Death by Peeps?
My favorite radio game show has contestants listen to three unbelievable news stories and figure out which one is true. The name of the game is “Bluff the Listener”, but separating reality from fiction is harder than it sounds. You can’t rely on choosing the oddest story, or what seems to be the most obvious, because, more often than not, the weirdest tales are real. (A hamster hotel for people? True. Bed-warming humans for hire? Also true.)
If you listen carefully, though, sometimes you can catch the give-away: the one detail that reveals a story to be a sham.
Recently, one of the game’s players described a news story in which a raging fire consumed an entire garage and the 1967 Mustang convertible inside it. What started the blaze? According to the narrator, a flaming stash of marshmallow Peeps.
Absurd? Yes. Untrue? I wasn’t sure until the storyteller described the Peeps as “3-to-a-pack.”
“Well, that story is obviously wrong,” I remember thinking, “Peeps come five to a package.”
I was right. The story was in fact, false, but that knowledge didn’t come for free. It was earned through years of dedicated Peep-eating. And I think there may be a price to pay.
According to a new study in Cell Metabolism, a diet high in sugar can cut lifespan by as much as 20%. The lifespan of a nematode, that is. These hearty little roundworms (called C. elegans) are short (about 1mm long), tube-shaped, and like to hang out with humans- or, more specifically, human garbage. C. elegans eat the bacteria that break down discarded bits of fruits and vegetables.
Though the worms are visible (barely) to the naked eye, they’re also transparent. So, while you may have a hard time finding one in your compost pile, C. elegans’ sheer skin allows researchers to see the inner workings of their bodies- from end to end.
They’re also cheap, short-lived, easy to work with, freezable, and believe it or not, amazingly similar to humans. (In one classic experiment, Michigan scientists showed that C. elegans could become addicted to nicotine, and, like people who quit smoking, experience symptoms of withdrawal.)
There’s much to learn from these worms’ short (and, in the case of our Cell Metabolism study, sweet) lives that can be applied to humans.
The study’s authors found that feeding worms a diet constantly supplemented with sugar knocked about 4 days off their lives. (The worms’ lives, not the researchers.) 4 days may not sound like much, but when your lifespan is measured in weeks, it’s a big deal. We can scale this up to a human timeframe: an average woman in the US lives to be 75; an equivalent reduction in longevity would shorten her life by 15 years. What’s true in worms isn’t always true in humans, but it’s enough to make me wonder.
Let’s get back to the Peeps.
The average American eats 90 grams of processed sugar daily- that’s roughly the equivalent of two and a half packages of Peeps. Every day. But, unless we’re talking about me around Easter time, it’s unlikely that this surplus of dietary sugar comes from marshmallows. So, where does it come from?
Not surprisingly, much of American sugar consumption is in the form of soda, which, at 39 grams per 12 oz can, is one of the densest forms of processed sugar a person can ingest. To put it into Peep perspective, there’s about one package crammed into every can.
It’s enough to make my mouth water.
I looked up the sugar content of various sweet treats for something, anything, that could rival soda for sugar content. A Hershey’s chocolate bar? Nope- only 24 grams of sugar. A Cadbury crème egg? Not even close. These candies (chocolate shells filled with gooey faux-yolk interiors) –ok, I’ll admit it, they’re my favorite- have 25 grams of sugar apiece. The only food item I could find that beat soda for sugar amount was nearly pure sugar itself: cotton candy.
So, how much soda does it take to match the sugar in one cone of the spun pink stuff? About a can and a half.
It’s not completely clear how a high-sugar diet affects aging in humans, but I might think twice about what goes in the Easter baskets this year.
On the other hand, this looks pretty tempting: