Science writer Gary Taubes has a knack for subverting the conventional wisdom. Sixteen years ago, he published a groundbreaking feature in the The New York Times Magazine, arguing that decades of government-approved nutritional advice attacking fatty foods and praising carbohydrates was flat-out wrong, ideologically motivated, and contributed to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
He was widely attacked—including in the pages of Reason. His 2007 book Good Calories/Bad Calories followed up on that story, as did Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, which appeared in 2011. Today, his thesis is gaining traction among heath and nutrition researchers, and has been highlighted once again in The New York Times and Time magazine.
Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Taubes in his kitchen in Oakland, California, to talk about his latest book on nutrition, The Case Against Sugar, which recently came out in paperback.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Camera by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, and Weissmueller. Additional graphics by Brett Raney.
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Photo Credits: Timkiv Vitaly/ZUMA Press/Newscom
The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: The Case Against Sugar is framed as a kind of prosecutorial case. Can you lay out the opening arguments that you make against sugar for us?
Gary Taubes: We have obesity and diabetes epidemics everywhere in the world. Worldwide, they manifest whenever a population shifts from whatever their traditional diet is to westernized urban diet and so you could think of the western diet and lifestyle as the vector that carries obesity and diabetes into these populations. Then the question is, what is it in that diet?
Gillespie: Describe the western diet? Does that mean processed foods?
Taubes: Well, so that's a question. Processed foods, sedentary living-
Gillespie: Totino's pizza rolls, microwaved food?
Taubes: Pizza rolls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's, Coca-Cola-
Gillespie: So the whole reason that we live, the things we wait for, are the things that are killing us?
Taubes: It's a simplistic way to think about it, probably wrong, the things many of us live for and many of us wait for. Anyway, so this is the issue. Something in our diet and lifestyle cause obesity and diabetes.
We see these chronic diseases appearing in populations when they make this nutritional shift, so the question is what is it? The argument I make in this book is that sugar is the prime suspect, always been the prime suspect, cause you can track these epidemics back in time.
Gillespie: Now, you say it's always been a prime suspect but really at least in the past 40 or 50 years, we've been told and this is a lot of your work, what we've been told is don't worry about sugar, worry about fat, worry about meat and that beautiful arc of fat around the edge that you might gristle up a little bit?
Taubes: That's key to the story, and that's how I entered into it as an investigative journalist is we had this belief system that began as a hypothesis in the 1950s and started to be tested in the 1960s and was never confirmed, which is that dietary fat causes heart disease. So by the 1980s, a healthy diet was being defined as a low-fat, low-salt diet.
Gillespie: And this explains Snackwell cookies and things like that.
Taubes: One of the things that happened in the 80s when we embraced this low fat healthy diet synchronicity is the government, the CDC, started telling industry to produce low fat foods. So, we could take foods like the iconic example is yogurt, a high fat food by definition. You remove some of the fat and now you have this kind of insipid watered-down, tasteless thing and to make it taste good, you put back fruit and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and now you've got a heart healthy diet food that they sell in these little packets and we see them everywhere.
Gillespie: Did the shift from a higher fat, or a more balanced diet actually, to a low fat, low salt, sugar, did it achieve the goals that were predicted for it?
Taubes: You could look at heart disease mortality and it's come down. The nutrition community said, "Well, look, people aren't dying from heart disease as much, therefore, our advice is right." And then people like me say, "Yeah, but, we're not interested in mortality, cause we're also selling billions of dollars in statins every year and billions of dollars in blood pressure drugs. We're doing hundreds of thousands of heart surgeries a year, putting in stents, doing bypasses. If mortality wasn't coming down, we'd have a real problem. Question is what's happening to incidents. Are we seeing less heart disease because we're preventing it with changes in diet? And there's no evidence."
Gillespie: You know, you describe an early battle over many of these questions between academic nutritionists who overwhelming took the energy balance approach to nutrition: you lose weight of you burn more calories than you take in versus what they characterize as quack doctors who writing diet fad books that you can eat all the fat you wan. And yet you say the quacks were actually closer to being right.
Taubes: So you have an academic research community that dominated post-World War II in the U.S. by nutritionists, who are studying animals for the most part. 1959, '60, Rosalyn Yalow and Solomon Berson invent the technology that allows hormones to be measured accurately and the school of endocrinology explodes. The science of endocrinology finally has the tools they need to understand things like hormonal regulation of fat accumulation. Yalow and Berson say, look, insulin drives fat accumulation, so maybe this link between type two diabetes and obesity, maybe the type two diabetics are obese because of the insulin. And nobody cares, except the doctors.
The doctors are like all of us. They're getting fat, right? What do you do if you're getting fat? Well, you try what everyone tells you to do, which is eat less and exercise more and if that doesn't work, which it doesn't, then, if you're smart, you look for other methods. Some of them read the diet book literature and try various diets. Some of them actually read the same medical literature I did, so Atkins famously read the same studies I read 40 years later. Maybe if I get rid of the carbohydrates and replace it with fat, because fats are the one macro-nutrient that doesn't stimulate insulin secretion, maybe I'll lose weight.
If you try it and it works-
Gillespie: So it is a place where kind of people outside of the official research community were desperate to get skinny or have their patients get skinny so they tried a bunch of different things?
Taubes: They try a bunch of different things. When you find one that works, after a lifetime of failing … Obesity is one of these subjects where it helps to have a weight problem. If you don't understand what it's like to get fatter and fatter, year in and year out, regardless of what you do, or to be 50 pounds fatter than your schoolmates in high school regardless of what you do, you just don't understand obesity.
Gillespie: You're a trim guy. Were you a fat load at some point?
Taubes: Nah, I was chubby when I was a kid. It was one of the interesting things, cause my brother who is a mathematician was … you could see every vein on his body, and I was a chubby. He was taller and thin. He couldn't gain weight if he wanted to, and I was just a chubby kid. Puberty helped and then I became an athlete and that helped. But my brother at his peak was 6'5″ and weighed about 195 was a rower. Remember Freud said anatomy is destiny. So he rowed crew. I was 6'2″ and could get up to 240, and I played football. We both ate as much as we could. That's what we did. We were kids. He was tall and thin. I was short and thick. Not … shorter and thick. That's just how we were built. I often wonder it's like why would you possibly think that I was thicker than him because I ate more or exercised less. I was just thicker than him. That was my body.
Gillespie: In the book, you document a long history of public nutrition advice being intertwined with politics in this country. So let's talk about the sugar lobby. How did king sugar get its crown in the American economy and kind of in the American diet?
Taubes: Well, sugar used to be very expensive and hard to get. It's hard to grow. It only grows in specific and tropical regions. You can't just transport the sugar cane around the world and then refine the sugar out of it afterwards. You've got to get the sugar out quickly on refining. It's a horrible job.
Gillespie: It was done by slaves.
Taubes: It was done by slaves. The sugar industry is at the heart of the slave trade. The industrial revolution comes along. Now beginning in the late 18th Century and suddenly sugar gets cheaper and cheaper to refine. 1840s the candy industry, the chocolate industry and the ice cream industry all start up. In the 1870s, 1880s, you get the soft drink industry with Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola and Dr. Pepper and suddenly not only are you creating entirely new ways to consume sugar and new vehicles to do it, and you can consume it all day long, you are targeting children and women as the consumers of sugar, children specifically. The soft drink industry in particular just explodes.
By 1900, we're consuming about 90 pounds per capita, which is almost a 20-fold increase in a century. Every industry, it's like an arms race, every industry, the nutritionist say, no, no, no, no, no, and the marketers say "If we don't do it also, we're out of business." They fall one after another. By the 1960s, you've got cereals that are 40, 50 percent sugar-
Gillespie: And that are advertising as such. Right? This is like Sugar Smacks. It was originally Sugar Frosted Flakes.
Taubes: Tastes like a milk shake. You've got all of the smartest minds on Madison Avenue in the PR industry creating not just cartoon characters to sell but entire Saturday morning cartoons, the ones we grew up on, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle. It was a vehicle to sell cereal.
Gillespie: Gosh, I didn't realize. So in the Hague trial of cartoon characters against humanity, Rocky and Bullwinkle are as bad as Boris and Natasha then?
Taubes: Yes, you could look at it that way. Horrible thing. Fruit juices come in in the 1930s. Okay, Sunkist, the coalition of California orange growers, they have to do something with their oranges cause they all come into season at once. You can't sell enough and you can't move enough so you turn them into juice. You sell them as juice and you advertise them as healthy because of the vitamin C. We're coming off this age of the new nutrition, which was all about vitamins and vitamin deficiency diseases.
You go back to what we evolved to eat and the sugar in those apples, and kids are now getting that within 20 minutes of waking up in the morning and they aren't going more than an hour and half, two hours over the course of the day without. Over the course of a day, they're consuming almost a year's worth of what they evolved to eat.
Gillespie: At various points, the USDA or other government agencies that kind of gave dietary recommendations wouldn't even think to say, "Well, glasses of apple juice or orange juice are sugar."
Taubes: To this day, when you are told to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, it's because they're vitamin rich. The conventional thinking, orange juice is healthy cause it's full of vitamins, and in the alternative thinking, the world I live in now, it's unhealthy because it's basically sugar water. You could take Coca-Cola, add the vitamin C tablet, and you got the same thing.
Gillespie: Talk about why the government would kind of push that or have that blind spot and the role of the sugar industry bringing that pressure to bear.
Taubes: The sugar industry, always a very powerful lobby, cause sugar was a very vital product import. The food industry was dependent on it, so the sugar lobby was always considered incredibly powerful. Beginning of the 1920s, the industry creates the sugar association basically to help advertise sugar consumption. Post-World War II, the diet, artificial sweetener industry begins to come of age. Saccharine had been around since the 1890s and cyclamates since the 1930s, and they're used in products that are sold for diabetics.
People started thinking, 'Hey, I'm getting fatter, I could drink these sugar-free, calorie-free drinks as well.' The industry starts producing and the newspapers now have something to measure, which is the amount of diet sodas being produced, so they can write about the diet craze. And the sugar industry has a problem because people are saying sugar is fattening. So the sugar association starts saying a calorie is a calorie. That's the general … that's the bedrock belief of the nutritional obesity community, so they start advertising widely and started PR campaigns to combat this argument that sugar is fattening. They do it by basically just taking what the nutritionists are giving them. The nutritionists are giving them bad science. The obesity researchers are giving them bad science, and all serves to exonerate sugar.
Gillespie: Is the sugar lobby actually paying for studies or are they paying nutritionists for-
Taubes: They are paying for research. They began paying for research in World War II, but that, again, was common practice. The sugar industry kind of pioneered it. I don't think they did it for public relations reasons. They wanted to find other uses for sugar, so they funded some of the best sugar biochemists in the world, and they wrote about it. Science magazine would annually run articles about the sugar industry, who they were funding, and why they were funding it, because it was a good thing. It helped cement some allies later. Because if somebody's been paying your bills for 20 years, you tend to be fond of them. That's where the conflict of interest come in.
Then in the 1960s with this idea that dietary fat was a problem, dietary fat caused heart disease, some of the people pushing that happened to be long time recipients of sugar industry largess. Now they could pay those people to write articles saying dietary fat is a problem, not sugar. This was conventional thinking. The only people who were claiming sugar was the problem were these sort of fringe British nutritionists who were perceived as quacks.
Gillespie: So what about the attack on artificial sweeteners, so saccharine, certainly cyclamates was banned in the late 60s, early 70s?
Taubes: '69, yeah.
Gillespie: Saccharine was almost banned, or it was for a bit. But it carries warnings on it. Where did the interest in saying these were carcinogenic or these were problematic-
Taubes: Oh, they came from the sugar industry. So the saccharine and cyclamates were direct competitors. Interestingly, the beverage—and here's where the beverage industry and the sugar industry split—the beverage industry was happy to sell artificially sweetened and artificial sweeteners are cheaper. So the beverage industry starts, Coke and Pepsi, they all put out Tab and Diet Rite, they were low calorie-
Gillespie: Fresca. Now, I'm trying to think of all the horrible acid tasting pre-Diet Coke diet sodas.
Taubes: Yeah, but they were happy. But the sugar industry saw it as a direct threat to their viability and it was. There's a quote in The New York Times that I quote in my book, a sugar industry executive saying if he's copping to spending a half million dollars on research trying to find anything that artificial sweetener does that's damaging, they would give female rats the equivalent of 60 cans a day of soda and then hope that they would produce rats with birth defects so they could say it was as bad as thalidomide. I mean they were looking for anything. This executive in The New York Times is quoted as saying "If someone could undersell you one cent to a dime, wouldn't you throw a brick bat at them if you could?"
Gillespie: So if our government and other public health institutions, universities, what not, if they're consistently offering bad nutritional advice, and bad dietary guidelines, what do you do about that? What is the response?
Taubes: That's the problem, isn't it?
Gillespie: Is there a solution here or do we just kind of say screw it and you know?
Taubes: In the science in which I was raised, so physics and the people who taught me science when I wrote my first two books in physics and chemistry, the hard sciences, the last thing you want to do is get an assumption accepted into the theory of how things work without rigorously testing it, because then people will build on it from there and it will grow and infect the whole thought construction. You end up with, I'm going to beat this metaphor to death, sort of a house of cards. And there will be no way to go back on it. Those are sciences that have no influence on every day life. So in a field like nutrition and obesity research, you've now got these enormous institutional dogmas built in that I and others are arguing are simply wrong. Who do you trust and how do you get the institutions to change their belief systems?
Right now I'm co-authoring an article … the British Medical Journal is running a series on nutrition policy and their way of dealing with it is by assigning writers from these different belief systems, so I'm a co-author on an article on dietary fat along with the former head of the Harvard nutrition department who thinks I'm the worst journalist he's ever met and who does a form of science that I consider a pseudo-science.
Gillespie: But that is kind of the enlightenment model of science, right, that you have competing truth claims and you kind of put them in a cockfighting ring-
Taubes: What's the cockfighting ring? That's the key. The cockfighting ring is experimental tests. It is a hypothesis and tests. You have a hypothesis, you do an experiment, you intervene, limiting the number of variables you change. The problem with these sciences, which is you can't really test these hypotheses. They're too hard to do. I mean you could if you had enough societal motivation. If you're willing to spend 10 billion dollars, the way we do to try and find out if the Higgs boson exists in high energy physics. You get everyone to work together. You identify the key questions and you spend whatever money is necessary to do it.
Gillespie: Do you think food producers, obviously they have institutional legacies that they want to protect, but they also … groups like, I don't know, General Mills or Proctor and Gamble, or what not, private industry spends billions of dollars a year on research. Are they capable of doing disinterested research?
Taubes: Well, the assumption is no. Now days there's a whole journalistic industry of identifying conflicts of interest when researchers do take money from industry. There are models which work better, where you just have the industry donate basically money for research to clearing houses or the government, which then identifies what things have to be studied. But if I'm right the argument I'm making is you have entire multiple generations of nutrition and obesity research who really fundamentally don't know how to do science. They don't know how to think critically, how to keep multiple hypotheses in their head at one time, what it means to rigorously test hypotheses. So even if you had them do the studies, they would probably do a bad job.
Gillespie: At various points you compare sugar to a drug. To go into kind of a different register of government malfeasance, the government has arbitrarily declared certain drugs good and certain drugs illicit. The war on drugs has been a failure. The war on tobacco I guess has been successful in terms of helping to drive down the amount of people who smoke. Are you proposing anything along the lines of a war on sugar?
Taubes: No, government interference worries me. The same way I think it worries you guys. This whole story is about government interference that went awry. If they had stayed out of things in the '60s through the '80s, and never inflicted us with this, what I think are incorrect ideas—that a healthy diet is inherently low in fat, low in salt—the scientists might have had time to get the science right. We might have really understood what's happening.
The null hypothesis should be it's something simple. Sugar's not just at the scene of the crime when it happens in populations. It's at the scene of the crime in the human body, which is the liver. If that's true, and you get the message across that these are disorders that nobody wants—nobody wants them in their family, nobody wants their children to have them—I think there will be, if we truly understood the cause, if we got it right, if we knew how to fix it, if that message was consistent from diet doctor to diet doctor to insurance agents to hospitals to physicians—'There is a cause'—if we understand that, then I think there will be a societal move to fix it. But again, we have to get it right. We have to get the science right.
Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. We have been talking with Taubes. He's a science writer, whose most recent book is The Case Against Sugar, out in paperback. Gary, thanks for talking to Reason.
Taubes: Thank you, Nick.