More than almost anything else about my preteen summers, I remember the candy. I had a ritual to fill those wide-open days: a bike ride to the library, then the One Stop Shop. I knew the store by heart, from the ice case to the fishing worms, but especially the shelves of sugar. At home, I would read on the porch in the heat, eating two packs of Sour Patch Kids bite by bite, sharply sour, then sickly sweet.
Sugar still runs through my life, an omnipresent fixation. But in the past few years, I've become more wary. Why are there 13 grams of sugar in my Chobani? Who decided this lentil soup or salsa needed sweeteners? I resent sugar's grip on me, the way it feels so inescapable.
Journalist Gary Taubes has studied this phenomenon for decades, tracking sugar's infiltration into our diets and, finally, our dawning indignation. Cities like Chicago and Boulder, Colo., have started taxing sweetened drinks. About 60 percent of Americans say they're trying to cut back.
Sugar consumption hit its peak in 1999, but experts say we need to eat 40 percent less sugar to get back to a healthy level.
The medical community first connected sugar to weight gain in the 1950s, but the sugar industry waged a defiant campaign, even manipulating research, to pin the blame on fat. A calorie is just a calorie, sugar's defenders said, and the logic stuck.
"Every time I have a piece of bacon I wonder if my heart is going to blow up because I spent 20 years being brainwashed," Taubes told me.
Meanwhile, obesity and diabetes rates spiked. As well-founded research grew, the real problem became hard to ignore. As Taubes explains in his new book, The Case Against Sugar, an excess of simple carbohydrates, particularly sugar, is making us very sick.
"Even to suggest that sugar is a culprit makes people outraged, because it's their joy," Taubes said.
Adults should aim to eat no more than 50 grams, or 12 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. Half of that is better. A pack of Sour Patch Kids has 36 grams.
With today's extreme doses of sugar, our livers become overburdened, building fat, Taubes said. Insulin resistance grows, throwing the body's sugar-regulating mechanisms out of whack and leading to a host of problems.
Researchers have watched as people around the world adopt the Western diet, rich in sugar, then suffer from diabetes and obesity epidemics. Those ailments dramatically raise the risk for many others: cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's.
"Sugar is always at the scene of the crime," Taubes said.
As a father, Taubes knows how deeply sugar is ingrained in our lives. Kids share classroom cupcakes and haul candy home on Halloween. That's not to mention sugar's hiding places, like pasta sauce.
He advises trying fattier, low-carb foods, like eggs and bacon instead of Special K, or Greek yogurt instead of crackers.
"The first step is to reduce your sugar content to something similar to when diabetes was a very rare disease," Taubes said. "When sugar was a treat you got once a week, not something you consumed in every meal and every snack from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed."
Sugar is an addiction as powerful as smoking, he said.
"Your life would seem empty without it," Taubes said. "But I quit smoking, and now the idea that I would need a cigarette to enjoy my life seems a little insane."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.