SSP Research Seminar Series: What's wrong with sugar?

We look forward to the return of the SSP Research Seminar Series where we welcome Karen Throsby to present.


For the last few years, sugar has worn the dubious crown of ‘public health enemy number one’. Across a range of settings, sugar is blamed for obesity rates that have proved largely immune to two decades of a ‘war’ against fat bodies and for a catalogue of expensive chronic diseases that are seen as crippling health services and welfare systems through over-demand. It is almost unimaginable in the contemporary moment for someone to be unaware of the ‘wrongness’ of sugar, which, like the wrongness of ‘obesity’, has been placed (to use John Law’s term) “beyond the limits of contestability” (2012: 174). As such, sugar has become the subject of urgent imperatives; it is a problem about which something must be done. But while there is almost universal agreement that sugar is a problem, there is a lack of consensus about the precise nature of that problem – an ontological multiplicity that matters because the imagined nature of a problem (and its effects) determine and constrain the solutions that can be imagined. This paper builds on the work of Helen Keane (2002) and Abigail Saguy (2013), who asked similar questions of addiction and fat respectively – two issues that intersect strongly with the dominant narratives of sugar. Drawing on newspaper reporting, scientific publications, policy documents, popular science tracts and self-help books, this paper argues that the unanimity surrounding the ‘wrongness’ of sugar manufactures certainties that are belied by enactments of that wrongness in practice. Instead, the ‘problem’ of sugar can be understood as a lowest-common-denominator which gives a misplaced singularity to entangled multiple realities. In making this case, I am not interested in engaging in a debate about whether sugar is or isn’t ‘bad for you’, but rather, want to explore what is at stake in different enactments of sugar’s wrongness, what deleterious harms and exclusions might arise from them and what spaces can be opened up for thinking differently by asking critical questions about that which seems beyond question.

This paper is part of an in-progress book manuscript, Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar (MUP).

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