Sugarman warning: pure, white, deadly

A British professor’s 1972 book about the dangers of sugar is now seen as prophetic. Julia Llewellyn Smith tells the bittersweet story of John Yudkin

SUGAR SHOCK: Medical experts increasingly are viewing a 1972 book about the dangers of sugar – a hidden and not-so-hidden ingredient in many family foods – as 'prophetic'
SUGAR SHOCK: Medical experts increasingly are viewing a 1972 book about the dangers of sugar – a hidden and not-so-hidden ingredient in many family foods – as ‘prophetic’

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, everything this guy said has come to pass. I’m in awe.”

Posted on YouTube in 2009, Lustig’s 90-minute talk has received 4.1-million 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.

Thanks to Lustig and the rehabilitation of Yudkin’s reputation, Penguin republished Pure, White and Deadly 18 months ago.

Obesity rates in the UK are now 10 times what they were when it was first published and the amount of sugar we eat has increased 31.5% since 1990 – thanks to all the “invisible” sugar in everything, from processed food and orange juice to coleslaw and yogurt.

The number of diabetics in the world has nearly trebled. The numbers dying of heart disease has decreased, thanks to improved drugs, but the number living with the disease is growing steadily.

As a result, the World Health Organisation is set to recommend a cut in the amount of sugar in our diets from 22 teaspoons per day to almost half that. But its director-general, Margaret Chan, has warned that, while it might be on the back foot at last, the sugar industry remains a formidable adversary, determined to safeguard its market position. – The Telegraph

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