Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sugar is Toxic

The title of this blog says essentially what Dr. Robert Lustig (a pediatric endocrinologist at University of California at San Francisco who specializes in childhood obesity) conveys in Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, (Hudson Street Press: 2013). To anyone in the least familiar with foods and nutrition, that sugar is a poison should come as no surprise, but the real value of Lustig’s book lies in the biochemical science he cites. Fat Chance contains all the latest scientific information you need (and, one would think, our regulating agencies, FDA and USDA would need as well) to convince you that America’s food industry and the resultant food consumption habits in this most “advanced” of countries are idiotic, sick, and sickening to an entire population and now, because of globalization, the world.
            To begin with, Lustig cites the statistics on obesity in America, and specifically, how the last 30 years have been a disaster in this regard. In 2001, for example, Newsweek reported that 6 million American children were seriously overweight. Those numbers tripled in a decade, and America now boasts more than 20 million obese children, including even an epidemic of obese 6-month olds! Over 40% of American deaths now list diabetes as the cause, up from only 13% two decades ago. And the epidemic has become a worldwide pandemic: the World Health Organization (WHO) says the percent of obese humans globally has “doubled in the past 28 years,” and the UN General Assembly in 2011 asserted that “non-communicative diseases (diabetes, cancer, and heart disease) are now a greater threat to world health than infectious diseases” (such as malaria, etc.). One would think these statistics would be enough to impel government agencies to rush to control the causes of obesity and its traveling companion, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of five diseases: obesity, diabetes, lipid problems, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease). But one would be wrong. Since the mega-corporations that produce foods worldwide depend on persuading consumers to eat their junk (processed foods that cause obesity), their power has crippled national and international organizations and prevented them from warning the public of the slow death lurking in the consumption of these products. Just one example: in 2002, the WHO and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) jointly produced a report (TRS 916) titled “Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.” It called for “limiting added sugar to less than 10% of total calories in the diet.” The food industry went ballistic, pushed its lobbying into overdrive, and eventually got U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, to threaten “to withhold the $406 million annual United States contribution to WHO” unless TRS 916 was repealed. Not only was TRS 916 scuttled, but so was, ever since, even a hint of a Daily Recommended Intake for sugar. Instead, the official line of all politicians and food industry groups is that obesity is a question of personal responsibility: if you eat too much, you get fat. Not our problem. Period.  
            What Robert Lustig shows us is that this is simply a ploy to take the spotlight off the real threat: the ubiquity of processed foods, laced with sugar to cover up the horrors done to the whitened calories that have come to replace REAL FOOD. The real key to “the obesity pandemic,” in other words, is  “our altered biochemistry,” which is due to loading us up with sugar and salt and additives that literally change how our bodies respond to hunger. One key is insulin. “We’re all hyperinsulimic,” says Lustig, with most humans today releasing double the insulin that we did a mere 30 years ago. And what does insulin do? It’s the energy storage hormone: eating a carbohydrate causes blood glucose to rise, and this signals the pancreas to release insulin to deal with this rise in glucose;
Insulin then tops off the liver’s energy reserve by making liver starch (called glycogen), and shunts any amino acids from the blood into muscle cells. Excess fatty acids, or blood lipids, are cleared into fat cells for storage for a “rainy day,” where they get turned into greasy triglycerides (such as the fat surrounding your steak). p. 35.
In brief, insulin makes fat, the more insulin the more fat. Another hormone, only discovered in 1994, comes into play as well. It’s called leptin and its job is to “signal the hypothalamus that you’ve got enough energy stored up in your fat,” i.e. that you’re full. But sometimes the VMH (ventromedial hypothalamus in the brain) can’t see or is resistant to the leptin signal. The brain then interprets this as “starvation” and directs the body to both increase energy stores (eat more), and conserve energy by reducing activity. Simultaneously, more insulin and more leptin is called for as well. Though few people are leptin deficient (from a mutation), billions, according to Lustig, exhibit leptin resistance. They have plenty of leptin, but “their hypothalami can’t see their leptin, so their brains think they’re starving.” The command is then to eat more (gluttony) and conserve energy (sloth). This is the key to the obesity epidemic, says Lustig. And studies suggest that it is the increased insulin production (hyperinsulemia), acting in the brain, that is blocking normal leptin signaling.
            In sum, insulin (which most humans now produce twice as much of) produces a double whammy: in the body it causes increased energy storage in fat cells; in the brain it causes leptin resistance and the feeling of starvation. It thus drives gluttony and sloth, weight gain, and obesity worldwide. Most important, none of this is under the individual’s control. That is to say, since the biochemical process is primary and the behaviors result from the biochemistry, then the clear conclusion is: “Obesity is a biochemical alteration in the brain promoting leptin resistance with resultant weight gain.” This means that obesity is not a question of personal responsibility as corporations and the government agencies under their control would have us believe. It is a question of what has happened to human biochemistry as a result of the environmental changes caused by the types of foods we have all been inundated with in the last half century. And the correlation with “fast foods” and “processed foods” is almost perfect. For example, Lustig points out that in the U.S. in the 1950s, only 4% of the foods consumed outside the home came from fast foods (I can testify to this personally; all foods I ate growing up were cooked from scratch). In 1997, the percentage was 34%. Put another way, every day “30% of U.S. adults eat at a fast food outlet,” with McDonald’s feeding 46 million of them every day. The highly refined carbohydrates (including sugar) from such fast and/or highly processed (white bread, white rice, sodas, soy products, instant meals) foods not only cause obesity, but will also eventually make the liver sick by building up fat in the liver and other organs. This is the kind of fat, called visceral fat, that kills you.
            Sugar is a chief culprit in all of this, and much of the damage has been done in the last 30 or 40 years. That’s because in the 1970s, Ancel Keys convinced American agencies like USDA and FDA that dietary fat from red meat was responsible for our health problems, mainly heart disease. In response, food manufacturers took the fat out of most foods, but without the fat, the food tasted like cardboard. To disguise this disastrous taste, processed food manufacturers upped the carbohydrate content, especially sugar. The result is our current sugar and carbohydrate glut: compared to 100 years ago, American consumption of sugar has increased 5-fold, and doubled in the last 30 years. Of that sugar consumption, 33% comes from beverages like Coke and even orange juice (containing 1.8 grams of fructose per ounce compared to only 1.7 grams for soda). Lustig sums it up thus: “The inescapable reality is that 20-25% of all the calories we consume, a total of 22 tsp/day, comes from some variation of sugar. Some adolescents consume 40% of calories as sugar.” And how much of our food contains sugar? Nearly all of it. Barry Popkin of No. Carolina University surveyed 600,000 food items for sale in the United States, and found that “80% are laced with added sugar” (234). Moreover, fully 90% of food sold in the U.S. comes from 10 food conglomerates including Coca Cola, Con Agra, Dole, General Mills, Pepsico, Kraft and Nestle—purveyors all of fast or ‘convenience’ food. And what is the definition of fast food? “It’s fiberless food,” because fiber can’t be frozen. Freezing turns fiber to mush, so it can’t be stored forever, shipped globally, and cooked quickly. So food processors remove the fiber— precisely that which is the key to a healthy gut, and thereby to a healthy human. Foods with fiber—like whole grains, or fruits and vegetables in their whole form—not only slow digestion and increase absorption of the vital nutrients in food, but also slow “the rate of flux from the intestine crossing into the bloodstream” and into the liver. The liver then gets the time to fully metabolize what’s coming into it. But when the liver is hit quickly with heavy loads of fiberless starch or sugar, the glucose level peaks higher and faster, and that translates to a higher insulin peak demand. And more insulin means more fat, more obesity, and more of the diseases associated with it.
            There is more in this vital book, complete with charts and tables that are revelatory. The point, though, is what my title suggests: sugar is slowly killing us. And its increased use is the product of the policies of government agencies that have abdicated their historic role of protecting the consumer, and shifted to the role of protecting the profits of major corporations. Sugar, for example, got the highly-sought-after GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status from the FDA in 1958, based on no science whatever. The same status was bestowed on High Fructose Corn Syrup in 1983. This means, quite simply, that there is no limit on its use in any food. An FDA report commissioned in 1986 put the dogma in writing:
“fructose is a valuable, traditional source of food energy, and there is no basis for recommending increases or decreases in its use in the general food supply or in special dietary use products” (242).
End of story. The fact that when this report was written, average U.S. sugar consumption was 40 pounds per person per year, and now is 130 pounds/person/year, seems to make no difference. The FDA has reaffirmed its 1986 stance twice, most recently in 2004. The same holds true in Europe. Then in 2000, in response to lawsuits brought against McDonald’s for causing obesity and heart disease (which was true), our lobby-subservient Congress came up with the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (aka the “Cheeseburger Bill”). Following the old pattern, Congress was saying—and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin said specifically—don’t blame fast foods or food companies. Blame yourself:
This bill says ‘Don’t run off and file a lawsuit if you are fat.’ It says, ‘Look in the mirror because you’re the one to blame…If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of super-sized McDonald’s products is unhealthy and could result in weight gain, it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses’” (246).
That the bill only passed the House and is not yet law doesn’t change the real message: as a consumer, you’re on your own. The fact that we (the food industry) spend billions to persuade you to eat crap, and more billions making that crap deadly to your health, and more billions lobbying your elected representatives to abdicate their responsibility to protect your health, has no bearing on the case.
            If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: tobacco companies for years used exactly the same strategy to protect themselves from any responsibility for the illness and death of smokers. We can only hope that in time, as in the tobacco case, enough people will wake up to the dangers in their fake food to force the people’s representatives to act in their behalf. Until then, we can only watch as Americans get sicker, and the skyrocketing health bills for this pandemic of obesity and metabolic syndrome continue to ravage the world—mainly, unfortunately, in poorer communities where the choices are so reduced that people would rather drink sugar-loaded beverages than the water that in many places cannot be trusted. It’s a deadly trap whose pernicious effects differ from most of ours only in degree.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, June 15, 2014

1776: What Revolution?

We’ve all absorbed the comforting story about our Founding Fathers (cozy word, “fathers,” implying that, like good dads, they had our democratic interests at heart), to wit, that in response to the outrageous cruelty of the British and mad King George in imposing unfair taxes on colonial commerce, the original Tea Partiers responded with protests, revolts, a Declaration of their Independence, and finally a Revolutionary War. And under the paternal guidance of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others, the colonial cry of “give me liberty or give me death” gave the world the most successful example of rebellion against tyranny ever witnessed. The United States of America thenceforth stood as a shining example of self-government, of “liberty and justice for all”—an example everywhere imitated and envied, an example that has made America the global leader in not just war and peace and freedom but free-market consumerism as well. 
            Now, however, comes a thesis from Professor Gerald Horne that turns this story on its head. What Horne purports to demonstrate in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (NYU Press: 2014) is that our so-called “revolution” did not overturn a cruel tyranny at all, but rather was a successful attempt to thwart, to counter an anticipated real revolution by America’s slaves. Horne supports his argument with endless accounts of revolts by Negroes (the word came to us from the Spanish word for ‘blacks’) throughout both the mainland colonies and the British sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Our history, of course, either downplays or outright ignores this story, leaving many of us wondering why the slaves didn’t revolt. What Horne demonstrates is that they indeed did revolt on countless occasions in Manhattan, in Rhode Island, in South Carolina, in Virginia and especially in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and other British-held sugar slavelands. And it was these revolts, coupled with the increasing indications that Great Britain was moving inexorably towards the abolition of slavery in its colonies, that, according to Horne, compelled the thirteen colonies to take up arms against the mother country.
            This is a stunning re-reading of history, and it deserves to be accurately and engagingly presented. Sadly, Horne’s presentation lacks the style and cogency to turn his book into a best-seller. He broaches all the important events, it seems, but too often his rhetorical skills fail him, and we are left uncertain not only about whether what he asserts is correct, but whether it deserves the importance he ascribes to it. Partly this is due to our mass-mediated numbness regarding death: when we read that a slave revolt ended with only a half dozen settlers killed or a dozen slaves hanged, we hardly respond. We see far more than that in an average shooting rampage by one of our crazed citizens. But partly it is due to the fact that Horne seems to take our knowledge of most of these events for granted, as if we are all historians intimately familiar with Jamaican hill warfare or the outcome of the Somerset case. We aren’t and it is the job of the historian to make sure we are clear about basic facts and crucial events. It is also his job to organize his material for maximum impact, and Horne falls short in that arena as well. The result is that this reader, for one, is not entirely convinced that a slave revolution on the mainland was imminent, nor that it was the chief motivating force for the American Revolution. And given that such a conclusion would be so transformative, that is a pity.
            Still, Horne gives us enough to make us think, enough to make us condemn all those historians in the past who have created the myths we have all been fed, and who have conspired to obscure and hide and falsify the truth: that slavery was pervasive throughout the original thirteen colonies, and that not just the southern colonies but every last one of them was involved in the nastiest business ever concocted on this planet. George Washington was a major slaveholder; Thomas Jefferson, as we’ve learned in detail in recent years, was another major slaveholder, as was James Madison, and most surprisingly, John Hancock—one of Boston’s largest slave owners. And John Adams? He made his fortune as a lawyer for slaveholders in cases against the enslaved. In this light, the fact that the revered Constitution of the United States somehow contains that puzzling and ghastly proviso that slaves shall be counted as 3/5 of a human—able to be counted for representation, but not when it came to the rights so loudly proclaimed—suddenly makes more sense.
            What Horne also does is lay out the main inciting factors leading to the decision to declare independence. There are, of course, centuries of little events that built to the big ones, but the really incendiary actions can be briefly touched on. First was the transfer of the slave trade, and slaves and planters, from the Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Barbados to the mainland colonies like South Carolina and Virginia and Rhode Island (a principal hemispheric slave market). The reason lay in the increasing recognition that the huge ratio of slaves to “white” settlers was very dangerous to island settlers (Jamaica in 1714 had 80,000 Negroes and 2,000 whites). Many Jamaican slaves, known as Maroons, had revolted, slain their masters, and fled to the mountains from which they maintained irregular warfare, proving, eventually, that islands were simply too small and too confined to contain the wrath of enslaved peoples. Second was the increase in the rising merchant class on the mainland, especially after 1688 when, with the change in Britain’s monarchy, the Royal African Company lost its dominance of the African trade to the “free” merchant class. Horne relates this not just to the slave trade but to capitalism itself:

Arguably, it was then that the groundwork was laid for the takeoff of capitalism—a trend in which slavery and the slave trade played an indispensable role. The growing influence of merchants in the aftermath of 1688 turbocharged the African Slave Trade, which allowed for spectacular profits growing from investments in the Americas and the forging of a wealthy class there which chafed under London’s rule….This business benefited handsomely some entrepreneurs in New England—notably in Massachusetts and Rhode Island—where the trade flourished. This region contained the “greatest slave-trading communities in America,” according to Lorenzo J. Greene: “the profits from the slave trade were almost incredible….gross profits [were] sometimes as high as sixteen hundred percent,” as “the slave trade easily became the most lucrative commerce of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (5).

Then there were the continuing revolts by slaves in every colony. Horne touches on the most significant of these in his chapter called “Revolt,” but again, the problem is that we do not get a narrative that convinces us of their importance. We learn that in 1712, there was a major slave revolt in lower Manhattan, with nine settlers murdered and 70 slaves arrested, but this hardly seems the colony-periling event Horne alleges. Horne does succeed, though, in horrifying us with the punishments and responses to this revolt: in New York, “some were burnt, others were hanged and broke on ye wheele.” He also convinces us of the desperation of the colonists to convince European “whites” to migrate to America to raise their numbers relative to rising numbers of slaves. And he also makes clear the terror that seems to have gripped slaveholders in Carolina, where in the same year, 1712, a bill was introduced asking for more severe measures to restrain the “murders, rapines, and inhumanity to which they [the slaves] are naturally prone.” The measure: “every owner or overseer must have his Negro house searched every 114 days for runaway slaves and mischievous weapons.” A similar response occurred in Virginia in 1733, when settlers, alarmed at increasing “insurrections” among Africans, also revised their “insufficient punishments.” One new punishment Horne cites was that recalcitrant slaves had “one ear nailed to the pillory and there to stand for the space of one hour and then the said ear to be cut off; and thereafter the other ear nailed in like manner and cut off”—all this for providing false testimony (86). Finally, Horne tells us, settlers devised another strategy: that every man should “bring his arms to church on Sundays and Holydays lest they should be seized by the Slaves in their absence” (70). Now we perhaps better understand the passion Americans display for their firearms, for when an entire population knows that it is brutalizing another population and therefore fears uprisings by the oppressed, guns in the hands of the brutalizers must seem as innocently logical as aspirin.  
            Finally, Horne provides us with the more immediate causes of the counter-revolution. First was the Stono uprising in 1739 in South Carolina. Here, 29 settlers were slaughtered by Africans, many of them from Angola (leading to the suspicion that since they spoke Portuguese, these slaves must have been in league with the hated Spanish and their nearby stronghold in St. Augustine, Florida.) The suspicion of Spain was not altogether imagined either, because three years later, a Spanish force—including the ultimate horror, hundreds of armed Africans led by African officers—did invade Georgia and South Carolina hoping to eject the English. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Spanish were defeated there, and, within another fifteen to twenty years, ousted from Florida altogether. This, plus the English defeat of the French in the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War, 1756-63) might have relieved the American settlers because it got rid of safe havens for escaped slaves. But according to Horne, “when pressure was eased on mainland settlers, they seized the opportunity to revolt against the Crown with ample aid from the Catholic powers [i.e. Spain and France].” Then came the two incidents in 1772. One was the Gaspee riot, wherein British officers in Newport, Rhode Island boarded a slave ship, the Gaspee, in response to which 500 settlers rioted, burning a British ship. The case was heard in London, and even worse than the British interference with “free trade” was the fact that “the chief witness against the rioters was a Negro,” Aaron Briggs. Briggs testified that he had seen a slave trader named John Brown (after whom Brown University, to its everlasting shame, was named) “fire a musket killing the captain.” To the settlers, this left no doubt that England, in allowing a Negro to testify against whites, was moving towards the abolition of slavery. The same signal was intensified only days later when James Somerset, a slave owned by Charles Steuart of Norfolk, VA, became the central figure in an abolition case. In December of 1771, abolitionists found Somerset shackled in a ship on the Thames, about to be shipped to Jamaica and sold. The abolitionists drew up a habeas corpus petition demanding that his body be produced in court. In June of 1772, British Judge Mansfield rendered his decision that Somerset must be released. His argument (unaccountably not provided by Horne) said:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged. (Wikipedia.)

This decision incensed the colonists in America, who had the temerity to argue that Great Britain was actually treating them like slaves. Countless pamphlets of the time repeated this same argument—ironic in light of the actual slavery they themselves were perpetrating—that the only recourse of colonists being oppressed like slaves was rebellion. One other major element may be said to have lit the fire of revolution: the threat, in November 1775, by Virginia governor Lord Dunmore, to arm Africans in order to suppress the gathering revolt against the British Crown. This, according to Horne, was the last straw, turning even moderates into radicals. As Horne puts it in summary, this decision

solidified opposition to London, ushered into existence a new republic, and ossified for decades to come a caste-like status for Africans, seen widely among settlers as thinly disguised revolutionaries eager to collaborate with foes of all sort to subvert the status quo. Understandably, the only fitting rebuke for revolutionaries bent on abolishing private property—albeit in themselves—was a steely counter-revolution (211).

That is to say, in the eyes of American settlers, African slaves, with London as their abolitionist ally, were planning a revolution against their enslavement and therefore against private property. The revolutionary response of the thirteen colonies was thus a counter-revolution against the slaves and their allies in London who were stirring a dreaded “servile revolt.” What added even more fuel to this fire was another event in 1775, when a debate occurred in Parliament about whether “all slaves in American should have the trial by jury” as a first measure to “extirpate slavery from the face of the earth” and “establish the fundamental rights of liberty to all mankind” (231). This sounds like something our revered Founding Fathers would have said or supported themselves, but instead it enraged them to the point of declaring independence and war on those who had said it.
            The coda to all this comes from one of the great writers of the English language, Samuel Johnson, of dictionary fame. Horne quotes Johnson, a proud abolitionist, as asking, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
            That, in my opinion, is the question that should have been asked more and more urgently, and long before this: How is it that the alleged humanitarians who framed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights could rant and rave endlessly about British tyranny and their emotional yearning for liberty when in fact they were sanctifying a system worse than any tyranny and enforced by the most brutal regime of oppression ever devised—one whose effects have hardly abated to this day?  How in the world could they have borne so painful a contradiction? It truly is something to ponder.   

Lawrence DiStasi