Criticizing “A Case Against Sugar”

Last update on: Mar 14 2020

Here’s something you won’t see much of. It’s a review of the book, The Case Against Sugar, that largely disagrees with the book’s thesis for the most part. The problem is the book argues that everything bad is the cause of sugar consumption. Stephan Guyenet argues that a series of acts and conditions lead to obesity which leads to the problems. Sugar overconsumption can be part of the problem, he says, but it’s wrong to blame everything on sugar. He also points out that there’s a difference between refined sugar and other sugars.

Taubes excels at constructing detailed historical narratives to make his points. In The Case Against Sugar, he presents a colorful and informative history of sugar and the sugar industry. He also provides a history of the use of sugar in tobacco processing and how it may have contributed to the rise of cigarette smoking, which I wasn’t aware of.

His discussion of the history of research on sugar, dietary fat, obesity, and noncommunicable disease is less compelling due to its one-sided nature. For example, The Case Against Sugar portrays an epic struggle decades ago between researchers who believed that saturated fat was the primary cause of coronary heart disease, and those who believed that sugar was. These views are embodied by the American researcher Ancel Keys and the British researcher John Yudkin, respectively.

Taubes makes hay of the fact that Keys was supported in part by the sugar industry, painting Yudkin as a righteous underdog standing up to a corrupt and aggressive Keys. Yet he never gives serious consideration to the strength of the evidence supporting each man’s beliefs, instead using a historical narrative to imply that Keys was a stooge of the sugar industry who unfairly won the argument due to his sharp elbows (whether or not this is true, it’s also true that Yudkin’s evidence was not as compelling as Keys’s). This tactic of using historical narratives as a substitute for evidence is one that recurs throughout the book.

 

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