Back to the future: An update on sugar, black and brown food, and soda taxes

I am changing the organizational structure of this blog. To this point I have attempted to produce one posting a week. The topics have been primarily related to a nutritional and health perspective without a major theme from week to week. Once a month I have provided a book review. In the coming months I will post my book review early in the month, and subsequent posts will be related to the primary message of the book reviewed. When appropriate, I will seek out a guest blogger to provide a different perspective on the topic of the month. Whenever a month contains 5 Tuesdays, my preferred day to post, I will look at some past stories and provide an update. Since March this year had 5 Tuesdays, I am revisiting the dangers of sugar and the implications of taxing soda. My apology that this post did hit the screen until April!

Dangerous sugars. In early March I reviewed The Case Against Sugar1 by Gary Taubes. In that review I challenged the case for his failure to provide a mechanism explaining how sugar is toxic and the primary cause of obesity and diabetes. I was also skeptical of the author’s claims that sugar calories are not a consideration in the onset of obesity. Earlier this month, by a curious coincidence, I picked up and started reading a highly technical book, The Maillard Reaction Reconsidered: Cooking and Eating for Health2 by Jack Losso. This book turns out to be a horror story for anyone who enjoys the flavor and color associated with black and brown food. Losso provides a plausible mechanism for the role of sugar in the development of obesity , diabetes and other Western diseases without discounting the importance of calories from sugar. The proposed mechanism involves the reaction of reducing sugars like glucose and fructose with free-amino groups in proteins to form Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). This reaction is the beginning of a cascade of steps known as Maillard browning leading to the formation of numerous flavor and color molecules that provide pleasure to the Western palate.

Losso’s grand hypothesis is that the formation of these AGEs and their accumulation in our bodies leads to inflammation as part of the overall mechanism of many chronic diseases. If Losso is right about Maillard reactions, then Taubes could be closer to the truth than I gave him credit for but for all the wrong reasons. The idea that Maillard browning could be at the heart of most of America’s chronic diseases is enough to frighten any food scientist or chef who sees it as a hallmark of our cuisine. A war on Maillard browning could be the end of American cuisine as we know it. I still remain somewhat skeptical of his anti-Maillard thesis, but I am only halfway through his book. For example, he seems to be exaggerating the impact of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup, and I don’t understand why he considers fructose to be so much more dangerous than glucose when both of them have the same capacity as reducing sugars.

Nonetheless, the attention to detail and excellent documentation found in The Maillard Reaction Reconsidered provides a much more convincing case for decreasing our consumption of sugars and other carbohydrates than the The Case Against Sugar. Interestingly enough, Losso thinks that food manufacturers and chefs can reduce the damage due to Maillard browning by swapping out ingredients, such as the use of resistant starches. I have difficulty imagining the reformulated foods having the same quality as those currently available.

Taxing soda. Philadelphia is completing the third month of its soda tax. The battle lines are drawn. Those against the tax—including the beverage industry, supermarket chains and small bodega stores—are claiming that it is costing jobs and driving customers out into the suburbs to seek out cheap soda. Supporters claim that these are scare tactics organized by industry groups and that the benefits the taxes will bring far outweigh any harm. The primary for municipal elections will be held Tuesday, May 16, prior to the general election, Tuesday, November 7. I could find no information about a concerted campaign either for or against the soda tax in the City of Brotherly Love, but city politicians across the country will be watching to see if there is a political cost or benefit to imposing this tax. Look here for reports in May and November.

In the upcoming quarter, with my new organizational structure in place, I plan on focusing on the following topics:

  • April—chemicals in our food
  • May—fat and obesity
  • June—food waste

1 Taubes, G., 2016.The Case Against Sugar New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

2 Losso, J.N., 2016. The Maillard Reaction Reconsidered: Cooking and Eating for Health Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

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