may do so without knowing it, as high-fructose corn syrup is so cheap that food manufacturers have injected it into practically every processed food we eat, from hamburger buns to ketchup to pretzels to (gulp!) infant formula.

Unfortunately, fructose is metabolized by our bodies just like fat. Equally unfortunate, the dual roles of the USDA in agricultural production and in food regulation cast doubt on whether that agency will “right the wrong” of poisoning our food this way. That’s why Lustig ended his talk by recruiting his audience and all citizens to join the “war against bad food” – our myriad fructose-filled edibles.

What have you done to reduce fructose consumption in your diet? And what can we do as citizens to reduce fructose levels in our grocery stores, schools and restaurants?


Endlessly curious and easily entertained, Barb Dietrich Boose loves being a member of the friendly, fascinating DMU community and its creative communications team. The University's publications director and DMU Magazine editor, Barb is always on the hunt for story ideas, good books and new recipes to try out on her family, such as her surprisingly tasty pork-and-bean bars.