This past fall, Gary Taubes took his wife and two sons on a trip to a wildlife preserve in Sonoma County, California, the kind of place where guests learn firsthand about the species of the Serengeti. They slept in tents and spent the day among giraffes, zebras, antelope, and the like. One morning, Taubes and his boys awoke early. “It was 50 degrees out — freezing by our standards,” he recalls. “I took the kids to breakfast, and” — his face takes on a pained expression — “how can I not give them hot chocolate?”
For most parents, indulging the kids with some cocoa would pose no dilemma. But Taubes, one of America’s leading and most strident nutrition writers, is no ordinary father. His book, The Case Against Sugar, seems destined to strike fear into the hearts of children everywhere. Taubes’ argument is simple: Sugar is likely poison, and it’s what is making our country fat. And not just fat but sick. So don’t eat it. Ever.
A little much? Perhaps. But the kids did get the cocoa — on this one special occasion.
For Taubes, the cocoa conundrum is an occupational hazard for someone who describes his current mission as “the nutritional equivalent of stealing Christmas.” But Taubes, 60, has never been one to shy away from extreme positions. His last two books, 2007’s Good Calories, Bad Calories and 2010’s Why We Get Fat, launched a nationwide movement to shun bread and embrace butter. Both argued that it’s not how many calories we consume, but where they come from, and that eating fat doesn’t actually make us so. These were bold statements at the time, and they had a big impact. “I can’t think of another journalist who has had quite as profound an influence on the conversation about nutrition,” says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Thanks to Taubes’ pro-fat pronouncements, Pollan says, “millions of Americans changed the way they eat. Doughnut, bread, and pasta sales plummeted, and we saw a change in the food conversation, the effects of which are still being felt today.”
Now, with The Case Against Sugar, Taubes launches his toughest crusade yet: to prove that we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that cookies and soda are simply “empty” calories and not uniquely toxic ones. That’s the result, he argues, of a long history of deception from the sugar industry and its support of shoddy science.
The audacity of those arguments makes Taubes an anomaly among nutrition writers, says John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. “He isn’t content just to do public relations for scientists,” Horgan says, meaning he doesn’t rewrap scientists’ findings with the simple, shiny packaging of journalism. Instead, he digs deep into the research, and if he finds it lacking, he attacks it. “He’ll come right out and say if he thinks someone is an idiot,” Horgan says.
With his book, Taubes will likely have his largest platform, and an audience poised to listen. By now, nearly everyone believes that Americans eat too much sugar. Most experts agree that it’s a major contributor to our nation’s grim health: More than a third of adults are obese, and one in 11 has diabetes. This understanding has spurred campaigns for soda taxes nationwide — five measures were approved by voters in November — and moves by big companies to ban sugary drinks from workplace cafeterias. In August 2016, three class-action lawsuits were filed against General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Post, alleging that the companies falsely claimed their cereals are healthy when, in fact, they’re loaded with sugar.
Anyone else would be encouraged, but ever the brawler, Taubes points out flaws: Even these new anti-sugar crusaders, he says, are motivated by a naive, and ultimately dangerous, “less is better” view of sugar. To Taubes, the answer to our obesity crisis isn’t more expensive soda and less sweetened cereals. It’s to stop poisoning ourselves altogether.
“Sugar is like heroin to me,” Taubes says. “I’m never satisfied with a sweet. I could eat until I get sick.”
Like the control room on a battleship, Taubes’ office perches atop the Craftsman-style house he shares with his wife, the writer Sloane Tanen, and their sons. His office is a small, book-filled space with views of the surrounding Oakland hills. He guides me to a low seat near his desk.
I knew of Taubes’ aggressive reputation and had seen his brash, combative videos on YouTube — densely reasoned, contrarian lectures about everything from the physiology of how insulin works in the blood to why we should eat meat and avoid carbs (which the body converts into sugar). His videos get hundreds of thousands of views and provoke both cheers and hisses in the blogosphere. I am surprised to find him quiet and soft-spoken.
He pulls out a package of Nicorette gum and pops a piece in his mouth.
“Do you smoke?” I ask.
Not for more than 15 years. “Nicotine is a great drug for writing,” Taubes says. “I keep thinking once life calms down, I’ll quit.” His most vexing addiction, however, is the stuff he’s spent five years researching. “Sugar is like heroin to me,” he says. “I’m never satisfied with a sweet. I could eat until I get sick.”
He tries to eat no sugar at all, including honey and agave syrup, and limits fruit. But he insists, “I’m not a zealot.” The family pantry — stocked by his wife, not incidentally — has an assortment of what he calls “crap snack health-food bars and juice boxes that Sloane says we have for kids who come over, because they expect it.” When Taubes wants a treat, he nibbles on 100 percent chocolate. Because who wouldn’t prefer a bar of compressed bitter paste to Godiva?
“The type I buy isn’t that bad,” he assures me, and then immediately recounts a story of a taxi driver he once gave some to who had to pull over to spit it out. While telling me this, he replaces his now well-chomped Nicorette with a new one. He will continue chain-chewing throughout the day.
Sugar and nicotine, he points out, are connected in more ways than we may think. The Case Against Sugar documents that in the early 1900s, tobacco companies began adding sugar to their products, which allowed people to inhale the smoke deeply, making cigarettes more palatable as well as more addictive and deadlier.
While Taubes has been writing and talking about sugar in one form or another since the early 2000s, with this book he wants to do something he says no one yet has: reveal the bad science that has enabled the sugar industry to mislead the public. By rooting through archives and obscure textbooks, he has uncovered, he says, evidence that sugar is not just the harmless, empty calories we indulge in, but that it may well be toxic, dangerous even in small amounts. It’s a possibility that might make you hesitate handing your kids a mug of hot cocoa, too.
To get — and stay — lean and healthy, the conventional nutritional wisdom is simple: Eat less and exercise more. That’s what the sugar industry would have us believe, too. (Coca-Cola, for example, now offers smaller-size cans to help consumers drink less soda — or just buy more cans of soda.) That’s false, according to Taubes, and the reasoning is part of an industry-driven campaign that goes back to the 1950s. It was then that Ancel Keys, a prominent physiologist at the University of Minnesota, first stated that fat — not sugar — causes the high cholesterol levels that lead to heart disease. What few people knew, however, is that Keys’ research was funded by the sugar industry.
Taubes details how this pattern of influence ramped up in the 1960s and ’70s, as the industry funneled money to scientists and public health officials to combat the notion that sugar was a unique cause of obesity and chronic illness. One of those recipients was Fred Stare, whose work as the founder and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health was supported financially for decades by sugar purveyors like General Foods. The most public defender of sugar, Stare repeatedly asserted, even as late as 1985, that it is not “remotely true that modern sugar consumption contributes to poor health.”
The industry’s campaign scored a coup in 1976, when the FDA classified sugar as “generally recognized as safe” and thus not subject to federal regulations. In 1980, the U.S. government released its dietary guidelines, drafted by a team led by Mark Hegsted, who spent his entire career working under Fred Stare at Harvard. Taubes writes that those guidelines assured us: “Contrary to widespread opinion, too much sugar does not seem to cause diabetes.”
The PR work paid off in other ways, too. Americans now consume 130 pounds of sugar a year, twice the amount we did in 1980. And while the industry told us to embrace sugar, dietary experts preached the gospel of low fat. Both groups assume all calories are created equal, whether they come from apples or apple pie. Such logic implies that a calorie of sugar is no more or less capable of causing obesity and diabetes than a calorie from any type of food.
Taubes presents a wholly different role for what sugar does in the body. “A calorie of sugar and one of meat or broccoli all have vastly different effects on the hormones and enzymes that control or regulate the storage of fat in fat cells,” he says. But unlike pork or veggies, sugar has a uniquely negative effect: It causes the liver to accumulate fat and, at the same time, prompts the body to pump out insulin. Over time, Taubes insists, these elevated insulin levels lead to weight gain, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Which is to say, we don’t blimp out or get sick because we eat too much and fail to exercise. It happens because we eat sugar.
At this point you may be wondering why we haven’t put this whole debate to bed with broad, well-conducted research. The problem is that studies about nutrition are notoriously difficult to orchestrate. Most research has been observational: Scientists ask a group of people what they ate over a period of time and then try to tease out associations between their food intake and any diseases they contract. Obviously this approach is problematic. Even if subjects report their eating habits accurately (though they almost never do), it’s difficult to know which foods initiate a given problem. If an association is found between hamburgers and heart disease, how would anyone know whether the problem is in the burgers or the buns? The best-run studies require confining subjects to a metabolic ward in a hospital for weeks, where researchers can control all the food they take in and measure all the energy they expend. It’s incredibly expensive and nearly impossible to find someone willing to fund it.
Billionaire philanthropists John and Laura Arnold are among the few who are. After hearing Taubes on a 2011 podcast discuss the kinds of obesity experiments he’d like to see done, John Arnold, a former hedge-fund manager in Houston, reached out. It led to an Arnold Foundation grant of $35.5 million — money bestowed to Taubes to establish a foundation that would find answers to some of nutrition’s toughest questions. In 2012, Taubes paired up with Peter Attia, a Stanford and Johns Hopkins trained physician and star in his field, and launched the nonprofit Nutrition Science Institute (NuSI). Taubes and Attia wanted NuSI to be a beacon, an institution with the experts, resources, and clearance to do the precise experimental science no one else had been willing to. “I thought there needed to be specific studies done to resolve what causes obesity and diabetes once and for all,” Taubes says. “I wanted to put the issue to rest, have it recognized by people who could influence the medical establishment.”
As late as 1985, Harvard nutritionist Fred Stare asserted that it is no “remotely true that modern sugar consumption contributes to poor health.”
Taubes says he has always had issues with authority, beginning with his father, who was a photoelectric engineer and entrepreneur who helped invent the Xerox copying process. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Gary also lived in the shadow of his elder brother, Clifford. “He excelled at everything,” says Taubes. “It was either give up or be supercompetitive.”
When Clifford went to Harvard for physics, Gary followed suit. But after receiving a C minus in a quantum physics class, he switched to engineering. (Clifford went on to be a celebrated professor of mathematical physics at his alma mater.) It was then that Taubes read All the President’s Men, which tells the story of the Watergate scandal, and he realized he could make a living kicking against authority. He became an investigative journalist, focusing on bad science. Nutrition was a natural fit. No other arena offers more complex or thornier issues to tackle or is so dear to the public’s heart. Calling out the idiots here meant Taubes could influence what people put in their mouths every day.
While at Harvard, Taubes channeled his competitive fervor into sports. He played football and in the off-season he boxed. By 1987, when he moved to Venice Beach, California, Taubes worked out constantly, climbing the steps in Santa Monica canyon, roller-blading to Malibu and back, or running a five-mile loop. At the time he believed the cardio would allow him to eat whatever and how much he wanted. But despite all that calorie-burning, he began putting on pounds. It wasn’t until 2000, when he adopted the low-carb recommendations of cardiologist Robert Atkins, that Taubes succeed in controlling his weight. That experience colored his thinking about the roles of diet and exercise in obesity.
Exercise, he now believes, plays no role in staying lean. Taubes doesn’t dispute that exercise is good for the body and soul; it’s just no way to lose weight. Yet he does look the part of a gym rat. His face is lean, his frame muscular. But if anything, Taubes says, avoiding sugar and carbs has allowed him to keep trim. His lunch order at a local burger joint: A one-pound slab of ground beef (no bun) heaped with bacon and smothered in guacamole — the only concession to the color green on the plate.
When I visited Taubes in October, a number of houses on his street had yard signs in support of Oakland’s Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax. These are positive signs for the success of The Case — a good thing, because its author could use a win. It’s been a tough year for Gary Taubes.
In December 2015, his partner Peter Attia abruptly left NuSI. (In a podcast a few months later, Attia disclosed that he’s no longer interested in talking about nutrition.) Taubes calls it an amicable divorce, but he also says the Arnolds had invested in his ideas and Attia’s competence, and after Attia left, things began to fall apart.
In January 2016, Kevin Hall, a National Institutes of Health scientist who was the lead investigator on the first NuSI study, recused himself from involvement with the foundation. He and Taubes had clashed on how to set up the pilot study — research that was supposed to address whether carbs were the primary driver of obesity — and when the results came out last summer, the two men couldn’t agree on the interpretation of the findings or the quality of the study. NuSI, which was founded to bring clarity to the wildly complicated field of nutrition, ended up mired in the basic processes of scientific research. By late summer, the Arnolds had cut their funding. Taubes considers the episode “a learning experience in how easy it is for experiments to go wrong. Peter and I were like the Hardy Boys of not-for-profit research.”
NuSI remains afloat, though barely. Taubes and two other employees continue on as volunteers, and he says the foundation still has unfinished studies awaiting results. He will also continue to solicit funding from wealthy investors, but the main hurdle he faces hasn’t been lowered: Spending his career attacking the leading scientists in a field has made working with them rather difficult.
But in light of recent sugar-tax initiatives in Berkeley and San Francisco — both of which passed — Taubes seems to be at the front in the charge against sugar. During our interview, his desk was littered with literature from those trying to tax sugary beverages in cities across the country, along with articles on lawsuits being brought against cereal makers. Taubes hopes The Case will provide more ammo for these fights.
Still, he notes with some exasperation that such efforts continue to speak the language of Big Sugar: If we all just drank less soda and ate less cereal, the rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease would drop. Wrong. Taubes points to the public health initiative of putting calorie counts on menus. “That doesn’t lead to any significant decrease in weight or consumption,” he says, “because they’re identifying the wrong problem.”
This is key to Taubes’ outlook on sugar. While you may eat desserts and drink sodas only occasionally and add just a sprinkle of sugar to your daily coffee — while maintaining a normal weight — he will tell you that you don’t know what even that amount of sugar does to your body. As he puts it in The Case: “How much is too much becomes a personal decision, just as we all decide what level of alcohol, caffeine, or cigarettes we’ll ingest.”
In an ideal world, Taubes says, his book would lead people to force the FDA to investigate whether sugar is safe, as the agency proclaimed in 1976. That, he admits, is improbable, given the influence Big Sugar wields. Not that it will stop him from waging the war. “Once you’ve said publicly that the conventional thinking is wrong on something so profound as obesity and diabetes, you either move on to something else or you decide the injustice is such that you have to keep doing this work,” he says. “And if you have to keep doing it, then you have to take the shit that comes with it.”
Just don’t sugarcoat it.
This story was first published in 2016.