The Master Disease of Our Time--

Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about cancer as a disease of civilization. I had many interesting responses. One reader wondered how cancer could be a disease of civilization, since there are many references to it in ancient literature.

I have long had an interest in the history of cancer and would be the last person to argue that the disease was not known in ancient times. The Greeks had a word for it: carcinoma. The word "cancer" is itself Latin for crab. This metaphorical term was probably chosen because the protruding blood vessels surrounding breast tumors reminded someone of the claws of mat voracious crustacean. The ancient physician Galen even wrote a small book on abnormal growths, titled De Tumoribus, which was first translated into English in 1975.

See my article ob Galen at: www.ralphmoss.coni/html/Balen.shtml

None of these facts, however, contradicts the idea that cancer is predominantly a disease of civilization. Everything indicates that cancer was relatively rare, not Just in antiquity, but up until the 19th century.

Even if we agree that the incidence of cancer exhibited a giant increase in 19th-century Europe, there is ample room to disagree on the exact cause. "Civilization" entails many changes from the simple life of a medieval peasant, much less the aboriginal state of the hunter-gatherers. I want to point out to you a single change that I believe had profound health consequences. This was the refinement of white sugar from cane and beets, a practice that really exploded in the 19th century.

In an excellent but out-of-print book. The Saccharine Disease, Dr. T. L. Cleave demonstrates that many of the diseases that presently afflict us are relatively modem plagues. In his view (and mine), these diseases of civilization are due largely to the incredible increase in sugar consumption during the past century.

Dr. Cleave was a surgeon-captain in the Royal Navy, Director of Medical Research at the Institute of Naval Medicine, and a member of the Royal College of Physicians. His book has been hailed by Robert C. Atkins, MD, as "one of the most important books ever written." Although The Saccharine Disease suffers from a terrible title (it has nothing to do with the artificial sweetener saccharin) and is written in a rather dry technical style, its theory is worth investigating.

Cleave shows that many diseases that are common today were virtually unknown until the introduction of refined sugar. These conditions include constipation, diverticular disease, varicose veins, thrombosis, hemorrhoids, dental caries (cavities), the twin plagues of obesity and diabetes, E.coli infections, and peptic ulcers. He also touches on the subject of colon cancer.

Cleave rules out the possibility that these diseases were caused by the refining of wheat, since the wide-scale use of white bread dated from 1800, while the onslaught of these common modem diseases only happened in the early 20th century.

It is hard to comprehend me massive increase in sugar use in our society. In 1815, the average resident of Great Britain consumed about 15 pounds of sugar per year. When Cleave's book was published in England in 1974, this had risen to about 120 pounds per year.    

A Nation of Sugar Junkies

to the US today, sugar consumption is now around 150 pounds per year for every man, woman and child. Imagine if people had to buy their year's supply of sugar all at one time. A typical American family of four would have to fill the back of a station wagon with 12 fifty-pound sacks of sugar!

The average American consumes about 20 teaspoons (almost one-half cup) of sugar per day, which accounts for 16 percent of our daily intake of calories. For teenagers, sugar consumption accounts for a full 20 percent of calories per day. In 1977 sugar accounted for "only" 11 percent of our caloric intake.

Cleave's book doesn't even mention corn syrup, but this sweetener has become a significant source of our sugar intake in recent years. US consumption of corn symp increased 400 percent between 1900 and 1980. One explanation for this dramatic increase is the similarly explosive rise m the consumption of soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

Between 1960 and 1980, US soft drink consumption increased 300 percent, m 1997, the soft drink industry produced 14 billion gallons of soft drinks, twice as much as in 1974, and Americans shelled out over $54 billion on this "liquid candy." Today, the average American consumes 38 gallons of soft drinks per year. Irseasy to see why one-fifth of our sugar intake is accounted for by soft drinks.

1 remember as a kid having to get a written permission slip from my mother to drink a bottle of soda in camp. Today, there are no restraints. The average teenage boy now gets 15 teaspoons per day of sugar from soft drinks. Twenty years ago, teenage boys consumed twice as much milk as soda pop; today they consume twice as much soda pop as milk. Nutritionists warn that soda consumption may be contributing to osteoporosis since many girls and young women drink soda instead of milk, which is rich in calcium.

Older readers will remember that in the 1950s, Coca-Cola came only in a 6 1/2-ounce bottle. That soon grew into the 12-ounce can. Today, 20-ounce bottles are readily available from vending machines, and a 64-ounce 600-calorie Double Gulp is as near as your local 7-Eleven. It always shocks me to see the wall of soft drinks at Wal-Mart's checkout, with two-liter bottles available for as little as 88 cents. For a lot of people, sugar is a cheap "high" that comes in a brightly colored bottle. Mixed with caffeine (in cola) it is an especially potent mixture.

Believe it or not, even toddlers are being primed for a lifetime of sugar addiction. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), major manufacturers "encourage feeding soft drinks to toddlers by licensing their logos to a maker of baby bottles, Munchkin Bottling, Inc. Infants and toddlers are four times likelier to be fed soda pop out of those bottles than out of regular baby bottles." We have not yet spoken about the link between sugar and cancer. However, the affinity of cancerous tissue for sugar (glucose) is well known. The Nobel laureate Otto Warburg believed that cancers ferment sugar rather man respire in the normal way. This fact is the basis of the high-tech diagnostic tool known as positron emission tomography (PET). PET scans are x-rays that reveal areas of heightened glucose metabolism in the body, which may indicate the presence of cancer.

It certainly is suspicious that, like the other diseases I have mentioned, the incidence of cancer increased tremendously at the same time as sugar consumption went sky-high. There are some studies showing that decreasing one's exposure to refined carbohydrates could diminish your risk of getting colorectal cancer.

My strong advice is to avoid sugar whenever possible. In these dog days of summer, water with a twist of lemon is an extremely refreshing drink. If you are hooked on carbonated beverages, try soda water that is flavored with fruit essences (cranberry, lemon, lime, etc.) but that contains no sweeteners. You will quickly come to like the taste and will never regret having given up cloying sweeteners.


Cleave TL. The Saccharine Disease. New Canaan, CT;

Keats Publishing Co., 1975.

Franceschi S et al. Dietary glycemic load and colorectal cancer risk. Ann Oncol, 2001 Feb;12:173-8.

Reedy J. Galen on cancer and related diseases. Clio Med,1975;10(3):227-38.

"Liquid candy: highlights."

"Sugar consumption 'off the charts' say health experts."