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Dr. Robert Lustig: "Sugar Is Not a Food"

From episode 12: Sugar is Toxic and is NOT A Food, It Is an Additive to Foods on the Food Addiction: The Problem and The Solution podcast

Host, Susan Branscome:

You say food drives both illness and wellness, is the poison and the antidote, so what's happened to our food? Taking it from my great grandparents' farm - they had chickens, a garden, they ate real food. In the last 120 years throughout history, we've changed it, messed with it, so it's not food anymore.

Dr. Robert Lustig:

Exactly so the question is,

What's the definition of food?

To answer, go to the dictionary. Here's the answer "substrate that contributes either to growth or burning of an organism."

That's a great definition, it's a fine definition. I am 110 % behind that definition. Okay, growth or burning - exactly right.

So let's take burning first. It turns out fructose actually inhibits burning. Now people say fructose is four calories per gram. Yes, that's if you blow it up in a bomb calorimeter, if you add it to a mitochondria, and it actually inhibits burning. That's how we burn. You actually reduce the amount of burning because you inhibit mitochondrial function. Fructose does it three ways; it inhibits three separate enzymes involved in how mitochondria burn energy. I won't bore your audience with the details right now. That's a little too much science, a little bit too much inside baseball - but you know we have the data.

It's the same thing that happens to alcohol. It's in fact the same reason that aspirin causes Reye's syndrome. We don't give aspirin to children anymore because you know we don't want them to basically die with fatty liver disease.

The bottom line is sugar actually inhibits burning.

Let's take growth. My colleague at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, Dr. Efrat Monsonego Ornan, has shown in several papers that ultra processed food, and in particular sugar, actually inhibit growth;

  • inhibits skeletal growth,

  • it inhibits trabecular cortical bone growth,

  • inhibits long bone growth, and

  • it actually hijacks growth because it actually feeds cancer cells.

So, if an energy substrate does not contribute to growth and does not contribute to burning, is it a food?

Well, alcohol is an energy substrate with 7 calories per gram. Alcohol does not contribute to growth and it does not contribute to burning.

Is it a food?


Transfats are 9 calories per gram. They inhibit mitochondrial function, they inhibit growth.

Are they a food?


So just because something's an energy source doesn't make it a food.

Sugar is not a food.

Sugar is a food additive. When you think of it that way, then it turns the whole table on exactly what it is we're eating.

Ultra-processed food is high sugar food and the reason is because the sugars have been put in for palatability. Sugar has been put in to make you eat it because if you taste it - ultra-processed food without the sugar that's been added to it, you would never eat it because it would taste like garbage.

Sugar is added to 74% of the items in the American grocery store on purpose you know, for the food industry's purpose - not for your (health or well-being).

Bottom line: sugar is not food.

About Dr. Lustig

Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L.

is Professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He specializes in the field of neuroendocrinology, with an emphasis on the regulation of energy balance by the central nervous system. His research and clinical practice has focused on childhood obesity and diabetes. Dr. Lustig holds a Bachelor’s in Science from MIT, a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell University. Medical College, and a Master’s of Studies in Law from U.C. Hastings College of the Law. He is on the faculty of the INFACT School.

Dr. Lustig has fostered a global discussion of metabolic health and nutrition, exposing some of the leading myths that underlie the current pandemic of diet-related disease. He believes the food business, by pushing processed food loaded with sugar, has hacked our bodies and minds to pursue pleasure instead of happiness; fostering today’s epidemics of addiction and depression. Yet by focusing on real food, we can beat the odds against sugar, processed food, obesity, and disease.

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