December 17, 2018

Is sugar good for the Jews?

Here at the Jewish Journal, we’re constantly debating what it means to be a Jewish paper. Does it mean we should focus only on content that is specifically Jewish, or on any content that may be of interest to Jews? And how should we define what is Jewish and what is not?

Take the issue of sugar, for example. It’s not a Jewish topic per se, but as a parent who wants to raise healthy kids, I’ve always been interested in the health risks of sugar consumption, beyond the cliché that “sugar is bad for you.” 

My interest was piqued last week when I read about some unsavory finagling by the sugar industry way back in 1967. According to a report last week in The New York Times, a sugar industry group paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a review of sugar, fat and heart research.

As the Times notes, “The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.”

In other words, the sugar industry diverted our attention away from their product and toward other “enemies” like fat. It’s somewhat ironic that a Harvard publication, the Harvard Heart Letter, reported in Dec. 2015 that “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease.” This is consistent with recent studies that have alerted us to the pervasiveness and health risks of processed sugar and its addictive qualities.

So, is there a Jewish angle to this story? I can think of at least two.

First, there is the Jewish value of pursuing justice. What the sugar industry did was unethical, and they should be held accountable. The government should also be held accountable, because it allowed itself to be deceived and ended up downplaying the health risks of excessive sugar consumption. I’d love to see a brilliant scientist study the connection between these failures and the frightening rise of child obesity and diabetes in recent years.

I would also love to see Hollywood produce a whistle-blower movie. If you are a writer looking for a screenplay idea, you may enjoy how New York Magazine kicked off its reporting of the sugar lobby story:

“If you had to script a cheesy high-stakes thriller film about nutrition research, it might look something like this: Powerful sugar lobby pays prominent scientists to distract the public from its product’s health risks. Said scientists plant studies in top medical journals declaring that fat, not sugar, is the true public enemy number-one. Those studies go on to shape national nutrition recommendations for decades, and the public is none the wiser. Somewhere, someone twirls a mustache. And then, out of nowhere, someone blows the whole thing wide open.”

We are approaching the High Holy Days, when calorie and sugar overload will uneasily co-exist with our yearning for spiritual refinement.

I hope this film gets made. I would call it, “Sweet Revenge.” 

A second Jewish angle is the Jewish obligation to take care of our bodies. The great Maimonides, in his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishna Torah, emphasized this very point. As Rebbetzin Feige Twerski writes on, “Excessive indulgences in unhealthy food, [Maimonides] warns, are the source of all illnesses.”

She also refers to the noted commentator and physician of the 12th century, Nachmanides, who explained that “even as we eat only kosher food and recite all of the requisite blessings, one can be so immersed in excessive, gluttonous behavior that the objective of ‘holiness’ is rendered inaccessible and out of reach.”

I’m sure you can think of other Jewish angles to this sugar story. Our tradition is so broad, in fact, that we can probably come up with a Jewish angle to virtually any story. 

The most immediate Jewish angle, though, is that we are approaching the High Holy Days, when calorie and sugar overload will uneasily co-exist with our yearning for spiritual refinement.

Maybe it’s a good time, then, to remember that sweetness is not just something we consume in our food. It’s also a good vibe we share with those around us. And that kind of sugar is always good for the Jews.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at