Calories and Climate.

There are many seductive similarities between the problem of too many calories causing obesity, and too much fossil fuel causing global warming.
There are fundimental differences as well. I am well aware that some of the following comparisons stretch the metaphorical Youngs modulus well beyond the linear range.

But I want in this post to examine the parallels to be made between the consumption of sugar at the individual level and the consumption of fossil fuels at the global level of human activity.

The history of sugar, in this context the refined forms extracted from the natural source, goes back several thousand years, but only as a rare and difficult product to obtain. Most people had only fruit and honey as sources of sugar. Historically fossil fuels were a rare commodity. Most people obtained energy from wood, dung or peat. Coal, collected or mined was a scarce and local resource.

About the same time coal was beginning to be mined and used much more extensively as an energy source, the production of sugar also expanded, with sugar cane plantations and newly improved extraction methods being adopted in western europe to meet a growing demand. The use of fossil fuels to power our growing industrial base runs in tandem with the vast increase in the production and consumption of refined sugars in the human diet providing the energy for our daily activities.

For fossil fuels, the extraction of oil and the expansion of its use in engines and turbines drove the explosive growth in its use at the turn of the last century and again in the 1950s after WW2. Sugar followed a similar pattern. Better refining methods and sugar beet as a source expanded production, then in the 1950s the industrial conversion of corn to corn syrup,a fifty-fifty mix of glucose and fructose sugars again pushed the production and consumption of refined sugars up significantly.

The popularity of refined sugar is not hard to understand. It tastes nice. Humans are biologically wired to detect and enjoy sugar because it is an indicator of easy calories. But its attraction for the industrial business of food production that has grown up to meet the needs of very large populations living in high density urban environments is even greater. Here is a cheap product, delivering more energy per unit price to the consumer than any other food. And it is stable, concentrated and easy to incorporate into a variety of products.
Fossil fuels are also a cheap, easy to use form of energy that people are keen to consume. Given the need for a certain amount of energy just to carry out the average daily life in a modern western society, sugar and fossil fuels are a necessity. Nothing competes on price of convenience.

However the similarities continue.

Chemically the two products are similar, the five and six carbon rings of Fructose and Glucose are matched by the five and six carbon rings of toluene and benzene as the basic components of sugars and fuel. The difference is given in the name, hydrocarbons have hydrogen linked to the carbon rings, carbohydrates have the hydrate, -OH group linked to the carbon rings. Both are burnt with oxygen to give water, CO2 and energy. Because sugars already have some of the hydrogen linked to oxygen there is less energy available. About 4 calories per gram for sugars, around 10 calories per gram for gasoline.

The problem with the cheap fossil fuels we use is that the extra CO2 produced accumulates and alters the insulating properties of the atmosphere. The subsequent rise in temperature, global warming, may be the least of the problems that causes; as stable weather systems and climates are disrupted. Agricultural systems that have persisted for centuries can become unproductive with small shifts in climate. Drought can eradicate a productive region even more effectively than a temperature change.

The problem with cheap sugars in our diet is that it adds to the intake of energy we need. If everything was balanced and the extra calories in refined sugars were offset by a reduction in calories from natural sources, then the only thing to worry about would be the paucity of trace nutrients that would result from cutting back on fats and proteins in the diet.
Unfortunately the cheap sugar energy has become an additional energy source that is added onto our general requirements which promotes the body to convert the extra energy to body mass. The increase in weight is also accompanied by shifts in the metabolism, type 2 diabetes is now endemic as much from the metabolic response to refined sugar as from the weight gain.

There are some structural, deep similarities between the damage from sugar consumption and fossil fuel use. But I would accept that the specifics and details of the processes involved are quite different.

However the parallel return when the industry response to the findings about the potential harm of their product is considered. It was in the late 70s that evidence began to accumulate that strongly linked sugars with obesity and morbidity like diabetes and cardiac morbidity. At that time it was a correlation, causation was suspected but not established.
The sugar industry responded by launching a massive PR and political lobbying campaign, promoting refined sugar as a ‘Natural’ energy source, pure and harmless – as part of a balanced diet. It also set up a scientific research fund and body, the ISRF, to investigate sugar and health, and like the tobacco industry before it, it ensured that none of that research actually implicated sugar. Much of it was intended to undermine the growing causal links biologist were finding. The Sugar Industry used its own research to attack other scientists or cast doubt on the data they found, claiming that if ALL the studies were considered (including their sponsored research) then there was still ‘DOUBT’ about the link. You can read a detailed history of this campaign here –
But it is far from comprehensive. The role the sugar industry has played in shaping health and nutrition advice over several decades is a largely untold, and sparsely documented history. Some of it is perhaps only discernable from its effects and outcomes.
The nutrition and health field has long been an arena where science has not always been the basis for decisions. When people get ‘concerned’ about funding and ‘tricks’ to make the results look better, or in favor of the funder in climate science it always looks faintly ridiculous. Compared to the biases endemic in food science and nutrition, climate science is a enclave of purity and integrity!

New age Woo, Just-So evo-biological nonsense and traditional wisdom that was born out of contingencies of history all play as much of a role in deciding what we think is good to eat, and what the industrial food production system that we now need to feed us, can produce.
To meet the needs, or at least profit from the desires, of the dense populations of modern societies food producers found sugar a great boon. cheap, stable and popular it is currently consumed at a rate of just under 100 grams per day. As with our Carbon footprint with fossil fuel use, not all of that is in the direct consumption of refined white sugar. It is now so widely incorporated into the ingredients of so many commonly eaten products that it is difficult to avoid refined sugars in some form from adding 20% extra calories to your daily intake. 100g a day = 400 calories; approx 20% of the daily requirement.

Purely coincidentally, and despite rather than because of any scientific evidence the international body, the WHO and many National agencies have for many years declared that around 90g a day of sugar is perfectly okay… in a balanced diet. Where industry has been able to make available that much sugar as daily calories, the authorities have declared that safe and healthy.

As evidence has accumulated that having that much sugar available in the diet was not just strongly correlated with obesity and the diabetes epidemic, but causative, the sugar industry have fought a rearguard battle to resist any reduction in recommended intake as a result of evidence based action.
Only now has a small victory being scored. This year the WHO has announced new recommendations on sugar. –

“4 MARCH 2015 ¦ GENEVA – A new WHO guideline recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.”

For those that follow the way language is used in such official statements, and knowing some of the history of this long war between the medics and the industry. (A war in which collaboration and collusion played a role) the wording of this reveals the state of play.
The science would have wanted a strong recommendation to reduce intake to LESS than 5%. With that as an upper limit. This would have been opposed as extreme by political interests guided by producers. A reduction to a quarter of present levels was unacceptable, but given the health damage seen a reduction to half, 10% of daily intake was grudgingly accepted. (as it was before as a future ‘goal’) But the scientists got the ‘proper’ recommendation in there anyway, even if diluted to a passing ‘below’ 5%.

If this seems in any way reminiscent of the IPCC reports, the climate statements, policy and the strategy and tactics of the climate wars… welcome to the club!
Part of the reason for the victory on this front has been the willingness for some parts of the scientific establishment to make transparent the way influence has been peddled on this health issue. –
Public health scientists are involved with the food companies being blamed for the obesity crisis, reports Jonathan Gornall
An investigation by The BMJ has uncovered evidence of the extraordinary extent to which key public health experts are involved with the sugar industry and related companies responsible for many of the products blamed for the obesity crisis through research grants, consultancy fees, and other forms of funding.

As research has increasingly confirmed, extra sugar plays a role in obesity and weight gain, just as extra CO2 plays a role in temperature rise. Of course the systems are complex, there is exercise and feedbacks, clouds and hormones… but the thermodynamics are ineluctable.
There is another problem. The extra sugar does not just cause obesity, the metabolism is destabilised by the excess, diabetes and cardiac problems result. With the climate it is not just the rise in temperature. the weather patterns are altered with damaging effects on the agricultural systems that are the basis of the human communal metabolism.

However the industry fights back!
” The US Sugar Association, for example, released a statement pointing out that the US Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority have said in the past (in 2005 and 2010, respectively) that there was no conclusive evidence to justify such a limit on free sugars.Industry submissions to the consultation are likely to be forceful. When the WHO recommended the 10% limit, it faced a ferocious attack on the credibility of its science from several camps — including the administration of then US President George W. Bush. The administration said that the WHO report did not meet US data-quality standards, was not properly peer-reviewed, and failed to separate scientific and policy recommendations.”

Because there is a body of previous research that cast doubt on the direct strong link between sugar and the observable damage seen, the Sugar Industry position has always been that the link is not proven, there is doubt and a lack of a scientific consensus. Largely manufactured by the ISRF, their tame research body.
In the face of this latest setback I might predict they will also call into question the accuracy of the epidemiological data that these new reductions in sugar intake are based on. Historical records of the increasing trend of disease over time… Perhaps they will claim it has been manipulated or statistically mangled and establish an independent group to ‘properly’ examine whether the data on type 2 diabetes and sugar consumption has been fiddled by anti-industry scientists to make the disease epidemic we see in the West look worse than it really is…
Avoiding the worst of the damage from excessive use of hydrocarbons and simple carbohydrates for energy will require large changes in how we eat and live. Almost as large and as fast as the changes that got us all into the present state. Neither does it require a return to a past condition, in both the case of an over-reliance for energy on sugar and fossil fuels, alternatives exist.

There is one last similarity I would point out between sugar and oil/coal. Obesity and global warming, diabetes and drought.
Both have, when used in excess, another direct damaging effect on the system into which they are introduced.
Its a matter of acidity.

3 responses to “Calories and Climate.

  1. Excellent analogy. The problems associated with both sugar and fossil fuel consumption are consequences of an unethical economic system wherein GDP needs to grow exponentially for all eternity. That it’s unethical isn’t so much a problem, as that’s a matter of moral taste. But it defies the laws of physics, and that spells trouble, as Nature always bats last.


  2. Another parallel: the agricultural subsidies and the (hidden) subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.


  3. There can be dispute about subsidies as tax incentives because some can appear to involve no direct exchange of money, and the government profits from the process.
    Simplistic example; a government grants a 1 million tax break/reduction to a business. That results in 200 more people employed at 30k a year by that business. If they pay 25% tax, the government has made 50% profit on the deal with no taxpayer money paid out.
    Of course things are a little more complex.

    One way the government can subsidize a particular industry is by the actual transfer of money as a subsidy to the poor, usually called a welfare or benefit payment. Around 10% of the US soft drink market income comes from Food Stamps, a welfare program for the least well off. Via the free choice of those people.
    Should a government tax soft drinks to retrieve that money from the buyer?
    Or would it be better to tax the industry, probably with the same result on price and little change in consumption patterns?


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