There’s been lots of coverage in the UK press and elsewhere about BM or Behavioural Modification initiatives via taxation. Politicians and their advisers want extra taxes on Alcoholic beverages (Minimum pricing and all that garbage), they talk about ‘fat taxes’ to solve the ‘obesity crisis’ and forcing food companies to cut back on the salt content of their products. Now my biochemistry is only slightly better than basic, but I have had specialist training in anatomy and physiology. I know where most of the important bits of the human body are, and have a slightly better than average idea of how they work, and what they need to function. I’m also a keen amateur cook who can prepare all sorts of things from their raw natural state to a delicious repast, and isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. Got a raw haunch of Moose? Where’s my boning knife?
To cut to the chase, I was visiting Leg Irons a while ago and picked up on his little snippet about large doses of fructose, long term, being associated with an elevated incidence of Cirrhosis via Hepatotoxicity. Really? Thought I, so did a little searching. First up was this paper on Hyperuricemia induced by fructose. Oookay. In the first few google searches using the keywords ‘Cirrhosis’ and ‘Fructose’, a number of liver damage related issues flag up with increased sugar content in the modern human diet.
The human liver is, in its simplest form a biochemical filter, but actually does a lot more than that. To quote the Wikipedia page:
“This organ plays a major role in metabolism and has a number of functions in the body, including glycogen storage, decomposition of red blood cells, plasma protein synthesis, hormone production, and detoxification.”
So in the simplest terms, it’s an essential organ in the human body. When it fails, you fail. As any fule kno, Liver failure without a transplant is a one way ticket to the mortuary. One of the ways to make it fail, or at the very least damage Liver function, is to bombard it with long term high doses of sugars. Which is what the modern urban diet does. Never mind the booze.
Don’t believe me? Well next time you’re nosing through the kitchen cupboards or supermarket shelves for a treat, read the labels and simply make a note of how often the words ending in – ‘ose’ appear. Also note how high the starch content is; starches readily break down in the human digestive system into their component sugars. Corn Starch, wheat starch, they’re all complex sugars, it’s one of the reasons why bread tastes sweeter after chewing for a minute or so. Salivary Amylase in the mouth begins the process of breaking down starches into their component sugars (This used to be Junior High level science). Further down the Gastrointestinal tract, high doses of sugars also have the often ignored property of increasing the porosity of the small intestine. It’s why doughnuts are so waistline thickening. The high sugar / starch levels make it possible for the long chain lipids (fats) in the doughnut to be more readily absorbed. Fats and other long chain molecules on their own are not so readily absorbed by the digestive tract, but add extra sugar and, bingo!
Of course this is a highly simplified version of what happens, but it is what happens. The human gut is evolved for a mixed ‘opportunist’ type diet of fruit, nuts, fish and meat. A diet consistently high in sugars and starches isn’t what your digestive system is built to cope with, long term. In the short term, the human digestive system is remarkably robust, and can cheerfully cope with all manner of crap, which is why a Super size big mac or suchlike once or twice a month won’t hurt you, but as your regular diet – not such a brilliant idea (See Morgan Spurlocks experiences in ‘Super size Me‘), but not for the reasons you might think. Why? Well to put it simply, it’s not the actual burger that really does the damage, it’s all the stuff that goes with it, the buns, sauces and fries. The starches and sugars, not so much the proteins, fats and salt are the culprits.
There’s also the point that sugar consumption alone has skyrocketed since the 1980’s. Add in the extra starches, and that’s a whole heap extra. Some Doctors are ringing the alarm bells (Listen to this podcast), whilst many appear to ignore the issue.
Contrary to popular belief, a diet high in lipids (fats) proteins and salts is not on its own, harmful. That’s the major reason why low carbohydrate (Low starch and sugar) slimming diets work so well; because compared to Wheat, cornstarch and sugar, they are relatively low in convertible calorific value. A high starch / sugar diet (Lots of bread, cookies, sweets, ice cream, desserts, pasta, starchy veg, pies, pasties, pizzas, sorry girls – and chocolate) will therefore hammer your liver far worse than bacon and eggs every morning and a rib-eye steak for supper followed by a bottle of half decent Malbec with a large single malt to round it all off. Don’t take my word, google this stuff for yourself, especially the available scholarly papers.
That’s even without the long suspected behavioural problems and suchlike associated with high sugar intakes (Real life example: Youngest Stepdaughter used to go completely AWOL when she hit the sweetie jar or full strength fizzy drinks), and the associated increased incidence of diabetes. To be fair, the studies on this so far are still contentious, and more research on the behavioural aspects is obviously required for proper falsification. Yet politicians seem obsessed with the idea that all what ails us is down to the booze, fats and salt, and that taxing same is the answer. Well I think they couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.
The ‘tax it to death’ approach was most rigorously applied via the UK’s fuel price escalator, but last time I drove on UK roads back in 2011, they seemed more crowded than ever. All the extra tax does is act as a drag on the economy. The extra tax also seems to simply disappear into some fiscal black hole rather than be spent wisely on front line services. The additional funds seemed to go on bureaucratic empire building rather than the more essential blue collar end of things. The overall increase in ‘white collar’ employment is probably a factor. As might be the relative increase in stress levels (Too much fight or flight and too little physical activity to burn off the flood of hormones).
There is neither hope nor evidence that extra taxes on foodstuffs will do anything more that depress economic activity even further, and no hope or evidence whatsoever that the current crop of European politicians won’t waste the extra revenue. Although if the laws of economics hold true, actual overall tax revenues will decrease, with no real effect on disease rates or obesity, as people will be forced to subsist on poorer quality high sugar food because they cannot afford better.
Those who maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle are usually comparatively well off. They physically consume less high fructose corn syrup drenched foodstuffs. The clinically obese appear to come from less economically successful households, and their consumption of starch laden take-outs is far greater.
From a purely observational point of view I’m inclined to think that the booze, fat and salt are not the issue here. The increase in sugar and high fructose corn syrup consumption most certainly is. I’m also inclined to observe that comparative inactivity is also part of the problem, but you can’t tax that. The tertiary observation is that the current crop of politicians are more interested with appearance rather than substance, which is why the current mess will continue. Bombarded by lobbyists for particular industries they fiddle, compromise, spin and point score, minimum price this, ban that, but as always the law of unintended consequences will be their ever present shadow because most politicians don’t understand what they’re doing. Perhaps if they did less things might improve?