Pure, White and Deadly

         I was haunted in the supermarket recently. In almost every aisle, a voice whispered in my ear, “Pure. White. And deadly.”

          I’d been re-reading Dr. John Yudkin’s classic book of that name. It's about a slow poison, with which it's perfectly legal to adulterate our food. It's probably in the next thing you put in your mouth, and it's responsible for a mountain of pain, sickness and death.
          I first read Pure, White and Deadly in the ‘80s. It’s probably why, at 57, I am healthy and only slightly overweight rather than obese and diabetic, as my parents were by their 40s. The book caused me to change my ways: to exercise more and alter the way I eat.
          But this invaluable work's been out of print for decades. Why? – Dr. Yudkin’s chapter on how Pure, White and Deadly's pushers campaigned against him provides a clue. They finance scientific conferences – but only if speakers say nothing critical of their product.  More than once they threatened withdrawal of their support from a conference unless Yudkin was dropped from the programme or submitted to censorship.

         The pushers told conference organisers that Dr. Yudkin (a respected Professor of Nutrition at Birmingham University, UK) was ‘not qualified’, ‘not even a professor’ but ‘only a teacher’ who held bizarre and unproven beliefs about their product.

          All untrue, as his book shows. But the Pushers know mud sticks.

         Thankfully, this important book is back in print, and Yudkin is given his due in a new book, Fat Chance’ by Robert Lustig. This presents modern research showing Yudkin to have been on target even where he himself admitted he had only suspicions rather than proof.

          Both books are aimed at the lay-reader – because both doctors desperately want to inform us. Both books are easily read, and supply an uncomfortable answer to the question: Why is obesity increasing, world-wide, at such a rate?
          Why are more people reaching weights of 20, 30, 40 stone? Why are diabetes, heart disease and cancer increasingly found in younger people, even children, with such frequency our economies are threatened?

          Lustig tells of one patient, a child who, because of a tumour, had her hypothalamus removed. This is a tiny but important part of the brain which regulates the release of many hormones, including those which regulate sleep-rhythms, body temperature, sexual behaviour and some emotional responses.

          As a result the child felt constantly ravenous, regardless of how much she ate. She became obese, and also utterly listless, disinclined to move and without interest in anything.
          Was this ‘her choice’? Her unregulated hormones made her sensation of hunger never-ending. Her sedentary listlessness was due – not to psychological depression or laziness – but to her brain’s physiological determination to save energy because it perceived her as starving.
          Her constant eating raised her blood-insulin level, thus ensuring that everything she ate was stored as fat – while her hormones continued to scream, 'Starving!' at her brain. None of this was remotely within control of her will-power.
          Lustig treated the child with the hormone leptin, in which she was deficient. Almost instantly, her constant food-craving stopped – what a huge relief and she lost weight. She became more interested in life generally, and did more, helping her mother about the house. Her mother was ecstatic. Probably not because of the dusting.
          What has this to do with the rest of us, with our functioning hypothalami?
          Remember, the body is not a passive receptacle for any old calorie. Lustig explains how our hormones act in complicated chain dances. We may label them, say, ‘sex hormones,’ but they are seldom responsible for one action alone. Rather, they act in concert with different bio-chemicals, in different degrees at different times, to produce a whole range of results. The over- or under- production of one hormone destabilises other body systems, resulting in ill health.
          You may have a functioning hypothalamus. Your body may produce leptin. But what if some imbalance prevents your body from recognising it? Or blocks its action?
          Leptin ‘turns off’ hunger, but can be blocked by insulin. If it is, you will crave food and over-eat. (One reason why a carbohydrate-rich diet can trigger over-eating.)
          Perhaps you won’t crave to the extent that Lustig’s patient did, but the craving will, nonetheless, be beyond your will-power which is why, Lustig says, 'will-power' always, ultimately, fails. It is no match for the body's hormonal insistence that it is hungry.
          It’s well known that the body becomes increasingly resistant to drugs, requiring higher doses to produce the same effect. The body also becomes resistant to its own productions, such as insulin.
          Everyone knows that insulin regulates the level of blood glucose, lowering it when it's too high. What’s less well known is that insulin works by converting the glucose to fat. It isn’t floating in your blood anymore – it’s neatly tidied away into your fat cells
          Refined carbohydrate and fructose is quickly digested, triggering high blood-glucose and high insulin release. The more insulin is in your blood, the more likely it is that leptin release will be blocked – causing you to continue feeling hungry.
          Meanwhile insulin is busily tidying up. It's much quicker to lower glucose levels by storing it as fat than to burn it for energy. It often tucks the fat away around the major organs. This is visceral fat: the most metabolically active and dangerous kind.
          Not all foods raise blood glucose levels quickly enough to send insulin into a tidy-up frenzy. Protein eggs, fish, meat, nuts doesn't trouble blood-glucose or insulin at all. Foods full of fibre whole fruit and vegetables release their glucose so slowly over such a long period that they don't cause any problem either. Even whole grains cause little problem.
          It's no coincidence that these are the foods the human race evolved to eat back in the Stone Age. The body knows how to deal with them.
          So all calories are not equal. It matters what foods your calories come from.
A calorie plus low insulin equals energy.
A calorie plus high insulin equals fat storage.
          When the body becomes resistant to its own insulin, it’s possible to have both high blood sugar and high levels of insulin. Neither is good news. High insulin levels are a marker for obesity. And Diabetes II.

So, what are the foods that cause soaring blood-glucose and insulin, and the disruption of hormone-pathways?


          The answer's simple: the foods we didn't evolve to eat. The food and drink that has that poisonous additive, Pure, White and Deadly. Refined sucrose; aka fructose, or high fructose corn syrup. More and more of the stuff has been added to our food, world-wide, in the past 30 years: corresponding exactly to the ‘obesity pandemic.’
          This is what Yudkin said in the '80s, when the Pure White and Deadly pushers tried so hard to discredit him.
          Lustig and a colleague undertook some research on figures for sugar-fructose consumption per capita, world-wide – allowing for age and income and even for the fact that not every kilo bought was necessarily consumed. They looked at figures not only for the West, but for countries which have only very recently begun to eat our sugar-heavy diet. When compared with figures for obesity, they expected to find a correlation. Instead, the figures matched so closely that they amounted, Lustig says, to ‘causation’.

          As with Big Tobacco, it’s hard to find something good to say about Big Sugar. It was started by people who felt entitled to kidnap other human beings, and force them to spend their lives working to enrich their captors.

          The slaves were freed, but today the industry - and the Food Industry generally - manufactures a damaging, addictive, unhealthy product, while trying to silence criticism and using every trick of advertising and deceptive labeling to dodge the truth about what they sell, and keep us buying more. Like Big Tobacco, Big Sugar tries to hook ‘em young, with cute characters fronting cereals that are 50% sugar. (And, as Lustig points out, Big Tobacco and Big Sugar are often the same companies.)
          I suppose you can say these industries are consistent.
          They would love you to believe their product is ‘natural’. It’s made from stuff that grows in fields, so it's got to be natural, right?

        Most European sugar is produced from beet, and that isn't especially tempting in its natural state. Yudkin’s account of what the sugar industry does to its raw material is another jaw-dropping read. I'd forgotten just how processed this ‘natural’ food is. First it’s mashed and pulped to remove all fibre, keeping only the juice. Already concentrated and calorific, the juice is processed still further, and bleached, until the pure white crystals contain no trace of any nutrient whatsoever.

          I’ll repeat that. No nutrient whatsoever. No minerals, no vitamins, no protein, no fat. You might as well eat cardboard -- except, of course, that cardboard isn't addictively sweet and stimulating to the brain's reward centre.
          Pure White and Deadly contains nothing except concentrated carbohydrate in its most empty, refined and quickly absorbed form. It dehydrates and irritates the tissues and is implicated in Crohn's and IBS. It punches blood-glucose high, triggering over-production of insulin – and what does insulin do, besides lowering blood-glucose? – It stores the excess as fat.
          Constant repetition of this cycle plays Old Nick with the body’s hormonal system.

          Definitions of 'poison' from the OED: 'Substance that when introduced to a living organism destroys life or injures health (emphasis mine)…substance interfering with normal progression of chain reaction, catalytic reaction…'
          Sugar is not a food. It is an unfood. An anti-food. A poison. And it’s addictive. It’s an addictive, poisonous, anti-food.
          You cannot win with the stuff. Say that an adult woman needs 2,500 calories a day to survive and maintain her weight. Some of those calories need to be protein, some fat, and some unrefined carbohydrate, from vegetables and fruit or wholegrains. These should supply everything her body needs.
          If she eats Pure White and Deadly as well, she must either replace some of the food above, to maintain the level of 2,500 calories; or eat the PW&D in addition to it.
          If the PW&D is in addition to her healthy diet, then she not only plays havoc with her hormonal system, but eats more than she needs. Her weight gain will be exacerbated by insulin's tidying up.
          If she maintains her calorie level by replacing some of her food with sugar, then she will not only play havoc with her hormonal system, but will be malnourished – which doesn’t necessarily mean thin. It does mean functioning at below full health. Her body, in struggling to deal with a substance it didn't evolve for, will promote storage of visceral fat, even if she doesn’t appear overweight. (She will be secretly fat: there's paranoia for you.)
          It’s not guaranteed that she will become diabetic. As with cigarettes and lung-cancer, much depends on individual genetics and luck. But diabetes is certainly in the cards, especially if it's already in your family. If we’re going to take this gamble, shouldn’t we be made, all of us, fully aware of the risk?
          Tobacco has its shocking warnings on every packet. Shouldn’t every can of fizzy drink, every packet of  biscuits, cakes, ready meals – and all the other foods loaded with PW&D – carry a large picture and history of an obese person? Take just one member of my family, for instance, a morbidly obese diabetic. She went blind. One foot was amputated because damaged blood-vessels turned it gangrenous. She suffered years of congestive heart-failure, had a stroke, and lingered for a month or so before finally dying. All these ills were complications of diabetes.
          Us chubby men and women in the street are told that the obesity epidemic is our fault because we 'choose' to ‘eat too much and do too little.’ While parroting this slogan, the Food Industry does all it can to persuade us to buy food and drink crammed with sugar and fructose. It’s hard to avoid, even when you’re fully aware and check labels obsessively.
          Feed your children healthily, and they're made to feel deprived. Why can't they have chocolate and biscuits in their lunch-box, with a can of sweet, fizzy drink to wash it down? Look, that advert says that sweet sticky 'fruit-bar' is healthy, and those chocolates are 'light'. And they don't like porridge, they don't want porridge. Why can't they have the chocolate cereal advertised by the cute funny animals, which is crammed full of sugar to hide the natural bitterness of chocolate?
          Like tobacco, Pure White and Deadly is a substance that is only legal because it was first marketed hundreds of years ago. Like tobacco, it would never be passed for legal consumption today, in the light of modern medical knowledge.
          The Pure White and Deadly industry’s constant claim is that we know what we’re doing when we buy food containing their poison; that we make a free choice. And they care so very much about our freedom.
          Okay – let’s make their claim true. Please, everyone, read these books. Inform yourselves – and then make informed, truly free choices about what you buy and eat.
          Here’s Lustig’s conclusion: Sugar is addictive and toxic.
          And Yudkin's: Sugar is Pure. White. And Deadly.
         Find Yudkin's Pure White and Deadly as a Kindle book here. (It's also available as a paperback.)

         Find Lustig's Fat Chance on Kindle here. (Also in paperback.)