Can we cancel Halloween? This is a question that my wife and I are constantly asking each other these days, as the sugar-soaked holiday approaches. It seems every holiday has been marred by the insidious invasion of candy. Our kids come home from school on Valentine’s Day not just with Valentine’s cards but a bag laden with sweets. In the case of Halloween, however, with its trick-or-treat tradition, candy can easily take center stage. Which would be less traumatic for our kids: skipping trick-or-treat or getting the glut of candy with the subsequent parental negotiations and ultimate disposal?
It’s fun to dress up, though, right? Costumes can inspire imaginations and provide impetus for creative do-it-yourself projects. Yet, if I think back to the Halloweens of what I consider a happy childhood, I cannot recall a single year’s costume. I can, however, remember which house on our street gave out full size candy bars. I can remember the giddy feeling of emptying a pillowcase full of Halloween loot onto the kitchen table or dining room floor and counting the number of pieces of candy I had managed to amass.
I also remember that one year, when I was in high school and had stopped trick-or-treating, my younger brother and sister got mugged while trick-or-treating in our neighborhood by some older kids.
I do remember some with some relish the Halloweens from my student days, including some epic parties and some group theme costumes: the crew of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou from the 2004 film starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Seu Jorge; the members of the Jamaican bobsled team (as in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings), complete with a home-made cardboard bobsled “driven” through the streets of New York City; “corporate vikings” – a simple combination of horned viking-style helmets and shirt-and-tie outfits that marked a visit to my brother on his college campus in State College, PA.
As a parent, however, I have come to loathe Halloween. And it seems that the accompanying sugar, not just on the holiday but in our daily lives, may be more than just a harmless pleasure that we can chalk up to nutritionally ‘empty calories.’
“What is it about the experience of consuming sugar and sweets, particularly during childhood, that invokes so readily the comparison to a drug? I have children, still relatively young, and I believe raising them would be a far easier job if sugar and sweets were not an option, if managing their sugar consumption did not seem to be a constant theme in our parental responsibilities.”
Gary Taubes explores the question of sugar-as-food versus sugar-as-drug in his excellent book, The Case Against Sugar. In terms of its action on the pleasure-producing centers of our brain, sugar often has more powerful action than some drugs. He describes an experiment in which lab rats were chemically addicted to cocaine, then offered a choice between cocaine and sugar and within days of this option being available, they would choose the sugar over the cocaine.
In his well researched and well written diatribe against sugar and its proponents, Taubes makes the case for sugar as the unifying agent behind the medical maladies of our modern world.
There is convincing evidence that the introduction of the Western diet and lifestyle brings with it epidemics of diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and cancer. These diseases occur in negligible amounts in tribes of people living traditional lifestyles, but then ravage these populations once they start consuming Western food regularly.
“We now eat in two weeks the amount of sugar our ancestors of 200 years ago ate in a whole year,’ as the University of London nutritionist John Yudkin wrote in 1963 of the situation in England.”
He invokes the principle of Occam’s Razor (i.e. the simplest explanation is the likely the best). He argues, convincingly, that if there is one unifying ‘culprit’ of these modern disease epidemics, it has been sugar. For every other potential culprit, there are plenty of examples of populations with lower disease burdens that don’t fit (e.g. the Japanese with a high carbohydrate diet, the Innuit and the French with high fat diets).
“Nutritionists have found it in themselves to blame our chronic ills on virtually any element of the diet or environment–on fats and cholesterol, on protein and meat, on gluten and glycoproteins, growth hormones and estrogens and antibiotics, on the absence of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and surely on the presence of salt, on processed foods in general, on overconsumption and sedentary behavior–before they’ll concede that it’s even possible that sugar has played a unique role in any way other than merely getting us all to eat…too damn much.”
I found his historical treatments of both the science of diabetes and diseases of Westernization as well as the history of the sugar industry enlightening. He pointed out that physics, unlike medicine, is routinely taught in the context of its history. Thinking back to my high school physics class, I confirmed this to be true. The names of the great thinkers in physics are not only taught along with the theory, but ingrained in the nomenclature and measurements of our modern world (Fahrenheit, Tesla, Newton, etc). While physicists were constantly running new experiments to controvert earlier theories, medicine comes to accept as truth dogmas that appear in prominent textbooks, which then get reprinted and cited as the original fact.
One such dogma that Taubes attacks is the idea that the only harm from sugar ingestion would be the consumption of excess calories. The idea that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ has dominated nutritional thinking for decades. It has been an uphill battle for anyone who argues that a substance such as sugar can affect us in ways other than energy balance. Yet it doesn’t take any knowledge of biochemistry to intuit that a doughnut and an apple (both similar in total calories) differ in health value.
Taubes exposes the massive campaign that Big Sugar has waged to keep consumers thinking that a calorie is just a calorie, not just with advertising but with lobbying influence exerted on government, including the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the funding of research designed to downplay the risks of sugar. The parallels with the tobacco industry are striking, and indeed the marriage between the two industries (with the advent of blended cigarettes and the process of soaking tobacco leaves in sugar paste) helped fuel the explosion in cigarette popularity in the twentieth century.
“Ultimately and obviously, the question of how much is too much becomes a personal decision, just as we all decide as adults what levels of alcohol, caffeine, or cigarettes we’ll ingest. I’ve argued here that enough evidence exists for us to consider sugar very likely to be a toxic substance, and to make an informed decision about how best to balance the likely risks with the benefits.”
Is sugar the new smoking? How little sugar is too much? I certainly wouldn’t smoke a single cigarette on the theory that there’s some safe amount of tobacco to consume before increasing the risk of lung cancer. But it’s hard to find a loaf of bread these days that doesn’t have sugar added. Am I going to carry only whole foods with me to eat during my marathon? (Answer: no.) Currently, I’m adopting a personal policy of minimization rather than elimination, coupled with an increased wariness about a substance which is far from benign. We won’t cancel Halloween in our house. We’ll celebrate the majesty of autumn weather and seasonal change and the fun of dressing up in costumes. Meanwhile those buckets of candy might just be made to disappear prematurely, before our kids have a chance to scarf down the whole of their contents.
All quotes are from Gary Taubes unless otherwise noted.