6 snappy comebacks to “6 snappy comebacks for sugar sceptics”

Before anyone else says it, yes, I know the title over-promises. Snappy comebacks aren’t exactly my thing, because they are typically simple-minded and reductionist responses to issues that are, to borrow Dr. Ben Goldacre’s line, “more complicated than that”.

Memes of the sort you see on Facebook are good examples of this – communities like “I f**cking love science” sharing images of famous people in heroic poses issuing devastating putdowns (or snappy comebacks), which you can then share with your friends as a substitute for loving science (or, in many cases, understanding it), and as a validation of your membership of a society of smugness.

But the header image, recently encountered on Twitter (and originating from the “I Quit Sugar” website) is such an open invitation to snappy comebacks that I thought I’d give it a try.

  • Question 1: “Pfft… why would you quit sugar?”
  • Snappy response 1: “Too much sugar is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
  • Snappy response-response 1: “So don’t eat ‘too much’ sugar, then.”

More seriously – yes, too many of us eat too much sugar. Added sugars are a problem for an uninformed consumer, especially given that sugar is often not obviously labelled “sugar”. But if your “snappy response” includes the possibility of a safe dose of sugar (as this does, by talking of “too much” sugar), then the response is obvious – decrease your intake until you are out of the “too much” danger zone.

(And yes, pedants, I’m leaving out other issues regarding correlation and causation, the quality of the evidence for the links in question, and so forth.)

  • Question 2: “But surely moderation is key?”
  • Snappy response 2: “Sugar is so addictive that moderation is impossible!”
  • Snappy response-response 2: Nonsense!

If sugar were so addictive that moderation was impossible, how can it be that myself – and presumably millions of other folk – have the occasional piece of chocolate or sugary dessert while never adding sugar to any beverage, and always drink sugar-free beverages, and so forth?

That sounds exactly like “moderation” to me. Even though I reject the addiction analogy entirely in this case, as I’ve written about many times before, even if you want to regard sugar as “addictive”, this is a very weak example of addiction, with a very weak evidence-base. (A few) animal studies have given us limited evidence for sugar-addiction, and there is no evidence in humans yet for anything other than a possible “eating addiction”.

  • Question 3: “It’s unsustainable! You’ll be eating sugar again in no time.”
  • Snappy response 3: “Ever heard of Sarah Wilson?”
  • Snappy response-response 3: No, I haven’t.

What has Sarah Wilson got to do with this? Oh, right, she’s the person who makes money off the advertising carried on the “I Quit Sugar” website, and a person whose brand depends on the sugar “addiction” narrative. Now that we’ve all heard of her, we can ignore her anecdote and go back to looking at the evidence, which doesn’t support the sugar “addiction” narrative.

  • Question 4: “Sugar-free food? That’s going to be boring!”
  • Snappy response 4: “Yep, curries, burgers, tacos. So boring.”
  • Snappy response-response 4: Stop hanging out with such culinary ignoramuses!

Seriously – anyone who thinks that food can only be tasty if it includes sugar doesn’t know food. So I’m sort of with you here.

  • Question 5: “Well, you’ll be boring. Goodbye social life!”
  • Snappy response 5: “Wine, beer and chocolate are allowed when you quit sugar. Cheers!”
  • Snappy response-response 5: Stop hanging out with such judgmental idiots!

When last have you judged someone as socially unacceptable because they drank a diet soda, or didn’t add sugar to their coffee? Sure, if you’re living in a world populated by idiots who do, then you might have a problem here. And I mean, you might have a problem here.

  • Question 6: “This is just another fad diet.”
  • Snappy response 6: “If you call eating real food a diet, then sign me up!”
  • Snappy response-response 6: Give me fake-food or give me death!

This is just silly. Whether something is a fad or not reflects its status in popular culture, not its worth. So, a “fad diet” can (independently) be a good thing for health, or it can (independently) be a bad thing for health. But we don’t improve awareness of food quality or health by inventing spurious categories like “real food”.

Kale is a genetically-modified food, and I’d hazard a guess that most “real-food” proponents would call it, well, real. Does golden rice count as real, given that it’s genetically engineered also? Does it matter that it holds the promise of saving the 670 000 children who die of Vitamin A deficiency every year?

Or, are you really just using “real food” as a catch-all term to describe food that doesn’t contain added sugar, in which case you’re basically just doing marketing, rather than health advocacy?

To conclude: yes, people eat too much sugar. Yes, uninformed consumers, and especially children, are persuaded and encouraged to eat too much sugar thanks to seductive advertising and misleading labeling. But there’s a big gap between that and a worldview in which sugar is a toxic substance that will soon have all of us in the grip of addiction.

For all that these “real food” and “sugar addiction” folk talk of the evil of corporations enslaving us with their processed foods, it’s ironic that their discourse is itself deeply infantilising.

It tells us what (they think) we need to know, in an effort to manufacture our choices in a way that suits their narrative, and their brand, all the while telling us that it’s somehow empowering to believe in a simplified and pseudoscientific version of reality, where one ingredient is going to kill us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

In reality, sugar can contribute to killing you. And we combat that by encouraging thought, not mindless paranoia.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.