Sugar, alcohol, health and evolution

by | Published on Feb 7, 2018 | Bias in Science |

Sugar, alcohol, health and evolution


Sugar, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, evolution, availability, anti-tobacco legislation, Interest groups, lobbyists,spin-doctors, policy action, increasing the price, reducing the availability, Lathyrism, Aristolochia vine, aristolochic acid, renal carcinoma, renal failure, Macaque monkeys, trichromacy, Toxoplasmosis, Toxoplasma gondii parasite, rodents, diminished reaction times, reduced fear-response, Neolithic period, genetics, alcohol metabolising genes, ADH4, S. cerevisiae, domestication, fermenting grain, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, dyslipidemia, uric acid, inflammation,

Meta description: A discussion about the social, political, and biological factors promoting sugar and alcohol consumption, and how those contribute to the obesity epidemic and other adverse health outcomes, with an ‘evolutionary’ perspective


The more easily available ‘foods’ are, the greater is the likelihood that we will consume more of them. That is such a banal observation that its profound implications and impact generally escape attention: thus, the changes in our lives that such awareness promotes are missed.

Alcohol and sugar are paramount examples of the ‘availability factor’: lower unit price and more ready availability leads to higher average per capita consumption. That translates inexorably into an increased proportion of people who are harmed as a result of increased consumption.

Despite centuries of use, it has only become apparent recently that the fructose part of sugar (chemical name sucrose — composed of glucose + fructose) may have a similar adverse biochemical profile to alcohol. There are many other examples of our delayed recognition of the toxicity of natural substances that we regularly ingest.

The indisputable and clear facts demonstrating that greater availability increases consumption are denied by governments. Government representatives may be under-educated about science, poorly equipped to understand complex issues, and thus easily manipulated by self-interested lobby groups. Thus, they are readily dissuaded from the policy action of increasing the price, and reducing the availability, of alcohol, or sugar.

Taking such action would save society untold ill-health, harm, and money. One might regard this as an example of the ineptitude and senselessness of government, interacting with the undue influence of pressure groups.

Plants have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to manipulate animals in many ways, thus enhancing their own survival (e.g. by being more or less tasty or toxic — think sugar, tannin, atropine and nicotine). This process has moulded animal and human biochemistry and behaviour in complex and subtle ways over the course of evolutionary time.

The extensive science that informs us about these issues, touched on in this commentary, can be harnessed both by individuals, and government, to increase general public good — something many people consider to be a primary duty of good government.

It is possible that smart device apps could bypass the [lack of] government action, and allow grass-roots democracy to directly influence such issues.


The factors that influence us to eat and drink greater quantities of things which increase the chances of ill-health are all around us, and, with scientific knowledge, can be manipulated both by individuals, and by society, and by government.

This commentary discusses the ‘big picture’ of the influences, including evolution, that encourage the excessive and harmful consumption of dietary substances such as sugar and alcohol: plants have been manipulating animals with tasty treats, like sugar, for at least 100 million years.

A key part of the ‘big picture’ is the way evolution has turned out — the way that plants interact with all animals, both invertebrates and vertebrates, including humans, by producing chemicals that alter their behaviour and physiology. Think caffeine, tannin, nicotine, atropine, the opium poppy, cannabis, and 1000 other things you don’t even know about. Alcohol and sugar are the foremost examples dealt with here.

Another key part of this ‘big picture’, the political/social dimension, can be understood as a continuance of the types of policies and devices of the decades-old tobacco lobby’s impedance of anti-tobacco legislation. Interest groups, and lobbyists (with their evil twin, ‘spin-doctors’), have refined and expanded these fact-obscuring and anti-democratic techniques, which are now routinely employed by organisations that wish to influence nations’ policies to their own advantage.

Context and influence

For those who might think this is straying too far from my expertise as a pharmacologist, into politics and sociology, let me make a connection to contextualize this commentary, because political and social influences are inextricably woven into the warp and weft of science: it does not happen in a vacuum. A recent book analyses the immense amount spent on the Human Genome project, and how that owed more to politics than sensible expenditure on science, The Postgenomic Condition, by Jenny Reardon: see review.

Many of the points and illustrations below also apply to drugs and the pharmaceutical industry, and are fundamental to the problems with biased science, about which I have written extensively.

Bad science and general mis-information are serious impediments to everyone’s ability to ascertain facts that have profound effects on their everyday lives — like which drugs actually work, and what foods are bad for you. What is defined as a drug and what is thought of as ‘food’, is to some extent an accident of history — as illustrated by the universal unregulated use of alcohol, which is a drug similar to benzodiazepines (like Valium).

I have alluded to the various scientific texts and critiques germane to this discussion in various previous commentaries [1-3]. The heart of the matter, in my view, is that we are represented in our ‘democracies’, both in the bureaucracy, and our political representatives, by a substantial proportion of people who are not adequately equipped, by virtue of their intellect, education, or experience, to make a critical analysis of important issues, particularly scientific issues.

Indeed, there are many prominent representatives on the world political stage who have had trouble extemporaneously constructing a meaningful, grammatical, logical, and coherent sentence in the English language (that ability is a pretty good measure of general intellectual capacity). Some administrations seem to proudly wear the badge that declares they are ignorant, and without qualifications. Their denigration of knowledge and expertise has become an institutionalised ‘debating’ stance.

Politicians are the only important group in society who are not generally required to have qualifications. The words ‘politician’ and ‘professional’ just do not fit in the same sentence: A professional politician would be an oxymoron — saying it highlights their lack of qualifications, because we all expect professionals, like engineers, architects, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, podiatrists, lawyers, as well as electricians, builders, train & truck drivers, to have passed exams, demonstrate ongoing competency, have a code of conduct etc.

A politician could be illiterate, innumerate and have no education (beyond the legal school-leaving age***), not understand principles like the separation of church and state, the independence of the judiciary etc. There have been recent examples of such ignorance. There are no real requirements or standards governing ongoing competency. There are usually no standards governing sobriety, or drug taking (drug screening of workers is required in many jobs now), nor even any fixed hours for attendance at their place of work. One could go on.

In a modern technology and science dependant society, permitting low levels of competency and knowledge (especially about technology and science) in those who govern is producing undesirable outcomes. This question deserves to be a more prominent subject of debate.

*** Good morning, I am Dr Gillman. I will be taking your appendix out today — I left school at 15 and worked in an abattoir for a couple of years, I’m really good with knives, and I have a certificate from the Mongolian Institute of podiatry. Just sign the consent form here please.

That is how crazy things are — such representatives make decisions about nuclear reactors, even if they cannot even spell the words ‘physics’ or ‘nuclear’ (or pronounce it!).

Not only is such people’s ability to understand what constitutes good, rational, and fact-based policy inadequate, but also, such people are ill-equipped to recognise and asses the biased views and false information with which they are bombarded by the omnipresent lobbyists. The financial muscle of the businesses and organisations that employ these lobbyists ensure they gain a grossly disproportionate influence over government policy and decisions.

To cap it all, they sack or ignore their scientific advisors (like my old associate professor Nutt), if they even had any in the first place. A paucity of qualifications in politicians would be of little consequence if proper advice was taken from experts – but this is not simply happening, and expertise is denigrated. Hence the suicidal lunacy of climate change non-policy — one has to be afraid for the younger generation(s) who will suffer the outcomes.

That is not good democracy, good policy, or good anything. The politicization of science advisors is an advanced cancer at the heart of government decision-making.

In reality, it is hardy democracy at all — it is closer to plutocracy.

This less-than-ideal standard of government policy-making is further exacerbated by the distortion of the democratic process, in many countries, caused by the way political parties are organised and funded (e.g. the party ‘whip’ in the UK — see Jay’s monograph — which means representatives do the party’s bidding, not their constituents’ bidding), that gives even more leverage to the disproportionate influence that lobbyists, and media moguls, have over these imperfect government decision-making processes.

One of the two savvy and politically well-informed men who wrote the classic comedy series (perhaps the best-disguised ‘black’ comedy ever written) Yes Prime Minister was Sir Antony Jay. He also wrote an excellent monograph tracing the history of the development of democracy in the UK, from the Great Reform Act of 1832, to its accidental distortion and degradation, with the help of the media (thank you Mr Murdoch) into the pseudo-democratic facade that most people are beguiled by today — Jay’s monograph can be found here:

If you think you live in a democracy — be disabused of that idea.

The oldest battle on the planet

The oldest battle on the planet is the battle between plants and animals. Just because plants do not leap up and attack us, that does not mean they are not engaged in an ongoing war to manipulate and harm us, and protect themselves. They have been producing chemicals (and spikey bits) to combat all the other organisms, with which they compete on the planet, since the beginning of evolution, hundreds of millions of years ago. There are many examples of chemicals produced by plants, which modern pharmacology has yet to replicate and synthesise, that have effects on the functioning and behaviour of animals — some being toxic. However, the effects can be subtle, and many compounds produced by plants manipulate the behaviour of animals, to the advantage of one, and sometimes both, parties.

There might be a book about this by now, but I will give illustrations from my own knowledge to make my point.

Foods: safe or toxic?

It has long been my view that some aspects of medicine are illuminated by considering them with an evolutionary perspective, and that ‘Evolutionary Medicine’ is undervalued.

There are many interesting and revealing examples concerning evolution, and how plants influence what animals, including humans, are now.

Why the human liver is large

The human liver is large because we are omnivores. Being able to get nutrition from so many different sources, plant and animal, inevitably exposes us to a greater number of potentially toxic substances. As discussed here, many of these are produced by plants (and animals) to deter predators, or even to kill them. Therefore, to be a successful omnivore requires the evolution of a large number of enzymes, which are located in the liver, that are capable of breaking down many of these toxins into harmless substances. That requires space and energy. A big liver.

How do we know that the plants we consider safe to eat, really are safe to eat? The answer is we do not know, it is little more than ‘folklore’ — it is entirely possible that, unbeknownst to us, long-term consumption of some may lead to the accumulation of toxins that cause disease.


Epidemics of Lathyrism have occurred in humans (and animals) caused by quite modest amounts of chickpea-like legumes (Lathyrus sativa). Lathyrism is a late onset spastic ataxic paraplegia [4-6]. It is quite probable that many other related plants produce similar toxins, perhaps at levels that have so far evaded detection. After all, no comprehensive toxicological screening of plants has been carried out, so we just do not know [7]. It may just be that low or undetected levels of such compounds in these plants accumulate over decades and cause CNS damage.

You might well think that if a plant has been consumed for 2,000 years or more that it would be obvious if it was causing a problem.

You would be wrong, spectacularly wrong.


Here is a recent example of a natural (must be good) age-old Chinese health supplement/treatment: its deadly effects only emerged recently. It is the vine Aristolochia [8, 9].

There is a complex story to this, about which I have written elsewhere. It is fascinating because it involves one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in the world, the Cairns Bird-wing, native to this area of north Queensland, whose caterpillars feed on the [poisonous] Aristolochia vine. The poison they ingest (aristolochic acid) is passed on to the adult butterfly, which is thus protected from attack by birds, who learn to avoid them very quickly. The plant has been used since antiquity in various civilisations across the globe, for its supposed health benefits, being especially popular with the ‘Han’ Chinese.

The toxic effects (renal carcinoma and renal failure) were first recognised and called Balkan endemic nephropathy in 1956, but was not till the 1990s that full recognition of aristolochic acid’s toxicity started to be more widely understood — amazingly, it is still consumed in Taiwan (whose population is predominantly Han Chinese) because a naïve faith in ancient Chinese medicine remains wide-spread. Taiwan has, as a result of this superstitious ignorance (aka ‘folklore’, or ‘ancient wisdom’), the highest incidence of renal failure and urinary-tract cancers in the world [9].

All caused by Aristolochia, used for two thousand years, still causing innumerable deaths. Natural, safe? Nature fights back and cannot be wished away with magical beliefs. So much for ‘ancient wisdom’.

Colour vision and sugar

Primates are unique in having three types of cone cells (trichromacy), not two, as in other mammals. One leading explanation is that trichromacy enabled better recognition of red-ripe fruit. A recent finding supports this theory: Macaque monkeys have a genetic variation where some lack trichromacy, i.e. are red-green blind. Observations now confirm that these individuals are slower to find fruit in the forest — this puts them at a disadvantage.

Our distant ancestors therefore evolved trichromatic colour vision, and the ability to more easily find ripe fruit: and what does ripe fruit contain more of? Sugar.

Anti-oestrogen compounds

Some grasses produce anti-oestrogen compounds, but only in their early-spring shoots. That suppress the ovulation of grazing animals, until the grass has reached a certain stage of maturity. This mutually benefits both the grass and the animals by making sure that the animals do not breed until the grass is fully established in the early growing season, such that it is not over-grazed. This avoids the denudation of the landscape and erosion, and lessens the chance of the offspring of the animals starving through lack of food.

Laxatives: ‘Senokot’

Since the ‘information-environment’ that most people are exposed to is so full of execrably poor material, let us have an example related to excretion. Why do you think so many plant-based extracts act to increase the speed of bowel action in mammals, including humans (think of the laxative ‘senokot’, extract of the senna pod). It is because of a dynamic relationship with the plants eaten, and these plants produce compounds which maximise the chance of the animal excreting their seeds in an advantageous location.

Fruit flies and alcohol

It was recently discovered that fruit flies, when afflicted with parasites, preferentially feed on fruits which have undergone an alcoholic fermentation. By doing so they help to rid themselves of these parasites in their intestines [10]. That evolutionary adaption must have occurred some 200 million years ago. We might also suppose that this influenced the evolution of taste receptors and receptors in the CNS, and that these adaptions flowed through the genetic tree into early vertebrates, and then mammals.

Toxoplasma gondii and diminished reaction times

Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite: rodents infected with toxoplasma show diminished reaction times and a reduced fear-response to predation by felines, including domestic cats. This is caused by a chemical produced by the Toxoplasma parasite that affects the nervous system. Thus, such rodents are more likely to be caught and eaten, and the likelihood of Toxoplasma maintaining itself in the population is increased [11, 12].

Toxoplasma also infects 20-60% of humans, via domestic cats (how many reasons are there for not having cats?): so, here is an example of a profound effect on human physiology and behaviour that has only recently been elucidated. Humans who are RhD-positive are protected against latent toxoplasma-induced impairment of reaction times which, however, affects everyone else, who suffer slowed reactions, and are therefore more likely to have road traffic accidents, and probably other misfortunes as well [12-14].

This interesting example of host/parasite evolution may explain the otherwise puzzling continuing occurrence of the Rh blood group variant in the human population, because it causes occasionally fatal haemolytic disease of the newborn [15-17]. Sickle-cell disease and Malaria show a similar inter-relationship.

Neolithic brewers

An interesting speculation might be that alcohol has moulded the evolution of the animal nervous system — cf. fruit flies, above — continuing through mammalian evolution, influencing CNS receptors and reward pathways (both sugar and alcohol release dopamine in the CNS reward centres).

It may be that homo sapiens evolution-generated predilection for alcohol motivated the cultivation of cereals in the early- or pre- Neolithic period (around 10-12,000 years ago). Such cultivation seems to have been to do with producing alcohol, not just for dietary carbohydrate needs [18, 19].

Two strands of evidence indicate this: first, genetic studies of the human alcohol metabolising genes, especially ADH4, indicate that the 40x more active mutation of the ADH4 gene spread in the population around then. That coincidence is difficult to explain, if not for the fact that it was ‘needed’ to metabolise alcohol. Second: the genetics of the yeast S. cerevisiae also diversified around 12,000 y ago, and the two oldest strains show evidence of ‘domestication’, i.e. they were probably selected for fermenting grain.

Weak (1-2%) beer is a good way of sterilizing water of harmful bacteria — the production of ‘small beer’ for this purpose existed when the Egyptian Pyramids were built, and continued into the 19th century. A typical ‘allowance’ for workers was a couple of litres per day, which is not a great deal of alcohol: at 1.5% it would be only 30 mls, really just clean water and a few grams of carbohydrate, with the anxiolytic effect of a few mg of ‘valium’. Pretty good popular self ‘mass-medication’ of the population!

The effect of alcohol on reducing anxiety and facilitating social interaction in humans may well be more than mere coincidence. It would have facilitated social interaction in emerging post-neolithic, more densely-populated, permanent communities, by reducing social anxiety and reducing water-born infections. A useful public-health measure.

So, pause a moment before you judge somebody who feels they need a drink before they can go to a party (a common phenomenon — how many friends do you have who regularly go to a social function without having a drink first?). It may be innate to our evolutionary heritage.

An accumulation of many other similar observations illustrates that there are extensive interactions, many unexplored or unknown, between a myriad of compounds produced by plants, and the behaviour and functioning of vertebrates, including humans.

Such are the fascinating implications of contemplating health and medicine with an evolutionary perspective.


I have chosen to include sugar because it is topical, it is the precursor to alcohol, and the stories of both share much with drugs, and because this illustrates the negative social consequences of incompetent government.

It is also interesting to understand the metabolic parallels between excess sugar and excess alcohol, and their similar effect on health. There is not space to detail those here, but to learn more, read Lustig’s summary [20]. This also inter-leaves with another commentary in preparation about the misuse of labelling-words in psychiatry — like alcoholic. Why do we talk about an alcoholic, but not a sugar-holic?

The following discussion is intended to offer a broad perspective: furthermore, this perspective is straightforward and follows the precept of ‘Occam’s razor’, which states that the simplest explanation that accounts for the facts is likely to be correct.

The notion of an alcoholic, or alcoholism as a disease, dates to the beginning of the 20th century, and was formally adopted in medical terminology in the middle of the 20th century. However, it has always been a dubious and poorly-founded notion. A writer I respected, and I tried to read everything he wrote, was the professor of psychiatry at Edinburgh, Robert Kendall. He published an article in the BMJ in 1979 [21] called ‘Alcholism: a medical or a political problem?’, in which he demolished the concept of alcoholism as a disease. It is an excellent example of clear thinking. What he wrote was prescient and fits well with much recent research.

Milieu and availability

Environment powerfully shapes behaviour.

If there is a jar of sweets kept on the coffee-table, and a stash of soft-drink in the fridge, your children will eat more sweets and drink more soft-drink and be more obese and unhealthy (and so will you). If you have larger dinner plates, and larger wine glasses, you will likely serve larger helpings and eat and drink more. Obvious really. Obvious enough to be over-looked.

Back to professor Kendall [21]. He marshalled the evidence that the main determinant of the number of people who suffered harm from alcohol was the average level of alcohol consumption in the population as a whole. The data strongly support that. Would it not be surprising if it were otherwise?

The key factor determining consumption of alcohol is ‘availability’.

‘Availability’ has several components: e.g. the actual cost (per capita income/unit price), the ‘physical’ ease of access to it (the numbers of points of sale and ease of access to them), and the hours during which sale and consumption are permitted. Societal and peer-relationship factors are also relevant. All these factors are part of the broad concept of ‘availability’.

The wealthier we are, and the cheaper alcohol is, and the more easily available and accepted it is, the more of it we are likely to consume. Simple.

History makes it clear that labelling alcoholism as a disease has made it easier to ignore the political, social, and economic dimensions, determinants and realities of the problem, and to provide excuses for inaction, as well as the psychological comfort of enabling most people to think that alcohol is all right for ‘us’, and that it’s just some unfortunate people who react badly to it.

Evolution has moulded as into creatures who are well able rapidly to achieve satiety: we can take-in a days-worth of food in a few minutes (our dogs can do it in a few seconds!).

There is great evolutionary advantage in not exerting oneself when there are no short-term imperatives for survival-enhancing action. That is a biological way of saying, rephrased in everyday language, that we are lazy and greedy. Since that is the case, there is a tendency for us to eat food if it is available and close at hand, and to exert ourselves minimally, unless there are imperatives to do otherwise.

Whilst those traits had survival advantage in eons past, in modern civilisation they are disadvantageous. Eating too much, being overweight, and being insufficiently active, are indisputably things which impair long-term health.

Too rich, too greedy, too lazy.

Invoking the nebulous concept of ‘self-control’ is not a sufficient, or smart, solution.

The way you organise your kitchen is a crucial factor, as attested to by Wansink’s research: if people have potato chips ‘on the counter’ in their kitchen their average weight is 3.6 kilograms more. And worse still, if cereals are ‘on display’ people were 9.5 kilograms heavier than those who kept them in a cupboard. There are no prizes for guessing that people who have larger dinner plates usually have large helpings, and likewise those who have larger wine-glasses have larger servings of wine [22, 23].

It is not surprising to learn that there are many other cues that compound these fundamental variables: these are the raison d’être of the advertising world.

The above facts constitute a convincing argument that simple environmental factors and cues have a profound effect on our behaviour, including on how much we consume.


There are putative adverse metabolic effects of fructose, which may bring about changes in metabolism similar to alcohol: e.g. promotion of insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, dyslipidemia, increased uric acid (gout), and inflammation.

There is some debate about the extent of the ill-effects, and their relevance to humans (some of the research has been done on rats); nonetheless, sugar is nutritionally marginal and it is clearly worth considering minimising its intake, especially HFCS drinks, until the evidence is clarified, particularly if you are already overweight [24-27].

The unfortunate (if one is a wine-lover) but brutal reality is that anything more than small quantities of alcohol (~50 ml/d) or sugar (~40 mg/d) are nutritionally unnecessary, and cause impairment of health.

‘Sugar’ is sucrose, which is a dimer formed from one molecule of glucose and one of fructose (cane-sugar is therefore glucose 50% & fructose 50% — whereas HFCS is usually glucose 40% & fructose 60%). The metabolism of glucose is different to that of fructose: all cells in the body can use glucose as an energy source, but they cannot use fructose, which the body handles differently. Sugar sources with higher fructose percentages, like some HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), may be ‘worse’ health-wise. Hence the concern over the increase in per capita sugar consumption, and HFCS in particular. For further details see Lustig’s paper The Fructose Epidemic [20, 28]. Most HFCS soft drinks have 20% more fructose vs drinks made with ‘ordinary’ sugar — thus justifying ‘HF’ part of their epithet [29].

The increased use of HFCS owes much to the lobby-group-influenced political process of granting subsidies to corn producers to convert their product into cheaper sugar, to add to processed foods.

Not good policy, not good government.

Promoting health without Government action

There are various pitfalls that can prevent us from making healthy eating choices. Plants themselves manipulate us into making unhealthy choices, by tempting us with sugars, and other psycho-active compounds, manipulating our behaviour and appetite.

Government fails to educate people and protect them from misleading information and practices by industry and lobby groups who wish to promote their particular agenda. Lax regulation regarding food additives and labelling, and unscrupulous advertising, even to children, further exacerbates the problem.

It remains difficult, sometimes impossible, to easily ascertain the amount of salt, or sugar etc., in processed foods, or even bread. Labelling is such, even when it exists, that people with anything but a high level of knowledge, education, and a magnifying-glass, are unlikely to be able to make good choices.

In effect, the ability of government to carry out education and good policy enactment on behalf of the people has been hampered by incompetence and distorted by biased interests and lobbyists.

Policies to reduce sugar and alcohol consumption have been effectively blocked by industry, just like they did with tobacco.

There are currently various attempts to bypass the problem os poor government regulations/decisions by the use of smart apps. Such strategies could be expanded and made more successful. This would enable people to use their smart devices to quickly reveal the amount of undesirable ingredients in things they are considering purchasing. For instance, there is currently an app in Australia called ‘CluckAR’, which tells you whether the eggs on display are really free-range, by an ‘independent’ definition of that term. This is because governments have approved regulations and labelling systems that have been so influenced by industry lobbyists that their definition of ‘free-range’ is quite different from independent authorities (like 10,000 hens/Ha, rather than the CSIRO/RSPCA figure of 1,500). Technology is such that an expansion of such apps is straightforward, and could be assisted by the various community organisations, environmental groups, and consumer organisations (such as ‘Choice’ in Australia).

I have heard it said that not enough people would adopt such applications to make much difference (see Postscript). However, it may be noted that competition in retail is such that only a small proportion of people need to cease purchasing a particular product, say with palm-oil in it, or excess sugar etc., and sales will soon decrease sufficiently so that red lights will start flashing on the headquarters computer of retail chain in question. We experienced an example of this locally, quite recently. A considerable downturn in the mining industry led to a decrease in disposable income in the area. This caused them to quickly cease stocking many of the more expensive items.

If such apps gained traction that would influence the situation, without government doing anything at all. Indeed, since government is mainly about popularity and ‘follow-ship’, it is probable that politicians would then jump on the bandwagon, and claim it was their idea. Such is the weakness of their principle, vision and resolve.

Talking of principles, we have room for an 18th c quotation of uncertain origin (it is so delightfully witty, who cares who 1st said it — possibly an interlocutor of Lord Sandwich, but recycled many times since): banter about principles, “Sir you will either die of the pox, or on the gallows”; to which the response was “that depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles”.

And finally

I have tried to weave together a number of disparate threads having to do with evolution, society and politics and link these to drugs, eating, metabolism, and health, in such a way as to increase understanding of the big picture of what influences us to eat as we do, and how easily ‘food’ can cause harm.

An evolutionary perspective on the relationship between the plants we eat, and their effect on us, will continue to produce interesting insights. These effects are both powerful and nuanced, as exemplified by the hundreds of millions of tonnes of sugar that plants have manipulated us into growing, and that is to say nothing of heroin.

Obesity in the Western world is a prominent and expensive health problem — the plants are winning!

Changes to our environment and eating behaviour can combat these influences. Even small changes in the physical layout of one’s kitchen may make a useful difference to eating behaviour.

Individuals can act, even if good government in the interests of the people fails us, having been subverted by industry-interests and lobbyists.

It is a fascinating subject that involves an understanding of evolution, chemistry, pharmacology, psychology, sociology, and politics. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.


It may be noted that there are questions relating to some of Wansink’s work, discussed here on ‘Retraction Watch’. His qualifications are in business and marketing, not ‘science’.

Whilst I was editing the final draft of this commentary (Feb 2017), a news story was reported. It reinforces the comments above concerning consumer buying-habits and their influence on businesses and retail. A large egg-producing company in Australia has announced a big investment considerably increasing free-range egg production, using the lower stocking density of 1500 hens per hectare. They are responding to the shifting preferences of consumers purchasing such eggs, rather than ones called free-range under the government’s less stringent labelling laws. The CluckAR app may have played a part in this change.


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