A response to common arguments against food scares, following a report on the Israeli TV

Recently, channel 2 at the Israeli television broadcasted an investigative report about the many issues excessive consumption of sugar and processed food could cause us and our children. Compared to the existing scientific literature, there were many inaccuracies in the report, which ultimately provoked unnecessary fear. It is important to emphasize that excessive consumption of sugar and processed foods is indeed bad for one’s health and may cause disease. The report, however, used tactics of intimidation that were at times disproportionate and inaccurate. In this article we will review the scientific arguments raised in the televised report and try to put things in perspective.

Let’s start with the basics. Sugars are carbohydrates, and carbohydrates are essential to us because they are our main source of energy. The current recommendation from health organizations is that 45-55 percent of our daily calories should come from carbohydrates.

“Added sugar” (simple sugars such as white and brown sugar, sugar syrup, etc.) is sugar added to food and drinks during industrial processing; the term refers to sugars that are not found in food naturally. There is currently no specific upper limit for added sugars, but the World Health Organization recommends limiting the amount of added sugars to 10 percent of the total caloric intake per person, and even outlined that there are health benefits in limiting consumption to 5 percent or less. In other words, this is about 3-6 teaspoons of sugar per day for women and about 4.5-9 teaspoons for men.

A Sugar Cube|wikipeida


Added sugar and obesity

It is estimated that in the United States the average person’s added sugar intake reaches 15.8 percent of their total calories consumed, most of which comes from sweetened beverages. In one can of cola, for example, there are about 8 to 10 teaspoons of added sugar.

Studies have shown that excessive sugar intake, particularly from sweetened beverages, is linked to obesity and the development of diabetes. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed all studies on added sugars and its effect on body weight. It was found that a high intake of added sugars or sugary beverages did indeed increase body weight and obesity. These results were less consistent in children than in adults.

Obesity arises from the fact that sugar consumption increases caloric intake, so the body is consuming more calories than it uses, which disrupts the energy balance. Sweetened beverages are less satisfying than a meal containing similar calories, and added sugar is absorbed more quickly than solid food.

We would like to refute the point mentioned by reporters that obesity is due to many factors, and that there is no direct link between reducing the consumption of added sugar and weight loss. They also mentioned there is still no justification for making sweeping recommendations to the public based on the relationship observed in their research. There is no doubt that, in light of the findings, the consumption of added sugar and sweetened beverages should be reduced as much as possible.

Let us look at the main points of the arguments raised in the report and what scientific literature has to say about them:

One’s diet should be supplemented with fruit, vegetables and antioxidants.

It is very difficult to isolate variables and identify a single component that contributes to or is harmful to one’s health. There is no doubt that a diet based on a large quantity of fruits and vegetables is indeed good for one’s health and there is now scientific consensus regarding this. However, to date there are no high-qualitative studies indicating that there is a definite benefit to adding antioxidants or a distinct advantage in their increased consumption, except for vitamin C, which gives a slight advantage in relieving, but not preventing, colds.

A fat man. The Tuscan General. Painted by: Alessandro Del Borro, 17th century.|wikipeida

When a child consumes sugar-rich food in the morning, he comes to class in a hyperactive state and the teacher recommends Ritalin.

Ritalin is a drug that treats, among other things, ADHD. In an article published in the journal Pediatrics in 2012, the latest information on the role of dietary treatments in ADHD was reviewed compared with previous years. The study revealed that most of the controlled trials in the field failed to show a statistically significant negative effect of sucrose (white sugar) or aspartame (artificial sweetener) on symptoms of ADHD.

In the 1980s, studies claimed that there was such a link, but since only a small number of children were tested it was very difficult to deduce any information regarding the general population. Therefore it was summarized that a high intake of sugar does not affect ADHD, but there might be some cumulative effect. In addition, a protein meal consumed either before or with sugar blocks the effect of symptoms of ADHD.

The relationship between sugar intake and hyperactivity may be due to a sharp drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Children are more sensitive than adults to low levels of sugar in the blood, which causes a relatively sharp decline in their cognitive functions when their blood sugar decreases. It is possible and desirable to prevent these negative effects by reducing the intake of foods containing sugars that are quickly absorbed in the body (especially white sugar).

For example, children who ate a breakfast containing slow-absorbing sugars (low glycemic index) demonstrated a higher performance in memory tests than those who ate breakfast with a high glycemic index. High levels of blood sugar (hyperglycemia) had no adverse effect on cognitive function.

In conclusion, it should be noted that even though sugar does not usually affect cognitive behavior and performance, it couldn’t be entirely ruled out for a small population of children who might be affected by it.

Molecular structure of Methylphenidate, the active substance of Ritalin | wikipedia

Sugar causes death and people who eat more sugar have a shorter life expectancy. Sugar causes diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, brain events, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, bone depletion and skeletal structure damage and diabetes.

There is indeed a clear link between excessive sugar consumption and obesity, which affects a variety of ailments such as heart disease, hypertension, etc. The relationship between sugar consumption and other risk factors is much less distinct.

A review of studies was published on the relationship between sugar intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study indicated that a high intake of added sugars modestly affects blood pressure and levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL (“bad cholesterol”).

In another study, a high sugar intake was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and lipid profile disorders (cholesterol). Another review published this year found that sweetened beverage consumption is mainly related to an increased risk in cardiovascular disease rather than directly to the disease itself. In other words, there may be other factors, such as the fact that people who consume high amounts of sweetened beverages tend to lead an unhealthy lifestyle in general, which is raising their risk factors.

The link between bone health and sugar consumption seems very simple: children and teenagers consume sweetened beverages at the expense of milk. Since milk is a good source of calcium, its reduced consumption may affect bone health. However, there is currently no conclusive evidence for this hypothesis, as there are also studies showing that drinking sugary drinks has a negligible effect on the calcium balance of the diet.

Drinks from the cola family have a negative effect on bone health probably because of their high phosphorus content. High levels of phosphorus can disrupt the calcium-phosphorus balance in the diet, leading to bone depletion. These findings are not only inconsistent, but there are studies that contradict them.

Sugar activates the reward system in the brain that causes addiction. Sugar is on the same list as heroin, cocaine, marijuana and salt, and hence it works like an addictive drug.

The main reference to sugar in scientific literature is in relation to obesity and that excess weight is dangerous to health, as well as eating disorders. The subject of food addiction is beginning to attract attention in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders. It has been found that in some cases of obesity, high carbohydrate intake may impair brain mechanisms, just as in drug addiction.

Neurobiological studies have found similarities in brain processes in situations of extreme obesity and drug and substance abuse. However, there is a huge difference between the two situations and it can’t be ignored that food consumption is dangerous to health and is the main cause of the obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases associated with poor nutrition.

Processed food additives

What are glutamate (flavour enhancer), hydrolysate and phosphates (E500, E621, E55, E452) and cellulose fibers and why do they need them at all?

E621 - Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a “flavor enhancer”, which means it increases arousal of the taste buds “Umami” (taste of protein). The material is made up of a mixture of sodium and glutamate. Glutamate is one of our protein building blocks that the body uses on a regular basis and we add it to foods to emphasize protein taste, which our body prefers. Studies have found no risk associated with MSG or the adverse affects attributed to it, such as ADHD, asthma, and headaches.

Hydrolysate – a dissolved material. In our case, this is a protein that has been dissolved by heating or enzymatic digestion. A similar process occurs in our digestive system.

E452 – Polyphosphates. Materials containing a chain of phosphate groups. A phosphate group is one of the building blocks of our DNA and the body's energy currency - ATP - in our case it is a polyphosphate salt, an emulsifier designed to aid the mixing of fatty and watery substances.

E500 - Sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. These substances are designed to control the acidity of food and are an important component in baking powder as well.

E551 - Silicon dioxide is a substance designed to absorb fluids and prevent lumps, thus giving food a uniform appearance. It is considered safe to eat, although the powder itself is dangerous to inhale.

Cellulose fibers - dietary fiber derived from plants.

E1420 - Starch Acetate - Starch that has been chemically modified to make it more stable as a thickening agent.

E407 (Carrageenans) - A gelatin-like substance produced from red algae that is edible and serves as a food stabilizer.

E461, E456 - Methyl cellulose and methyl ethyl cellulose are substances produced from cellulose of plants and go through minor chemical adjustments to be used as stabilizing agents.

For more information, see the World Health Organization document.

The televised investigation showed how industrial schnitzel is prepared, and as part of the demonstration they added powders of the additives mentioned above. Without measurement, exaggerated amounts of additives were added for the camera. Industrial food is prepared and measured meticulously to eliminate the addition of any excessive amounts, as misrepresented in this report.

Thus, processed foods contain additives designed to improve their taste and appearance and create a uniform product. Some of them don’t necessarily add to our health, and it is clear that homemade schnitzel is better than processed schnitzel, but here, too, it is important to present things as they are without trying to create panic.

Schnitzel | Photo: Aviad Bublil, Wikipedia


Phosphate mixtures - Phosphates can cause saline imbalances, muscle spasms, neurological disorders and bone depletion.

In recent years there has been an increase in the consumption of phosphates in food, mainly due to increased consumption of processed foods. High consumption of phosphates can lead to the secretion of circulatory hormones that can damage tissues in the body and ultimately disrupt the body's balance of minerals and cause cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and bone loss.

Epidemiological studies have found a link between a slight rise in phosphate levels and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Calcium levels are also connected to the harmful effects of phosphates, so if calcium levels are maintained properly, the hormonal effect of phosphates is eliminated.

There is a clear link between processed food and certain diseases. For attention deficit disorders there is a connection between food coloring and preservatives, and if you decrease the chemicals involved, you see an improvement in children with ADHD.

The hypothesis of a link between food coloring and preservatives for ADHD was introduced in the 1970s by a researcher named Feingold. He showed that when dietary supplements were omitted, symptoms improved in more than 50 percent of hyperactive children. Since then, controlled studies (1, 2) have failed to replicate the efficacy of this diet, known as the “Feingold Diet”, on a scale similar to those reported in the original study.

It is important to remember that there is a group of children who are sensitive to dietary supplements in the general population, and they demonstrate a negative response to dietary supplements. In any case it is indeed recommended to reduce the intake of food additives and the law requires identifying them clearly on food packaging. In some countries, certain artificial food colors have been removed from the shelves.

Snacks tested for oil production as presented in the televised report showed up as cloudy and yuck. The reason is that this oil had already been fried and contained a few other ingredients from the snack itself. A similar result would also be obtained from home-cooked schnitzel. However, it is clear that the amount of oil used is excessive anyway, and therefore unhealthy.

People give their children food that is as harmful as a cigarette, and sometimes even more.

There are not many examples in the medical history of a consumer product that has caused such great and substantial damage as cigarettes. Cigarettes cause a wide variety of diseases in humans, and no other food item is known today, whose effects are even close to those of smoking. The argument that the food we eat is more dangerous than cigarettes is an injustice to the victims of smoking.

To summarize

There is no doubt that excessive consumption of processed foods, especially added sugars, is not good for one’s health. It can cause a variety of effects such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. All this does not detract from the fact that when conducting research on a subject with health implications, it is very important to ensure accuracy and reliability and always present things as they are. There is no lack of research and reliable data to illustrate the importance of the subject, yet there is no justification to present incorrect or inaccurate information just for scare tactics!

rticle is part of the “Room for doubt” section dealing with failures in the media dealing with scientific issues. It should not be regarded as expressing any position on the subject from the original article, but only on how it relates to science.