Sugar was historically, like so many popular foods and illegal substances, once used as a medicine. Sugar was first officially given medical status from St. Thomas Aquinas, but its medicinal use can be tracked back to popular cures during the Middle Ages and before. Similar cases include ketchup, methamphetamine, and cigarettes. Ketchup was based on a Chinese condiment made with fish oils and used as a medicine until the late 19th century. Methamphetamine got approval from the FDA for the treatment of such things as seasonal allergies and alcoholism, and wasn’t made unavailable to the majority of the public until the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Though cigarettes have since been found to have harmful and even fatal side effects, they were commonly used in the 19th and 20th centuries to aid digestion.
It’s no surprise then, despite the fact that sugar is an American staple, that sugar has been found to have side effects similar to illegal drugs and alcohol. Sugar is addictive and can have extreme side effects when cut from the diet entirely. Sugar has been worked into almost every food and drink in the United States, and the US leads the world in a detrimental focus on sweetness.
The FDA has categorized sugar as a food additive and GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe). The average American consumes about 60-65% more sugar than what the human body can process correctly — that’s about 20-30 teaspoons of extra sugar. Margaret Hamburg, former FDA Commissioner discussed the war on sugar in a recent Freakonomics podcast.
When the impact of sugar on the body is considered, it has been found to cause insulin resistance in organs like the liver, in a way comparable to alcohol. There has been a severe increase in the number of people with diabetes in America, as well as in Europe and Asia. This has been thought to be linked to the high sugar levels in foods designed for cost-effectiveness and enjoyment. Drinking a bottle of soda with the average amount of sugar puts excess strain on the liver, which leaves leftover sugars to be converted into liver fat — a key contributor to type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and issues regulating metabolism. Sugar itself is not necessary in the human diet, and excessive sugar is known to cause similar symptoms to those found in substance abuse.
The regulation of sugar has already begun. Taxes on sugary drinks is just the beginning. But what will it take to effectively reduce sugar consumption?