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Medicine Science

Is Sugar Toxic? 1017

Posted by Soulskill
from the toxic-is-delicious dept.
a_hanso tips an article by Gary Taubes in the NYTimes Magazine that evaluates claims from Dr. Robert Lustig's virally popular lecture on the negative effects of sugar on peoples' health. (YouTube video of the lecture.) Taubes discusses the science behind the claims and the odd willingness of people to accept Lustig's arguments without further inspection. Quoting: "When I set out to interview public health authorities and researchers for this article, they would often initiate the interview with some variation of the comment 'surely you’ve spoken to Robert Lustig,' not because Lustig has done any of the key research on sugar himself, which he hasn’t, but because he’s willing to insist publicly and unambiguously, when most researchers are not, that sugar is a toxic substance that people abuse. In Lustig’s view, sugar should be thought of, like cigarettes and alcohol, as something that’s killing us. This brings us to the salient question: Can sugar possibly be as bad as Lustig says it is?"
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Is Sugar Toxic?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:22PM (#35862392)

    just ask an authority on this topic, and that of health in general, for that matter: Ray Kurzweil.

  • by blair1q (305137) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:23PM (#35862406) Journal

    Calling sugar "toxic" is probably a plot to demean the word "toxic" and make tobacco less regulated.

    Either that, or he's fallen for a more subtle form of the Dihydrogen Monoxide troll, perpetrated by the chemistry of sugar itself.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by devincook (1929234)

      Calling sugar "toxic" is probably a plot to demean the word "toxic" and make tobacco less regulated.

      +1 tinfoil hat award.

      Nice.

    • He's only really calling fructose toxic, and only when it isn't ingested with enough fiber to blunt its absorption. (So an orange is fine, but pulp-free orange juice will slowly kill you.)
      • by wsxyz (543068) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:36PM (#35862580)

        He's only really calling fructose toxic, and only when it isn't ingested with enough fiber to blunt its absorption. (So an orange is fine, but pulp-free orange juice will slowly kill you.)

        In fact, I suspect the drinking of pulp-free orange juice over a span of 80-90 years is responsible for the near 100% mortality over that time span.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          In fact, I suspect the drinking of pulp-free orange juice over a span of 80-90 years is responsible for the near 100% mortality over that time span.

          Nah, lots of people have died who don't drink orange juice.

          If it was the oranges, anybody who didn't drink it would still be alive. =)

          • by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday April 19, 2011 @06:04AM (#35865886) Journal

            But 100% of all people who died have been drinking dihydrogen monoxide during most of their life (not always in pure form, though). Some died from withdrawal symptoms, though.

            Of course, sugar is a chemical compound of carbon and DHMO (sugar is C6H12O6, that is 6 C + 6 H2O), therefore it's only natural to assume that the toxicity of DHMO is also found in sugar.

            Also if you eat sugar, your body creates carbon dioxide from the carbon in it. Therefore eating sugar is bad for the climate (for the same reason, you shouldn't do sports; the climate effect happens only if you actually burn the sugar, not if you produce fat from it).

            SCNR :-)

    • by booble (638328) on Monday April 18, 2011 @09:20PM (#35863072)
      Everything is toxic. It depends on the dose as to when it reaches toxic levels. For sugar, the LD50 is >10,000 mg per kg of body weight. In comparison, caffeine's LD50 is 100 mg/kg and nicotine's is 1 mg/kg. "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous." Paracelsus, the father of toxicology.
      • by hahn (101816) on Monday April 18, 2011 @11:10PM (#35863972) Homepage

        Everything is toxic. It depends on the dose as to when it reaches toxic levels. For sugar, the LD50 is >10,000 mg per kg of body weight. In comparison, caffeine's LD50 is 100 mg/kg and nicotine's is 1 mg/kg. "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous." Paracelsus, the father of toxicology.

        I'm quite certain that pediatric endocrinologist from UCSF understands the technical definition of toxin. I believe he was using it to create attention to the problem and to make a point. And it's not entirely inaccurate either. His argument is that #1 the dosage in the average American diet is too high, and #2 toxins don't always cause acute problems. LD50 is a measure of acute toxicity. As you pointed out, nictotine has an LD50 of 1 mg/kg. Does that mean taking it in at a lower dosage over a long period of time is healthy for you? Does that then make it NOT a toxin?

        He also made it very clear in his lecture that fructose is a chronic toxin. Did ANYONE criticizing this theory actually listen to the entire lecture??

    • by SiMac (409541)

      If the article is correct, then fructose and sucrose are responsible for a large proportion of deaths in the United States, and not merely because of the calories they contain. (As far as I can tell, glucose and complex carbohydrates are fine.) If this is indeed the case, I think "toxic" is an accurate term. The headline is a little sensational in that it says "sugar" and not "fructose and sucrose," but no one has "fallen for a more subtle form of the Dihydrogen Monoxide troll."

    • Calling sugar "toxic" is probably a plot to demean the word "toxic" and make tobacco less regulated.

      If you introduce the "Western diet" to cultures that don't have it, those people become hypertensive, get heart disease, obese, and die earlier.

      Is there a more appropriate word than 'toxic'? Is "Really bad for you" somehow more politically correct?

      Maybe it's not the fructose. Maybe it's the refined starches, or the bad fats, or the lack of vegetables. But the 100+ pounds of sugar a year can't be a nutritio

  • by seeker_1us (1203072) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:24PM (#35862418)
    If Sugar is bad for you, then howcome it's food?
  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:26PM (#35862440) Journal
    In great enough quantities. It's called "drowning".
    • by at_slashdot (674436) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:32PM (#35862532)

      I just posted something similar, even more, water is really toxic without involving drowning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication [wikipedia.org]

      • That's part of the reason for sports drinks or other things containing electrolytes. During a normal day, you don't need such a thing, however during sever exertion, such as various athletic events, you end up losing so much water to perspiration, that the amount you consume can cause an electrolyte imbalance. When you perspire it isn't just water that it excreted, it is salt, urea, and so on. Thus replacing it with pure water is a problem if done in excess.

        Hence you get drinks that have things, salt mostly

  • Sugar is toxic (Score:3, Informative)

    by WillKemp (1338605) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:29PM (#35862474) Homepage

    Sugar is definitely toxic in high concentrations for some organisms - that's why it's used as a preservative. High concentrations of sugar kill many bacteria.

    • Sugar is definitely toxic in high concentrations for some organisms - that's why it's used as a preservative. High concentrations of sugar kill many bacteria.

      We're getting close to the limits of the definition of 'toxic' here. Hypertonic solutions kill bacteria because they dehydrate them: the water inside the bacteria gets sucked out because the external solution is more concentrated than the stuff in the bacteria. As such, any highly concentrated solution -- table salt, potassium sulfate, what have you -- will also do the same thing, so you can't say this is a property of sugar, but a property of concentrated solutions, and as such, it's not really useful, a

  • by Haedrian (1676506) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:37PM (#35862588)

    It starts off with a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee...

    Before long, you're eating tons of it, snorting it, injecting it into the blood.

    Then you need harder stuff...

  • by HangingChad (677530) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:40PM (#35862618) Homepage

    One of the most pervasive and powerful lobbies in Washington is the sugar lobby. They're worse than the oil companies going after climate research when it comes to attacking anyone who raises questions about their product.

    They started the PR push back in advance of the story. Expect more in the days to come.

  • Glucose anyone? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JazzyJ (1995) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:40PM (#35862624) Homepage Journal

    Given that glucose is what our bodies run on, I'd have to say no, sugar is NOT toxic to us. Is having too much sugar bad for you? Certainly. It's about balance. Too much of nearly anything (even water) is going to be bad for you.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rimbo (139781)

      RTFA isn't your strong suit, is it?

      Sugar is a (roughly) 50/50 mix of glucose and fructose, and it's the fructose that Lustig claims is toxic.

    • Re:Glucose anyone? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hahn (101816) on Monday April 18, 2011 @10:49PM (#35863842) Homepage

      Given that glucose is what our bodies run on, I'd have to say no, sugar is NOT toxic to us. Is having too much sugar bad for you? Certainly. It's about balance. Too much of nearly anything (even water) is going to be bad for you.

      You clearly didn't watch the lecture or have never taken biochemistry. Sugar - sucrose - is a disaccharide. Meaning a molecule of it is comprised of a glucose bonded to a fructose. In your digestive tract, it is broken down into its components - glucose and fructose. Glucose IS fine because every cell in your body utilizes glucose. Lustig stated that quite clearly and even showed evidence that people who consume starch filled foods (starch = long chains of glucose) do NOT get fat. The body doesn't tend to want to convert glucose into fat because it then has to convert it back to glucose - very inefficient. The body stores excess glucose in the liver as glycogen. And while you do need glucose to survive, you do NOT need to eat sugar (or even other carbohydrates) to get glucose. Your body is well equipped to make its own glucose.

      Fructose is the problem because its biochemical pathway in the liver leads to fat, especially when you are already getting sufficient glucose, as you are when you eat sugar. In addition, there are other metabolic byproducts which result in inflammation, uric acid (possibly leading to gout), and super dense LDL's which are the actual cause of atherosclerosis (in heart disease). It also wrecks havoc on the normal functioning of the hormones in your body that regulate your hunger mechanisms (as well as regulation of body fat storage).

      I'm getting the sense from reading many other comments that are similar to this one that most people don't have a good grasp of what "sugar" actually is. People, watch the lecture before you criticize the theory.

    • Re:Glucose anyone? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Ephemeriis (315124) on Tuesday April 19, 2011 @08:46AM (#35866674)

      Given that glucose is what our bodies run on, I'd have to say no, sugar is NOT toxic to us. Is having too much sugar bad for you? Certainly. It's about balance. Too much of nearly anything (even water) is going to be bad for you.

      Glucose is one of the things our bodies run on. We can also run on ketones. And there is some evidence (controversial, of course) that our bodies run better on ketones than on glucose.

      But just because our bodies run on it does not mean that it is non-toxic. There's a reason why unregulated blood sugar (diabetes) is considered a bad thing. High blood sugar causes damaged to capillaries and your retinas, causes neuropathy, all kinds of fun stuff. And we aren't even talking about hitting the LD50 of glucose.

      The fact of the matter is that much of our dietary recommendations, like the food pyramid, are not based on good science. Sure, if you take in more calories than you burn you're going to gain weight... But that's an overly simplistic statement. It really depends on what kind of calories you take in, and how the body metabolizes them. There's no link between dietary fat and body fat (beyond the fact that dietary fat is generally calorically dense) - but we're told that low-fat is good. We're told to eat lots of grains and carbohydrates of various types... We start seeing all kinds of nutritionally fortified foods... We start sticking NuVal tags on everything in the supermarket... And obesity skyrockets. And dieticians are still telling folks to avoid fat and have a bowl of cereal instead.

      We consume far more sugar in our daily diet than we were ever intended to. Not just glucose, but absolute craptons of fructose. And, whether the corn lobby likes it or not, fructose is not processed the same way glucose is. We consume craptons of starches, too... Dry cereals, various chips and crackers, pasta, potatoes, breads, corn in every form imaginable... All that starch gets converted into sugar eventually.

      We'd really be much better off eating more natural fats like nuts, butter, and not-so-lean meat. We'd really be much better off eating more protein from meats, nuts, and beans. We'd really be much better off eating more vegetables. And we'd be a hell of a lot better off if so much of our food didn't come from a box or a freezer or a restaurant.

      But industrial agriculture is a huge business... And you've got to do something with all that corn your grow... So we get lobbyists in Washington, and we get recommendations based on bad science, and we get inundated with commercials telling us how much better our lives will be if we just microwave something instead of spending hours in the kitchen... And then folks look amazed at our national epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

  • Sugar Damages You (Score:4, Informative)

    by TexVex (669445) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:40PM (#35862628)
    High blood sugar causes your body damage. It will destroy capillaries in your extremities and retinas, making you blind and gangrenous. Sounds pretty toxic to me.

    Sugar is also necessary for the body to function. If you don't eat any, your body will make some. However, the amount actually required to function is very small. When blood sugar is kept at ideal levels, all is well and sugar is not killing you.

    The problem is, people are eating way too much of it these days. Not just sugar, but starches that break down into sugar very quickly when eaten. This causes blood sugar spikes, provoking your metabolism to go into defense mode. That means a spike of insulin to control the blood sugar level quickly. However, this often overcompensates, leaving blood sugar low, which drives one to eat again, much sooner than is actually necessary. Plus, the excess sugar is stored as fat, and fat leads to insulin resistance over the long haul -- diabetes.

    People need to eat more protein and fat, and choose carbohydrates that are absorbed into the system slowly. Keep the blood sugar on an even keel and you can break the cycle of endless hunger. You'll lose weight without having to diet, because you won't be driven to eat by the ping-ponging of your blood sugar level. And the fine structures of your body will sustain less damage from the blood sugar spikes, meaning you'll weather aging a lot better.
  • Curious... (Score:5, Informative)

    by wierd_w (1375923) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:46PM (#35862684)

    Just how many people posting replies here have actually, you know-- watched the hour long presentation created by Mr. Lustig all the way through?

    In the presentation, Lustig lists the metabolic pathway that fructose (The sugar he rants about) has to go through in order to be processed by the body, and explains why it is toxic in the quantities that people eat it in.

    What is drawing fire here, is that lustig rightly mentions that sucrose is just a glucose and a fructose bound together by an ether bond, and metabolically speaking is practically identical to HFCS. (Something the corn refiner's association is also quick to point out.)

    The real point of the presentation is to point out that the US population is eating considerably more sugar than it was 50 years ago, with a more than 300% increase in fructose consumption specifically.

    He advocates reduction of fructose consumption, based on several cited studies he lists in his viral video presentation.

    That said, armchair nerd pundits like us have no place to try to debunk such claims, since as far as I know none of us are licensed dieticians or physicians. As such, throwing useless arguments like "Dihydrogen oxide poisoning" around are non-sequitors at best, and pointless mud slinging at worst.

    Having seen the presentation, and seen that he cites dozens of studies that can be independently examined, (and therefor verified), I feel that his presentation is of higher quality than say, a certain celebrity's rants about immunity shots and autism are. As such, it deserves more meaty rebuttles than what I am reading here on slashdot.

    • by Rimbo (139781)

      There are two problems here.

      The first is that what Lustig is saying is complicated enough that it requires an hour-and-a-half long presentation to cover all of the bases.

      The second is that it's long enough that casual readers aren't going to spend the time going through it. "tl;dr" and all that.

    • by Dahamma (304068)

      I think most here would have a hard time attacking Lustig's credentials, and many probably agree with his basic hypothesis.

      The problem is all of the hyperbole... repeatedly describing sugar as "toxic", "poison", and most ridiculously "evil". Ok, so now sugar is not only a highly toxic poison, but it actually has intent?

      I guess all of this exaggeration might be the best way to "reach the masses", but it clearly backfires on those who prefer to look at the evidence and make their own conclusions (which happe

    • Scientific Method (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Okian Warrior (537106) on Monday April 18, 2011 @11:00PM (#35863910) Homepage Journal

      As a scientist, I like to base my opinions on evidence wherever possible.

      Lustig makes strong points which are backed up by studies (cited in his lecture) and are consistent with known biochemical pathways (which he explains).

      The vast majority of responses here are complete bunkum: anecdotal evidence, true facts which sound like they are relevant ("you can drown in water!"), and misrepresentation of his central point ("our bodies *need* glucose! He's crazy!")

      If you disagree with his position and have evidence to back that up, I'll listen to what you have to say.

      Everyone else - you're going to get really frustrated when I don't change my opinion because of what you say.

      Let's let evidence and logic have it's moment here.

    • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Monday April 18, 2011 @11:26PM (#35864078) Homepage Journal

      I've just now reviewed Alan Aragon's debunking of Lustig's claims, roundly publicized here in several comments. Including some of the cited references from that article.

      Alan's rebuttal was a debate between himself and Lustig. The issues wander the landscape of unrelated factual errors (Lustig claims that the Japanese have no added fructose in their diet), cites of papers which show the data being inconclusive (specifically, he's citing absence of evidence as evidence of absence), and painting Lustig with the same brush as more "fringe" claimants.

      And of course it wasn't the actual debate, but a summary of the debate, and written by Alan. He must have won the debate too - he says so in his summary.

      In comparing the two positions, I find Alan's rebuttal lacking in scientific rigor. If a half-dozen or so studies can be found (or undertaken) which target Lustig's claims directly and show no evidence for the things that he says, that would counter the half-dozen or so studies that form the basis of Lustig's lecture.

      Until then, I assign higher likelyhood to Lustig. I'll continue to hold this position until actual scientists chime in with conclusions based on evidence.

  • by fermion (181285) on Monday April 18, 2011 @08:49PM (#35862726) Homepage Journal
    Any refined chemical is likely toxic as it is taken out of natural proportions, with natural protections, and concentrated to unhealthy dosages. An 8 ounce coke, for instance has 100 calories, all from refined sugar, and no fiber. Orange juice has the same calories, but also fiber which can regulate the sugar intake. Also most people cannot just drink orange juice all day.

    take an apple, 50 calories sugar, 2 g fiber. Healthy food. Horrible fruit stipes, almost twice calories of an apple, less than half he fiber, and can be eaten endlessly.

    A few bottles of coke, or fruit punch, several fuit strip snacks, basically what people think is an ok diet, and one has 2000 calories with no nutrition, and hundreds of grams of refined and concentrated sugar, much more than is healthy.

  • by mario_grgic (515333) on Monday April 18, 2011 @09:01PM (#35862868)
    What is actually claimed is not that sugar (rather generic term which can mean carbohydrate) is toxic, but specifically that fructose has similar effect on the liver metabolism as alcohol (diabetics have fatty liver just like alcoholics), and fructose negative effect on the liver is worsened if caloric needs are already met. Specifically, if fructose metabolism in the liver is compared to alcohol metabolism you will see similar/same by-products of both. The claims made are verifiable, although a do require a bit biochemistry understanding.
  • by w0mprat (1317953) on Monday April 18, 2011 @09:04PM (#35862900)
    As a person with mild fructose malabsorbtion I can say it's packaging that makes a difference too. I can eat fruit without a problem, but the same ammount of fructose in something like HFCS brings on my symptoms.
  • by zerofoo (262795) on Monday April 18, 2011 @10:12PM (#35863544)

    I was on statins for about a year and a half after unsuccessfully trying to better my numbers with a "low-cholesterol low-saturated fat" diet. My doctor chalked up my numbers to genes and sent me on my way with a script.

    The statins made me feel terrible (back pains, low energy, heart palpitations, general fogginess and difficulty concentrating) so I gave them up. I was a bit worried about the heart palpitations, so I had a cardiac workup done - everything checked out OK.

    After reading a bunch of stuff linking sugars to high cholesterol, I decided to try a low-sugar/carb diet (Mediterranean diet). It worked amazingly well. My total cholesterol dropped from 260 before statins to 175. I was around 200 on the statins. Ratios are good as well.

    The other nice side-effect of cutting out sugars - I'm 20 pounds lighter now.

    -ted

  • by Edmund Blackadder (559735) on Monday April 18, 2011 @10:41PM (#35863800)

    Once again the slashdot summary is misleading. I urge everyone to see the referenced video and read the article afterwards. They are very informative. However, I should point out that the slashdot summary makes it look like the New York Times article is kind of dismissing Lustig's video. This is not true, the article is actually mostly supportive of Lustig's theories while providing much more historical information.

  • Quantity/comments (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Myopic (18616) on Monday April 18, 2011 @11:51PM (#35864250)

    Why is everyone parroting the trope that "everything is toxic in large quantities" without asking whether the modern Western diet is above the threshold of excess? Isn't that what we're talking about here?

    I feel like the libertarians in the crowd are trying to dismiss a valid question before it's answered.

  • Watch the video (Score:5, Informative)

    by JoeCommodore (567479) <larry@portcommodore.com> on Tuesday April 19, 2011 @12:06AM (#35864342) Homepage

    All I can say is watch the video and then comment. I did, was more informative than most videos Ive seen lately, and poses an excellent argument on the possible cause of increased sugar leading to obesity. I think it is something worth seriously considering if you are overweight or have the health issues stated. In the last week since I saw it I cut out most processed sugars and am actually feeling better than I have in a long while.

    Watch the video, decide for yourself. Will it kill you to cut down on HFCS or processed sugar? Not at all. And could it help? quite probably, so to me its worth a try.

  • diabetes research (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cas2000 (148703) on Tuesday April 19, 2011 @01:07AM (#35864648)

    the toxicity of sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc) is one of things that almost no researcher in the know dares to mention publicly because it would be career (and funding) suicide. the processed food industry is far too powerful a lobby group.

    but the researchers know. check medline. almost every research article on diabetes begins with words to the effect of "fed the rats sugar until they developed diabetes". feeding rats sugar is THE consistently reproducible method of inducing diabetes.

    and this is what the processed food lobby is doing to consumers every day with sugar in absofuckinglutely everything. even things you think wouldn't have sugar because they're supposed to be salty or sour or savoury or anything-else-but-sweet have sugar in them. because it's cheap, it's addictive (esp. to children and adults with poor impulse control - i.e. most of the population), and it's a preservative.

    sugar in our diet isn't bad when it's rare and unrefined (as it is in fruits and vegetables etc. and in our natural pre-agriculture diet it WAS rare, but it was a huge amount of easily absorbed energy which is why we evolved the ability to taste sweetness...and why we also evolved to *like* it). even when humans first discovered processed sugar from sugar cane a few hundred years ago it wasn't a huge problem because it was very expensive (like all spices were) - only the rich could afford it.

    even the improvement of refinery processes that made sugar became extremely refined and extremely cheap wasn't that bad....it was only when "food" factories started putting it in *everything* so that it became almost impossible to avoid eating far too much of the stuff that it became a problem.

    and this, btw, is also why the poor (and the time-poor) suffer from diabetes more than the rich do - the rich can afford to eat well. the poor can't (money-wise AND time-wise).

  • by Perey (818567) on Tuesday April 19, 2011 @04:01AM (#35865386)

    Taube's article is pretty long. It's still much faster to read it than to watch Lustig's whole presentation. If you can, do both, of course. If you can't or won't WTFV, then RTFA. If you can't or won't RTFA, then here's a summary.

    Yes, too much of anything is toxic. Duh. That's not what Lustig or Taube are talking about. They're also not talking about "empty calories" -- the consumption of lots of sugar without other nutrients, meaning your overall calorie intake is higher, so you get fat and have obesity-related problems.

    What they're talking about is the question of whether fructose directly causes health problems of its own accord -- namely, things like fatty liver and insulin resistance, things which may in turn raise the risk of diabetes and cancer independent of whether you get fat.

    What Taube will tell you, that Lustig won't, is that the research is not conclusive. It all shows very strong correlation, but that of course isn't causation. And that's caused all these disputes of what the real problem is, particularly whether it's fat or sugar that's responsible.

    Taube says that we should be considering the possibility that it's both; or at least, abandoning the idea that it must be either-or. Similarly, on the question of whether it's sucrose or HFCS that's worse, he suggests that they're so similar (both are glucose-fructose mixtures in nearly equal proportions) that they're probably both just as bad as each other.

    Too much of anything is toxic; but (Taube says) because the research is inconclusive, nobody can say how much fructose is "too much". It's an established fact that short-term, high-dose fructose intake causes these problems (fatty liver et al.), but it's not known what long-term intake at the levels currently typical in the US will do.

    The circumstantial evidence suggests that it will cause the same problems, eventually. And of course various people (like Lustig) have seized on this circumstantial stuff as damning evidence. But just because they're overstating the case, doesn't mean they're wrong, says Taube.

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