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John Yudkin


How Sugar is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
John Yudkin, who died in 1995, was a physiologist who specialised in nutrition and is best known for his views on the dangers of sugar. His book on this subject was first published in 1972; a revised and expanded edition appeared in 1986 and is reproduced here, together with an introduction but Robert H. Lustig.

Yudkin was writing for the general public and his style is informal, with technical terms and concepts explained in lay language (references are provided in chapter end notes). The book is frankly polemical but Yudkin is careful to distinguish his opinions and speculations from what he believed to be well-established facts.

The opening chapters provide information about sugar and the sugar industry. The chemistry of sugar is explained and there is a quite detailed description of how white sugar is made, which turns out to be a lot more complicated than I had supposed. This leads to a discussion of brown sugar, which some readers then, and probably still, suppose to be better for you than white sugar. This idea is based on a mistaken analogy with brown flour.

Yudkin produces statistics that show there has been a quite remarkable increase in sugar consumption in Britain and other industrialised countries since the middle of the nineteenth century. World sugar production increased from 0.25 million tonnes in 1800 to 101 million tonnes in 1982. As Robert Lustig points out in his introduction, that trend is if anything increasing today, thanks largely to the widespread industrial use, especially in the USA, of corn syrup (made from maize starch) in food and drinks.

Today obesity is a major public health concern and is being increasingly linked with sugar. Yudkin did, of course, make this connection, but obesity was not so prominent in the 1970s as it is today and he was more concerned with coronary heart disease. Sugar is an important risk factor here, he believed, although he is careful to say that it is not the sole cause. And the risk does not apply to everyone; probably 25 per cent of the population reacts to sugar in a way that increases their chance of a heart attack.

Yudkin writes about the link between sugar intake and Type II diabetes via an effect on insulin metabolism. Awareness of this has increased today and the situation he describes is now referred to as the metabolic syndrome. Yudkin also linked sugar to other diseases, including tooth decay (widely accepted today) and some kinds of cancer. Peptic ulcer appears in his list as well; we now know that most cases of this disease are linked to infection with a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, although it does not seem out of the question that a high sugar intake might worsen its effects.

Yudkin offers some advice to people who want to cut down on sugar. This should be done gradually, he suggests. He is speaking from experience; he admits to having been an avid consumer of the nasty stuff in the past. It is possible to accustom oneself to do without added sweetness in one's food and drink, but people who find this difficult are advised to use artificial sweeteners. Contrary to some claims, these are safe, he thinks, and certainly much less dangerous than sugar.

The book concludes with an account of Yudkin's brushes with the sugar industry and its supporters, including some scientists, who reacted—not surprisingly—with attempts to discredit him, which were pretty successful at the time.

The result is such a compact nucleus of power that, like a magnet surrounded by a strong induction coil, it produces a field of influence that invisibly affects many of those not in direct contact with the centre.
Lustig explains that Yudkin's ideas were dismissed by scientists in the 1970s in favour of the hypothesis of saturated fat as the cause of heart disease. Hence Yudkin's book went out of print and his ideas were virtually ignored for thirty years. Yudkin had relatively little information about possible mechanism to explain his findings, which were mainly based on correlation, but now we have much more information about how sugar produces its effects. The reprinting of Yudkin's book is therefore definitely timely.

7 May 2013

%T Pure, White and Deadly
%S How Sugar is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It
%A Yudkin, John
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 1986, 1988, 2012
%G ISBN 9780241965283
%P 200pp
%K biology, medicine
%O revised and expanded edition
%O Foreword by Robert H. Lustig

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