The Sugar Wars: Science’s Fierce, Geeky Debate Over Soda
The debating season may be presidential, but if the spectacle of supersized pandering served with an unlimited salad bar of platitudes, slogans, and empty promises strikes you as strangely unfulfilling, there is always academia, where, sometimes, the politics are as equally vicious because the stakes are equally as high. Such was the case in San Antonio recently, at the Obesity Society’s 30th annual meeting, the premier scientific conference in the US on what is, arguably, the nation’s most pressing health problem. As the prologue to a four-day Finnegan’s Wake of technical discussion (did you know that NMDA receptor NR2B subunits in the parabrachial nucleus mediate compensatory feeding?), the society’s presidential keynote debate took a simpler route: let’s argue about soda. The result was mesmerizing, a data maven’s idea of good night out. Two academic foes garlanded with paragraph-length job titles, and trailing hundreds of papers in published research, hurled power point slides filled with p-values and confidence intervals at each other with relentless Titanic geekiness. The audience— a large sample of the best and brightest in obesity research, and those who aspired to join them—squinted to keep up.
There were jokes too, although not many given the amount of charts, and numbers and citations that had to be crammed into a fleeting hour or so of combative colloquy. Dr. Frank Hu, Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, started his assault on soda with a slide of Clint Eastwood debating an empty chair, the dominant image from the summer’s Republican national convention. Given that this opponent, Dr. David Allison, Distinguished Professor and Director of the National Institutes for Health-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was such a “formidable debater,” Hu said, he would rather be debating Eastwood’s chair, perhaps with some soda bottles sitting on it. Through the magic of PowerPoint, three soda bottles appeared on the chair. The audience laughed. “If I debate that chair,” said Hu, “I think I’m going to win.” Allison, in turn, made a Dr. Who joke, giving away his age with a picture of Tom Baker, last seen saving the universe against cheaply made balsa wood and plastic BBC aliens in 1981. But that, in a peculiar way, was symbolic. The kids of the 70s had been nourished on cheaply made, weirdly pleasurable, possibly unnatural calories; but their bodies did not turn out to be like Doctor Who’s Tardis, a telephone box that expanded on the inside while remaining svelte and fixed in its external dimensions.
Was it the soda, the sugar, the deluge of so-called empty calories that had made us so fat? Or was this no more than the academic equivalent of junk food, emotionally and politically satisfying yet intellectually empty?