A (Not So) Sweet Story

Susan Devaney

5.5 min read

From scientific reports and documentaries to government announcements, we’ve been told sugar is the new enemy. With the festive season upon us we look at the rising problem.

At best, these added sugars are empty calories with zero nutritional value; at worst, they are toxic.

What does 25 grams of sugar look like? Six teaspoons of pure sugar. In one serving, that could constitute a typical six-ounce serving of vanilla yogurt. That’s it. Is it any wonder then that today, we’re facing high rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease?

There’s no denying that (most of) us consume the sugary stuff on a daily basis. For many of us, we actually consume it from morning to night without any real recognition. ‘That Sugar Film’, a documentary undertaken by Australian Damon Gameau, fully tests our daily diets and sugar intake to its limits. He consumed the typical Australian’s 40 teaspoons of sugar per day, maintained his normal exercise regime, the same kilojoule intake of his regular diet, and only ate foods that are commonly perceived to be healthy. Foods that are labelled as ‘natural’ or ‘no added sugar’, foods we believe are good for us. It’s a fascinating watch as his body begins to turn against him. Concluding with aforementioned liver disease, 10cm of visceral fat around his waist, mood swings and (according to doctors) early signs of possible coronary problems. He lacks concentration, suffers horrible mood swings and becomes very emotional with no control. Gameau concludes by linking this ‘sugar epidemic’ to nicotine addiction, a similar conclusion drawn by Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool.

Writing for The Guardian newspaper, he said: “A third of British children and two-thirds of British adults are obese or overweight. Diabetes levels have doubled in the past two decades… Added sugars are hidden everywhere in modern food: Often, there are four teaspoons of sugar in a tin of soup, five in a typical TV dinner, six in a yoghurt, nine in a can of cola. At best, these added sugars are empty calories with zero nutritional value; at worst, they are toxic.” It would appear it’s only now we’re beginning to wake up to sugar’s hidden agendas. Over 10,000 years ago, sugar was first enjoyed on the island of New Guinea. Reaching the Asian mainland around 1000 B.C., it was welcomed with open arms. By A.D. 500, it was being processed into a powder in India and used as a medicine for headaches and stomach flutters. It was a secretive venture, being passed down to selected individuals. By A.D. 600, the knowledge had spread to Persia, where high society was entertained with a surplus of sweets.

When Arab armies conquered the region, they took with them the knowledge and love of sugar. And here we are, addicted to the stuff. If sugar is so bad for us, why do we crave it? A spike of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centres of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. In short: It’s highly addictive. Today, the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually, or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. The most thorough data from the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 86 million Americans qualify as obese, and 65 million more are overweight. How much harm can sugar really do? In the 1960s, British nutrition expert John Yudkin conducted a series of experiments on animals and people, showing that high amounts of sugar in the diet led to high levels of fat and insulin in the blood – risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. But, other scientists blamed the rising rates on cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet. We’ve reduced our fat intake, but our waistlines have increased. What’s the main culprit? Sugar. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a mix of fructose and glucose. It’s found in a range of products – from soft drinks to cereals – and it’s no good for our bodies.

Why is it that one-third of adults have high blood pressure, when in 1900, only five percent had high blood pressure? Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more people obese? It all points the finger at sugar. Although glucose is metabolised by cells all through your body, fructose is processed in the liver. The real concern lies in how much we consume and in a small time frame. If we eat too much too quickly of digested forms like soft drinks and sweets, our livers break down the fructose and produce fats called triglycerides. “Added sugar is unwanted calories. Humans get all the sugar they need from the food they eat. The excesses used by industry and superfluous to requirements are a major contributor to weight gain,” says Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum charity in the UK.

Our sugar problem has spiralled out of control, to the point of leading figureheads calling for action. One of the UK’s most successful chefs, Jamie Oliver, produced a film earlier this year entitled ‘Sugar Rush’ to highlight the destruction across society, along with a petition aiming for 100,000 signatories, urging the government to tax sugary drinks – with the potential to raise £1 billion a year to fight childhood obesity and diet-related diseases. “Fizzy drinks that have excessively high levels of sugar should be taxed by a minimum of 20 percent. This will be an ‘in-your-face’ reminder that they are hugely less than healthy – and furthermore rot your children’s teeth if consumed to excess. They certainly have no place in hospitals,” says Fry. The British Medical Association has called for a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks in August. Doctors in the UAE have also called for a curb on soft drink consumption. On average, a resident of the UAE consumes around 300 cans of soft drinks a year, the fifth highest in the world.

The trouble is in today’s world, it’s very difficult to avoid sugar. It’s everywhere and in everything – but does that mean we should avoid it altogether? Mike Rayner, director of the British Heart Foundation health promotion research group at Oxford University, believes obesity is caused by too many calories from all kinds of foods, but backs taxation on soft drinks. “Everyone needs some sugar and will do just fine with natural sugars,” says Fry. “Read labels properly and pick out products with no ‘added sugars’. Don’t get fooled by ‘low sugar’ or ’25 percent less sugar’: Both are probably excessive and the claim depends on how much sugar was in the original product.”

The shutters came down. They had to go. The Mars Bar, the Dairy Milk, all of it. Our love for sugar was to die with our high school’s snack-filled staple backbone: The Tuck Shop. That was nearly 10 years ago, when the UK government first acknowledged the magnitude of the problem. The level of obesity in children was increasing, and the selling of sugary snacks in schools had to decrease – due to doctors attributing the sweet stuff to high rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. From cakes and cream to candy, change was imminent. It would seem the biggest mistake made in the past 30 years or so was removing saturated fats from food, and instead replacing them with refined sugars. “The estimated total numbers of overweight and obese adults in 2005 were 937 million and 396 million, respectively. If recent secular trends continue unabated, the absolute numbers have been projected to total 2.16 billion overweight and 1.12 billion obese individuals. If rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental problems continue to increase, healthcare services around the world won’t be sustainable. Life expectancy will be cut short for future generations,” says Kawther Hashem, nutritionist and researcher for UK group, Action On Sugar. If not for ourselves, then an educated take on sugar and its true properties should be taught now, before it’s too late. We must protect our future generations. Tam Fry is in agreement: “The future looks terrible. We are consuming double or even treble the amount that WHO/SACN now recommends. Even worse, sugar quotas will be slashed by the EU in 2017, flooding the market with more [and even cheaper] sugar. Ugh!” Surely, the solution is simple? If we don’t consume, we don’t buy and companies don’t produce. Somewhere along the way, the big companies have to respond to consumer demand. We say goodbye to sugar, they say hello to genuinely healthy products.