Thursday, March 6, 2014

John Yudkin: The Man Who Tried to Warn Us About Sugar

By Julia Llewellyn Smith

A British professor's 1972 book about the dangers of sugar is now seen as prophetic. So why did it lead to the end of his career?

A couple of years ago, an out-of-print book published in 1972 by a long-dead British professor suddenly became a collector's item. Copies that had been lying dusty on bookshelves were selling for hundreds of pounds, while copies were also being pirated online. Alongside such rarities as Madonna's Sex, Stephen King's Rage (written as Richard Bachman) and Promise Me Tomorrow by Nora Roberts; Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin, a book widely derided at the time of publication, was listed as one of the most coveted out-of-print works in the world.

How exactly did a long-forgotten book suddenly become so prized? The cause was a ground-breaking lecture called Sugar: the Bitter Truth by Robert Lustig, professor of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, in which Lustig hailed Yudkin's work as "prophetic".

"Without even knowing it, I was a Yudkin acolyte," says Lustig, who tracked down the book after a tip from a colleague via an interlibrary loan. "Everything this man said in 1972 was the God's honest truth and if you want to read a true prophecy you find this book... I'm telling you every single thing this guy said has come to pass. I'm in awe."

Posted on YouTube in 2009, Lustig's 90-minute talk has received 4.1million hits and is credited with kick-starting the anti-sugar-movement, a campaign that calls for sugar to be treated as a toxin, like alcohol and tobacco, and for sugar-laden foods to be taxed, labelled with health warnings and banned for anyone under 18.

Lustig is one of a growing number of scientists who don't just believe sugar makes you fat and rots teeth. They're convinced it's the cause of several chronic and very common illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes. It's also addictive, since it interferes with our appetites and creates an irresistible urge to eat.

This year, Lustig's message has gone mainstream; many of the New Year diet books focused not on fat or carbohydrates, but on cutting out sugar and the everyday foods (soups, fruit juices, bread) that contain high levels of sucrose. The anti-sugar camp is not celebrating yet, however. They know what happened to Yudkin and what a ruthless and unscrupulous adversary the sugar industry proved to be.
The tale begins in the Sixties. That decade, nutritionists in university laboratories all over America and Western Europe were scrabbling to work out the reasons for an alarming rise in heart disease levels. By 1970, there were 520 deaths per 100,000 per year in England and Wales caused by coronary heart disease and 700 per 100,000 in America. After a while, a consensus emerged: the culprit was the high level of fat in our diets.

One scientist in particular grabbed the headlines: a nutritionist from the University of Minnesota called Ancel Keys. Keys, famous for inventing the K-ration - 12,000 calories packed in a little box for use by troops during the Second World War - declared fat to be public enemy number one and recommended that anyone who was worried about heart disease should switch to a low-fat "Mediterranean" diet.

Instead of treating the findings as a threat, the food industry spied an opportunity. Market research showed there was a great deal of public enthusiasm for "healthy" products and low-fat foods would prove incredibly popular. By the start of the Seventies, supermarket shelves were awash with low-fat yogurts, spreads, and even desserts and biscuits.

But, amid this new craze, one voice stood out in opposition. John Yudkin, founder of the nutrition department at the University of London's Queen Elizabeth College, had been doing his own experiments and, instead of laying the blame at the door of fat, he claimed there was a much clearer correlation between the rise in heart disease and a rise in the consumption of sugar. Rodents, chickens, rabbits, pigs and students fed sugar and carbohydrates, he said, invariably showed raised blood levels of triglycerides (a technical term for fat), which was then, as now, considered a risk factor for heart disease. Sugar also raised insulin levels, linking it directly to type 2 diabetes.

When he outlined these results in Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It , in 1972, he questioned whether there was any causal link at all between fat and heart disease. After all, he said, we had been eating substances like butter for centuries, while sugar, had, up until the 1850s, been something of a rare treat for most people. "If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive," he wrote, "that material would promptly be banned."

This was not what the food industry wanted to hear. When devising their low-fat products, manufacturers had needed a fat substitute to stop the food tasting like cardboard, and they had plumped for sugar. The new "healthy" foods were low-fat but had sugar by the spoonful and Yudkin's findings threatened to disrupt a very profitable business.

As a result, says Lustig, there was a concerted campaign by the food industry and several scientists to discredit Yudkin's work. The most vocal critic was Ancel Keys.

Keys loathed Yudkin and, even before Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It appeared, he published an article, describing Yudkin's evidence as "flimsy indeed".

"Yudkin always maintained his equanimity, but Keys was a real a-------, who stooped to name-calling and character assassination," says Lustig, speaking from New York, where he's just recorded yet another television interview.

The British Sugar Bureau put out a press release dismissing Yudkin's claims as "emotional assertions" and the World Sugar Research Organisation described his book as "science fiction". When Yudkin sued, it printed a mealy-mouthed retraction, concluding: "Professor Yudkin recognises that we do not agree with [his] views and accepts that we are entitled to express our disagreement."

Yudkin was "uninvited" to international conferences. Others he organised were cancelled at the last minute, after pressure from sponsors, including, on one occasion, Coca-Cola. When he did contribute, papers he gave attacking sugar were omitted from publications. The British Nutrition Foundation, one of whose sponsors was Tate & Lyle, never invited anyone from Yudkin's internationally acclaimed department to sit on its committees. Even Queen Elizabeth College reneged on a promise to allow the professor to use its research facilities when he retired in 1970 (to writePure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It). Only after a letter from Yudkin's solicitor was he offered a small room in a separate building.

Read the rest here.

Order the book:

Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It


  1. Wenzel, please, please inform yourself. Sugar is good. Keynesian style reasoning in medicine is what led people to conclude it's bad. What's bad is polyunsaturated fats, whose main sources are seed oils (corn, soybean, etc.). These damage the body's ability to use sugar.

    But we need sugar, when we don't consume it, we convert fat and protein to sugar, but to do this we use stress hormones which damage us in the long term. However, after avoiding polyunsaturated fats consistently, the body enhances its ability to use sugar.

    John Yudkin occupies a space in nutrition and medicine similar to that of Keynes in Economics. Read Ray Peat, Broda Barnes, unbrainwash yourself regarding health, hormones, and nutrition.

    Lustig is the Paul Krugman of nutrition.

    Said all that, some sources of sugar are better than others. Fruits and fruit juices the best, wheat products and other starches the worst. But even the worst starches aren't as harmful as polyunsaturated fats (keep them under 4 grams per day).

    1. I think you mean we need glucose, not sugar. Sugar (sucrose) is of course half fructose which has a very different metabolic effect. The real problem is consuming refined sugar in a state of glycogen saturation, causing blood glucose and fructose levels to spike acutely and remain elevated. Even glucose is not strictly necessary; individuals adapted to a low carb diet can substitute ketones for glucose, reducing the need for cortisol-meidated gluconeogenesis.

      Polyunsaturated fats are not in themselves bad. Omega-3 is famously essential, and so is omega-6 and -9 although in much lower quantities than typically consumed.

      It's only human to look for simple causes to complex phenomena, but this is a major fallacy in nutrition. All the subtypes of all the macronutrients have a role to play and the fluctuating hormonal environment complicates things further. Blanket statements like "sugar is bad" or "saturated fat is bad" are gross misunderstandings.

      Our scientific understanding of nutrition, for all its recent advances, remains positively medieval. A massive dose of Socratic humility is warranted. Until nutrition is better understood, our best guideline remains the foods and lifestyle patterns to which our ancestors adapted and on which they thrived.

    2. Omega-3 fats aren't not essential, the studies supporting that idea were poorly designed. Read more here:

      Unsaturated fatty acids: Nutritionally essential, or toxic?

      Even if they were essential, those who claim they are essential concede that hundreds of milligrams per day suffice, which you will consume without even trying (one egg has that amount, egg is a good food despite its pufa content).

      "Our scientific understanding of nutrition, for all its recent advances, remains positively medieval."

      That's just because you haven't read the people who understand nutrition, like Broda Barnes and Ray Peat. Mainstream medicine, yes, is medieval.

      "our best guideline remains the foods and lifestyle patterns to which our ancestors adapted and on which they thrived."

      LOL. That's wishful thinking, we don't know what they ate, so make it up as much as we can depending on what we like to eat. It's a lame rationalization.

  2. With that mindset, I can guarantee you Lustig's children will grow into freaks. Sugar is essential especially for children.

  3. Needless Delay for a Medicine That Could Save Kids' Lives

    My sister and I invented a gadget, and we're trying to get a patent. The application process seems arbitrary and even capricious, but our patent attorney assures us this is not unusual. When the examiner assigned to our case told us that our patent was allowable, we clinked glasses and hatched business plans. Two months later, the examiner changed his mind. We are now in a back-and-forth exchange with the patent office, with no clear end in sight. The experience has been frustrating and expensive, but in the end if we don't get the patent life will go on. We'll either build our business without the proprietary technology or find another way to make our fortune. We'll survive.

    A similar drama that affects my family life is unfolding under the auspices of a separate government agency, the Food and Drug Administration.
    But in this case, the same painstaking bureaucratic pace and inconsistent decision making that plagues the patent office carries life or death stakes. If the right action is not made now without further delay, my 13-year-old son literally will not survive.
    The FDA has the power to grant conditional approval for a drug if the medicine is "reasonably expected" to improve or extend lives.
    Just last week the FDA approved a drug to treat dizziness and lightheadedness associated with NOH, a nonfatal condition. The drug has only been proven to work for two weeks, but was granted accelerated approval because it is reasonably expected to work for a longer time period and therefore improve quality of life.
    All eligible patients will get access while further studies are conducted to confirm the preliminary efficacy results.

    Yet eteplirsen, a treatment for a 100 percent fatal pediatric disease with no other treatment options, has not yet been deemed worthy of consideration for accelerated approval. This inconsistency is baffling.