9 Popular Lies About Sugar Busted by Science

“Sugar is the devil”. Without a doubt, you’ve heard similar statements being tossed around on TV or social media. While the public narrative about sugar is many things, it is, above all, confusing.

The slogans “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” have become marketing favorites of the food industry, suggesting that sugar is to blame for all of the health issues of our modern lifestyle. But how bad is sugar really?

Here are the 9 most popular lies about sugar, busted by science.

Lie #1: Sugar Makes Kids Hyperactive

Anybody who has witnessed a children’s birthday party would acknowledge that the combination of kids and candy results in hyperactivity. The current body of research, however, can’t prove a link between the two (1).

Truth: The myth that sugar is the culprit of hyperactivity is based on a single study conducted in the 1970’s (2). In this study, a medical professional observed that the behavior of children whose sugar intake was reduced improved. But the various studies conducted since then failed to prove the link between sugar and hyperactivity.

The research suggests that the rule-relaxed environment of, say, a birthday party, is to blame for hyperactivity, rather than the sugar itself. Kids act up out of excitement about having fun with their friends and eating foods they’re usually not allowed in high amounts.

The myth is a typical case of confirmation bias. Studies show that parents who already expect that sugar will make their kids hyperactive are more likely to see the connection. Parents who were told that their child had consumed large quantities of sugar (although the child had only received a placebo) rated their offspring as significantly more hyperactive than parents who were told that their child had received a placebo (3).

Lie #2: Sugar is an Addictive Drug

You’ve probably been told before that “sugar is more addictive than cocaine”. This exaggerated statement is based on the scientific findings that sugar and sweetness trigger hormonal reward mechanisms comparable in magnitude to those of highly addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin (4).

Truth: If sugar were as addictive as cocaine, you would see people eating plain white sugar in spoonfuls, straight from the jar. But no one actually does that.

Unlike with addictive drugs, the neurobiological reaction to consuming sugar is completely normal and natural. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that humans are drawn to sweet foods, because sweetness is an indicator of energy-density. Consuming foods high in sugar was a necessary survival-mechanism.

The myth that sugar is “worse” than cocaine in terms of addictiveness is primarily based on laboratory research on lab rats. In these experiments, rats preferred water sweetened with sugar or a calorie-free alternative to cocaine (5). While this may seem shocking at first, the explanation for the rats’ behavior is not as scandalous as the numerous media headlines would have you believe.

Rats didn’t choose sugar over cocaine because the former is more addictive than the latter, but simply because it is a reliable calorie source.

Finally, it goes without saying that blown-up media headlines (especially on the topic of nutrition) based on rat experiments should always be treated with a healthy dose of caution.

Lie #3: Sugar Causes Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which blood glucose levels are too high. Because the body becomes insensitive to insulin, a hormone which helps glucose from food get into your cells, it produces less of it. As a result, glucose stays in the bloodstream and may cause horrific damage to the vital organs.

Most people still believe that eating too much sugar causes type 2 diabetes, which is the most common form of the disease. The research shows a strong link between sugar intake and type 2 diabetes, as the countries that have the highest rates of diabetes are also the countries that consume the most sugar (6).

Truth: Correlation is not causation. In fact, the link between sugar consumption and risk of diabetes likely is indirect. Those countries with the highest per capita consumption of sugar are also those with the highest rates of obesity. The main risk factors for developing the disease are increased body fat and weight gain (7), which are both caused by excess calorie consumption (not by sugar itself).

A large body of research even suggests that eating large amounts of (animal) fats is a primary risk factor in developing type 2 diabetes (8)!

Lie #4: ‘Natural’ Sugar is Better Than Refined Sugar

‘Natural’ sugars such as agave syrup, honey, or coconut sugar are hyped by online health gurus as the healthier alternatives to processed white sugar.

Truth: Whether from white sugar, ‘natural’ alternatives, or fruit, all forms of sugar are eventually converted to the same monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose). Therefore, our bodies don’t differentiate between added refined sugars and those naturally occurring in foods (9).

Nevertheless, a piece of fresh fruit obviously has a greater nutritional value than a tablespoon of white sugar or corn syrup…

Lie #5: White Sugar is Vegan

This one is a mind-blower. What about white sugar could possibly involve animals?!

Truth: Animal bone char is used to bleach refined sugar. While the sugar itself is vegan, its production process is not.

Related: 12 Startling Non-Vegan Foods That Will Blow Your Mind

Lie #6: Eating ‘Sugar-Free’ is Possible

“I’ve cut all sugar out of my diet and now I feel great!”. Well, Karen, that’s impossible.

Truth: As mentioned earlier, our bodies treat all forms of sugar the same. Every gram of carbohydrates consumed, regardless of coming from lettuce or lollipops, is broken down into the same set of monosaccharides. If you want it or not, you’re always consuming glucose, fructose, or sucrose.

Our friend Karen is probably feeling better because she cut out oily junk food and calorie-dense pastries by way of reducing her processed sugar intake, not by excluding sugar itself.

Lie #7: Avoiding Sugar is Always Healthy

Truth: You wouldn’t survive without sugar. Glucose is the body’s primary energy source, providing energy to your nervous system, muscles, and brain.

In fact, sugar is so important that the brain can not function properly without it. When glucose levels are too low, the the production of neurotransmitters is inhibited. As a result, the communication between neurons breaks down (10).

Especially for athletes, consuming sugar can be part of a healthy diet. Not only does sugar provide an immediate source of energy, it can also be stored within the muscles as fuel. By conserving extra glucose in the form of glycogen, the body creates its own quick-fire energy reserve for when food isn’t available (11).

Further, avoiding nutritious foods such as fruit, simply for the sake of cutting out sugar, may do more harm than good.

Lie #8: Sugar Makes You Gain Weight

Truth: Studies have failed to prove that sugar itself causes weight gain.

The prime determinant of the scale going up is a caloric surplus. When you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. Those excess calories can come from sugar, fats, vegetables, or any other food.

Some foods, however, are more conducive to weight gain due to their caloric density. For example, while carbohydrates (including sugar) have only 4 calories per gram, fats have a whopping 9 calories per gram. Hence, it’s easier to over-eat on fatty foods than on pure carb sources.

When most people think ‘high-sugar’, they picture pastries, ice cream, or other junk food. But the sugar alone is not the reason why it’s so easy to over-indulge on such highly palatable foods. Rather, the combination of fat, sugar, and salt causes the urge to binge.

Lie #9: Sugar Causes Cancer

Many are the rumors that consuming sugar fuels the spread of cancer cells.

Truth: According to Cancer Research UK, “there’s no evidence that following a sugar-free diet lowers the risk of getting cancer, or boosts the chances of surviving if you are diagnosed.”

The myth likely originates from the fact that cancer cells require high amounts of energy to grow and spread, which sugar can provide. But so can any other calorie-dense food.

As with sugar and diabetes, the statistical correlation between sugar intake and an increased cancer risk doesn’t imply causation. Countries with the highest sugar consumption levels are naturally those with the highest rates of cancer, because they embody the modern Western lifestyle that comes with an array of chronic diseases conducive to cancer.

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(1) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/391812

(2) https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/sugar-does-it-really-cause-hyperactivity

(3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7963081/

(4) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23719144/

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1931610/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24555673/

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4822166/

(8) https://nutritionfacts.org/2016/11/17/fat-is-the-cause-of-type-2-diabetes/

(9) https://share.upmc.com/2019/03/are-all-sugars-the-same/

(10) https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/sugar-brain

(11) https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/lactose-fructose-intolerance-4457.html

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