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Duke's unyielding sugar rush

ways and means

A couple days ago, I decided to grab a cup of coffee from Vondy. A very simple task, to be sure. As I approached the cashier, however, my eyes encountered a grotesque, yet captivating sight.

Directly next to the cashier was a pile—nay, a mound—of oversized pastries. Scones, cakes, the most buttered and sugared breads I’d seen in ages. My shock at such an aggressive display of sugar took a long time to wane. Even as I sipped my coffee, the image of the stacked carbohydrates continued to haunt me.

For those who don’t have as cultivated an aversion to sugar as I do, this sight may not have meant anything. To be clear, I have nothing against people who buy large scones with their afternoon coffee. What I do have a problem with is the overabundance of sugar across campus.

After this encounter that so disturbed my sensibilities, I was on the watch for refined sugar around Duke’s campus. The first place of interest was, rather obviously, Marketplace. What was Duke’s food policy in a buffet-style situation? 

To my surprise and disappointment, sugar is ubiquitous in Marketplace. For breakfast, there are regular pastries (like muffins or croissants), sugary cereals, chocolate milk (40g of sugar per glass), and fruit juices (42-49g of sugar per glass. Orange juice is 10g per glass); pancakes and french toast (8g sugar) with syrup (37 g of sugar per ladle) or fruit compote (17 g of sugar per ladle for strawberry) are common breakfast items, too.

Marketplace does offer healthy options alongside the sugar; there are bins full of fruit. Simple vegetarian and vegan options are always available. Plain vegetables and fruits are regularly served. Simultaneously, however, piles of dessert (cakes, ice cream, and more) are laid out in an infinite stream.

But Marketplace is not the only offender. In the Brodhead Center, look to the sweets offered at the checkout section of an eatery. Watch out for Il Forno’s Chocolate Chunk cookie with 34g of sugar per serving. There are smoothies from the Loop (a strawberry shake has 84 g of sugar). Even Red Mango drinks are filled with sugar (a 16oz Strawberry Energizer has 42g of sugar).

The stockade of fructose doesn’t end outside the food hall—it is bolstered by the regular vending machines throughout Duke’s campus. These are filled with snacks most people know to be unhealthy. Even snacks people might assume to be healthy, like Clif Bars, have about 16g of included sugars.

I hope I’m not sounding too much like a nagging parent. The truth is, however, we are inundated by sugar. Some of you may not care about this state of affairs. Sure, sugar is supposedly “bad” for us, but what does it really do?

The specific problem at hand is the regular consumption of large amounts of added sugars without fiber. These added sugars almost always contain fructose, a compound digested in the liver. Just as too much alcohol damages the liver, a similar process unfolds with overconsumption of added sugars. Humans were not meant to consume so much fructose; in the wild, humans mostly ate sugar in the form of fruit (which has fiber to slow digestion).

This overuse of the liver can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). About 31% of American adults have NAFLD; NASH is the third largest reason for liver transplants in the United States. Overconsumption of sugar is linked to heart disease and diabetes. Not only that, but sugar consumption can drive weight gain, as it can disrupt leptin, a hormone responsible for regulating our eating habits.

Are we over-consuming at Duke? Sugar is not required to survive, and so no minimum amount of sugar is prescribed; rather, sugar is described in regards to its maximum recommended daily intake. For adult females, this is 25 g of added sugar a day; for males it is 38 g. This means a female first-year who gets a glass of juice for breakfast has already exceeded her daily maximum by almost 17 g of sugar. If she decides to eat a pancake too, she will have eaten double her recommended daily amount of sugar in a single meal.

At the heart of the problem is that most students are unaware of the amount of sugar we consume. The only reason I found the sugar content in most of the foods listed here is because Duke publishes nutrition information on their dining website. My intuition is that an overwhelming majority of students have no idea about the sugar content of the food they consume daily. How can you control something you aren’t aware of?

Another major issue at hand is the ease and abundance with which sugar is available. Research has shown that sugar leads to cravings, chemical changes in the brain’s reward system and can lead to withdrawal symptoms if denied. 

How much willpower can each student be expected to have? In dealing with multiple tiers of stress—academic, social, personal—having to realign one’s eating habits is another added task—and a difficult one at that. It’s much too easy for the stressed organic chemistry student to grab a glass of chocolate milk to feel better about an upcoming midterm; our natural tendency is to search for these comfort foods. When they are spread out for the taking, how often will we be able to resist?

Let me make a few things clear. I’m not here to judge the morality of eating added sugars. We all eat sugary foods and drinks occasionally; it's entirely our choice to eat what we want. We choose how to treat our own bodies. 

The point I want to make, however, is that Duke has a responsibility to its student body to be cognizant of the medical issues underlying sugar consumption and the psychological basis upon which people become hooked to it. Sugary options should be available if a student wishes to choose to have dessert. But should sugar be so easily available at all meals? Should it be sold without any labels? 

Last month, a group of concerned faculty and leadership submitted a letter to the Chronicle urging for a ban of vapes and e-cigarettes on campus. They were concerned with “the highly addictive and life-threatening effects of vaping” and made their case in a succinct letter. I’m not here to debate this policy in specific; I don’t know enough about vaping to discuss it. What did interest me, however, was the interest medical and health sciences faculty took in promoting student health in this scenario. It is comforting to know that Duke has access to leading experts in the medical field when they design health policy for undergraduates.

Given this, however, I feel Duke has the resources and information available to establish a healthier food culture on campus. Why should the danger of vaping be weighted above that of sugar overconsumption? In many ways, more people are affected by sugar overconsumption. Almost everyone eats sugar—only about 21% of college students vape. Beyond that, Duke has control (and therefore, responsibility) over the sugar it makes available to students; imagine if Duke were selling vapes and then ignored the health issues surrounding this decision.

For students, I urge you to read more on the effects of sugar consumption. There are plenty of video resources that do a great job of breaking down the chemical effects of sugar. Not only that, videos regarding how sugar is abused by food companies can be useful tools in combating personal sugar overconsumption. At the very least, I hope that you are a little more careful when you go to get that “healthy” fruit juice in Marketplace.

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, “ways and means,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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