“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

— William Wilberforce

Front Page » Medicine » Public Health » Sugar Nation: Is Sugar the New Alcohol?
Public Health
Text size:

Sugar Nation: Is Sugar the New Alcohol?

Story Highlights
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a new pandemic in the U.S., where more liver problems are caused by sugar than by alcohol.
  • Fructose, stripped of its natural fruit host that includes the fiber necessary to process the fruit sugar, seems to be at the heart of the problem.
  • Fructose, often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup can be found in nearly every possible processed food, from bread to infant formula.

It is a common misconception to associate cirrhosis of the liver with alcohol abuse, but the truth is that more and more people who either don’t drink alcohol at all, or drink very little, are being diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which can range in severity from simple excess fat in the liver to cirrhosis or end-stage liver disease.1 The disorder has become so prevalent in the U.S. and other developed countries that doctors are calling it “the pandemic of the 21st century” and are estimating that it affects up to one-third of the population of the Western world.1

At the same time, we are seeing sharp and associated increases in other disorders such as obesity, diabetes and the metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol levels—all conventionally linked to lifestyle choices and blamed primarily on overdoing the dietary fats.2 3

Any trip to a grocery store will show that the heart-healthy, low-fat American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines4 vigorously promoted, beginning more than half a century ago, has been embraced by Americans and changed the way people shop and eat today. Skim milk flies off the shelf, food labels boast “cholesterol-free” or “no trans fats,” and there’s a plethora of products proclaiming themselves lite, low fat, or heart healthy. Low-carb choices have become a booming industry. So why aren’t we seeing the expected disappearance of fat-related health woes?

Spotlight on a Hidden Player

Health professionals are now pointing to a new culprit, and it may be worse than the old one: Sugar. Not your run-of-the-mill table sugar necessarily (though that is not an innocent bystander), but fructose. Wait, what? Fructose is from fruit… fruit is good, fruit is natural, we’re supposed to eat fruit; how can that be the problem?

The apparent smoking gun is that the fructose added to our processed foods has been removed from its natural element, the fruit itself. As Dr. Robert Lustig, University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, says in his lecture on the biologic impact of fructose, “God packaged the poison with the antidote.”5 In nature, along with the fructose, there’s fiber for processing it; any fruit can be looked at as an example.

The roots of the fructose invasion began in response to several things that happened in the late 1940s and 1950s to bring attention to the influence of diet on heart health. There was the Framingham Heart Study, a major undertaking designed and implemented by the National Heart Institute to study cardiac disease; then the roles played by cholesterol subtypes high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the “good cholesterol”) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL, the “bad cholesterol”) were identified; and third, American scientist Ancel Keys observed that other cultures, such as the Japanese and Mediterranean populations whose diets were low in fat, had a fraction of the heart disease seen in the U.S. and he hypothesized that dietary fat was the link to understanding heart health.6

The aforementioned American Heart Association diet and a massive campaign aimed at reducing fat in the American diet began in the 1960s with a report issued in 1961 urging a low-fat diet for those at risk for cardiovascular disease,7 followed up in the early 1980s by the U.S. government recommending the same low-fat diet for everybody, although the American Heart Association didn’t endorse that recommendation.8 With the introduction of nutrition labeling in 1990, the public started paying attention to product ingredients and demanding low fat, nonfat, lite alternatives to higher-fat options.

Attempting to satisfy consumers, the food industry was faced with a dilemma: When the fat was removed from products, the food tasted terrible, like cardboard. The public wasn’t buying it. Literally. Something had to be added to take the place of the lost fat. And that something was, you guessed it, sugar. Most recently, high-fructose corn syrup, a substance we were never exposed to before 1975,9 and a cheaper alternative to other types of sugar, thanks to farm subsidies. The average intake of sugar in the U.S. is estimated to have risen from 120 pounds per year per person in 1970 to 150 pounds per year per person by 1995.10

A Sugar by Any Other Name

Sugar is not a specific descriptor, though it is generally taken to refer to sucrose, the white stuff in a sugar bowl. There are many kinds of sugar and once we understand that any ingredient name that ends with the suffix “ose” is a sugar, it’s easy to see that the stuff is everywhere, whether it is listed as glucose or sucrose or dextrose or maltose or fructose. In addition to obvious food products like soda, juice and fruit drinks, it’s also in ketchup and bread, luncheon meats and soups, crackers, breads, spice blends and (this one opens up its own can of worms) infant formula, which is said to contain the sugar equivalent of a can of cola.11

That’s not to say all sugar is all bad. The human body—in fact, every living cell on the planet— is designed to run on glucose, also known as dextrose. It is what we convert our food into, primarily from carbohydrates but also from fat protein. It is so essential that if food is scarce, our bodies manufacture it from our own storages.12 When we take in glucose, almost all of it goes directly to our organs and provides our energy for living. Whatever we don’t need or use right away (about 20%) goes to the liver, where it is converted to glycogen for storage. This is a normal process and there’s no cap on how much glycogen can be safely handled this way.13

Table sugar, or sucrose (cane or beet sugar), on the other hand, is about 50/50 glucose/fructose. It is metabolized differently from naturally occurring glucose, because of the fructose in there, and differently from fructose because of the glucose component. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has closer to 55% fructose over glucose. The fructose element in any of these sugars is poison, and it is what led the American Liver Foundation to suggest that, “sugar may just be the new alcohol.”14

Fructose Metabolizes Like Alcohol

Fructose, which is much sweeter than glucose, can only be metabolized in the liver, and acts on that organ in much the same way as other toxins do.

Experts agree that sugar, and fructose in particular, is a toxin that is particularly dangerous to the liver.15 16 17 Unlike other substances, which are processed by the body as either carbohydrate or fat, fructose is a carbohydrate but is metabolized like a fat. Several of the processes involved in metabolizing fructose have unwelcome consequences: Release of a waste product known as uric acid blocks the enzyme that controls blood pressure and can lead to hypertension; excess fructose can overwhelm the actions of leptin, the hormone that signals that we have had enough to eat, leading to obesity; other processes can lead to hyperlipidemia, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and chronic, low-level inflammation to name a few.18

Dr. Lustig explains that fructose more closely resembles ethanol (alcohol), another nonessential energy source, than it does the life-enabling glucose. He calls fructose “alcohol without the buzz,”19 and says that it has many of the same effects as ethanol on the liver. That lack of a recognizable “buzz” may be at the root of what makes it so dangerous. Fructose impacts on the same pleasure pathways and addiction centers as alcohol, but because alcohol is partially metabolized in the central nervous system, we can feel its effects, there are clear signals associated with overdoing the ethanol. Fructose is not metabolized in the brain at all but goes straight to the liver, so it does not give us the same warning signs.

We also don’t have the years’ worth of understanding about how fructose damages the liver, as we do with ethanol, so there isn’t the same social or medical concern over trying to control and limit people’s exposure to it. If we go further and glance at the enormous profits involved, it isn’t hard to figure out why there is so much backlash against any suggestion that it is sugar and not fat that is making our nation fatter and more unhealthy than ever before.

Sugar Addiction: Not Just a Catch Phrase

One animal study showed that extremely sweet taste is significantly preferred over cocaine, which is considered to be one of the most addictive substances in the world, and the researchers concluded that the evolution of sweetness receptors took place in an environment that was largely devoid of sugars so overstimulation of those receptors, as is so common in the modern diet, triggers “a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”20 A different study showed that fructose quickly initiated liver damage, even without weight gain.21

If we accept the fact that sugar in all of its processed forms is a drug as addictive and toxic as cocaine and as damaging to the liver as alcohol, then the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American eats “12 teaspoons of sugar a day, which equates to about two tons of sugar during their lifetime”22… it seems that it just might be time for rehab.


1 Machado MV, Cortez-Pinto H. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: What the Clinician Needs to Know. World J Gastroenterology. NCBI Sept. 28, 2014.
2 Riccardi G, Giacco R, Rivellese AA. Dietary Fat, Insulin Sensitivity and the Metabolic Syndrome. Clin Nutr. August 2004.
3 Freire RD et al for the Japanese-Brazilian Diabetes Study Group. Dietary Fat Is Associated With Metabolic Syndrome in Japanese Brazilians. Diabetes Care. July, 2005.
4 The American Heart Association. The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. Jan. 22, 2015.
5 Lustig RH. Sugar: The Bitter Truth. UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine July 30, 2009.
6 Story C. The History of Heart Disease. Health Line Apr. 10, 2012.
7 Page I et al, Ad Hoc Committee on Dietary Fat and Atherosclerosis. Dietary Fat and Its Relation to Heart Attacks and Strokes. Circulation 1961.
8 Teichoiz N. What if Bad Fat Isn’t so Bad? NBC News, Men’s Health Dec. 13, 2007.
9 Lustig RH. Sugar: The Bitter Truth. UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine July 30, 2009.
10 Howard BV, Wylie-Rosett J. AHA Scientific Statement: Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 2002.
11 Mercola J. Sugar: Eliminate This ONE Ingredient and Watch Your Health Soar. Mercola.com May 2, 2011.
12 Definition of Blood Glucose. Medicine.net June 14, 2012.
13 Mercola J. Fructose Attacks Your Liver Like Alcohol – Is This What’s Making You Flabby and Sick? Mercola.com May 7, 2012.
14 Patel A. Foods For Liver: 20 Detoxing Things To Cook With This Year. Huffington Post Dec. 31, 2013.
15 Ratini M.  Surprising Things That Can Damage Your Liver. WebMD Mar. 19, 2015.
16 Lustig RH. Fructose: It’s “Alcohol Without the Buzz.” Advances in Nutrition March 2013.
17 Mercola J. Fructose Attacks Your Liver Like Alcohol – Is This What’s Making You Flabby and Sick? May 7, 2012.
18 Mercola J. Sugar: Eliminate This ONE Ingredient and Watch Your Health Soar. Mercola.com May 2, 2011.
19 Lustig RH. Fructose: It’s “Alcohol Without the Buzz.” Advances in Nutrition March 2013.
20 Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8), 2007.
21 Kavanagh K, Wylie AT, Tucker KL, et al. Dietary Fructose Induces Endotoxemia and Hepatic Injury in Calorically Controlled Primates. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition June 19, 2013.
22 Mercola J. Sugar: Eliminate This ONE Ingredient and Watch Your Health Soar. Mercola.com May 2, 2011.

10 Responses to Sugar Nation: Is Sugar the New Alcohol?

  1. Rick F Reply

    July 21, 2015 at 9:52 am

    This product, along with most of the other chemicals added to our food, is criminal. Yes, criminal! The large corporations responsible for them, should be treated as criminals for introducing them into the food supply in the first place. They either did not do the research on these chemicals, circumvented warnings with biased or incomplete studies, or just plain ignored any signals they could be problematic or dangerous.

    HFC is just one really glaring example of the dangers posed by these so called ingredients. There are dozens, if not hundreds more that should be eliminated.

    Additionally, do not give me that caveat emptor crap one hears from the ag-food industry and government. Even if one reads every ingredient label (which I do), one will find it virtually impossible to find anything that does not have one, and usually a whole lot more, of these things in and on the food stuff! No, it is encumbent upon the producers and distributors of our food to stop their irresponsible greed, and eliminate anything that is not natural from our food supply….and the governments ensure they do!!!

  2. Colorado Reply

    July 21, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Nobody makes people eat sugar. They do so willingly. We have an almost completely sugar free diet as a family. No ose’s, except for naturally occurring or maple syrup. Absolutely not diet sugars. And always select the organic or sugar free staple foods. Eat more rice, stop the pop, and read labels. Vote with your wallet, that’s where your vote has been all along. Feel great, several years off of sugar.

    • Melissa Reply

      September 30, 2015 at 8:08 pm

      But you missed the part about sugar being addictive. Some people are in fact more prone to addictions to sugar than others. I am speaking of genetics there, in another large group there are the people with microbiome imbalances and parasites that change their body chemistry so that they crave it. My family is also sugar free, I’m just asking that you hold back your judgmental finger, because it isn’t always so easy as, “Just don’t eat it.”

  3. Jim K Reply

    July 21, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    My take is that this is just another article funded by the animal agriculture industry to confuse and distract the public from the terrible human and environmental destructiveness of animal agriculture and animal food consumption.

    “Any trip to a grocery store will show that the heart-healthy, low-fat American Heart Association’s dietary guidelines has been embraced by Americans and changed the way people shop and eat today. So why aren’t we seeing the expected disappearance of fat-related health woes?”

    Yes, let’s take a trip to the local grocery store and take a look in the many shopping carts we pass taking note of the pizza, ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, processed meats, cheese, junk foods, and high fat snack foods, and then ask ourselves if Americans EVER really embraced a truly low fat diet, much less the AHA (30%) fat diet, more accurately described as a MODERATE fat diet. The foods noted above are promoted and featured EVERYWHERE in American life and in my experience, consumed with abandon. So perhaps this is the reason we aren’t seeing the disappearance of “fat related health woes”.

    The wonders of modern marketing are revealed clearly in that the animal slaughter and exploitation industries have not rolled over and died as a result of the overwhelming evidence of health and environmental harm caused by these industries.

    In the continuing campaign to confuse and distract the public we are now pointing our finger at a relatively innocuous substance such as sugar and blaming it for plugging up our arteries and livers with fatty sludge and cholesterol.

    People need to realize the sophistication of these efforts to maintain the market share of the animal industries. Industries that are possibly far more harmful to human health and the environment than vaccines will ever be.

    It’s a pity that NVIC has to be associated with these promotions.

  4. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 4:36 am

    I have the cure for Non Alcoholic Steteo Hepatitis (NASH).

    When I cured myself the sonogram technician asked me how I did it. My doctor kept doing liver enzymes blood tests (ALT and AST) for years to see if NASH would come back until she left the family practice for a better position.

    I am sometimes amazed at the stupidity of the medical establishment to reject or suppress cures which will not involve prescription drugs. I found the information on NIH website over 20 years ago.

  5. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Actually, it was not 20 years ago, it was 1999. I had a new job and my office mate donated blood to the red cross and I went with him. The red cross sent me a letter that my blood was thrown away because of high liver enzymes and I was ineligible to donate blood in the future. (Years later they sent me a letter that I was eligible because they started testing for all known liver diseases and was not relying on liver enzyme tests anymore.)

  6. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 10:58 am

    All cells die and get recreated. When liver cells die they release AST and ALT liver enzymes into the blood. High liver enzymes means the liver is in distress and more liver cells are dying than what is normal.

    I went to a specialist who did blood tests for all known liver diseases, and I had none. He diagnosed me with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver (NASH) and the fatty liver was diagnosed with an ultra sound exam.

    There was no known cure. NASH happens more to obese people so the medical advise was to lose weight, but I was not obese.

  7. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Searching for things to try I happened across an article on the NIH website about alternative medicical treatments for the liver. I found a nice story about researchers who gave baboons so much alcohol that it destroyed their livers – but the baboons who received lecithin had their livers completely protected. The article said the VA was considering trying lecithin on military veterans who are alcoholics and had damaged their livers.

    The liver of every mamal produces lecithin. Think about that old dishwashing detergent commercial where one drop goes into a frying pan full of grease and water, and the grease instantly gets disolved in the water. This is what lecithin does – it keeps fats in solution. Many people buy Lecithin granules or Lecithin liquid from health food stores hoping it will help prevent artery plaque and heart attacks.

  8. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Lecithin comes from the greek word for egg yolk. Egg yolks are a rich source of lecithin which people stopped eating decades ago out of fear of its colesterol. Lecithin granules are made from soybeans are cost much less than eggs – and this is used by professional bakers. One tablespoon of lecithin granules replaces one egg in a recipe.

    So, I started eating 6 eggs per day for the lecithin, and it took me months to find lecithin granules because they were not very popular back then. I eventually switched to eating 6 tablespoons of lecithin granules. I got blood tests every few months, and my AST and ALT levels were steadily dropping. I added other supplements for the liver, but the liver enzymes were dropping just from the lecithin and I credit lecithin for the affect.

  9. Howard Z Reply

    July 22, 2015 at 11:00 am

    It took two to three years for my liver enzyme levels to drop into the normal level. When it dropped into the very low area of normal I went for another sonogram. The technician said the old sonogram showed the liver was so fatty that she could not see into the liver at all, and the new sonogram showed a completely healthy liver. She wanted to know how I did it because she had a relative with NASH.

    After my liver enzymes were normal, I reduced my lecithin intake to 1 or 2 tablespoons per day. I stopped all the other supplements for the liver, except for NAC. I continue to take 600mg of NAC per day. I also continue to avoid tylenol and all NSAIDs except for plain old asprin for the occasional head ache or fever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>