From science to sensational headline: A critical examination of the "sugar as toxic" narrative
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionFood, Culture, and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research. 2021, . 10.1080/15528014.2021.1899527
Over the past few decades, some scholars have labeled sugar “toxic” and portrayed it as the primary cause of diet-related health conditions. In this paper, this sugar as toxic rhetoric – which is widely echoed in the public sphere – is critically examined in terms of its physiological basis and wider social consequences. We argue that the claims of the narrative are oversimplified and partly based on a particular interpretation of scientific studies. By exaggerating the hazards of sugar consumption often using emotive language, the claims generate public concern about it being a threat to their health, which, in the process, contributes to a sense of moral panic. The resultant anxieties give emphasis to feelings of individual responsibility for regulating sugar consumption, which can further generate feelings of guilt and shame especially among those with limited agency for altering their consumption. We contend that the science on which the sugar as toxic narrative builds tends to be ideologically driven in a way that deflects attention away from a more serious debate about food environments. We conclude that the challenges are considerable for those whose role it is to communicate public health messages, especially if the issue is complex and the science incomplete.