The rise of sugar is a fascinating piece of our social history – from its discovery in India to an expensive luxury added in small quantities to some foods and drinks and now to the astronomical amounts we consume today. Its story includes establishing it as a crop in the New World, the development of slavery to fulfil the market in Europe, blockades in the Napoleonic War preventing its transatlantic shipment and the development of rival sugar beet manufacture in Europe. Is the latest part of the story that it is making us ill?

It’s uncommon to find someone who doesn’t like sugar. Although people vary in how much sweetness they enjoy, most of us gain pleasure from sweet foods and drinks. Sugar is quickly absorbed and the sweetness triggers the “reward centre” in our brain, making us feel good. Many of us turn to sweet things when we feel a bit low and in need of comfort or perking up; and sweet snacks such as chocolates or biscuits are often shared amongst friends or given as gifts.

But recently sugar has been getting some bad press. You have probably seen the headline accusation that sugar is “the new tobacco”, suggesting that sugar, like smoking, is the cause of widespread disease. Certainly, a large part of the population is now designated “obese”, which is worrying as a large amount of body fat increases the chance of major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Others have countered by saying that it’s not specifically sugar that has led to the current levels of obesity and diabetes, but people eating too many calories from all types of food and drink.

So does our sugar consumption matter? The simple and straight answer is “yes”.

In fact, the subject has become so important that a consortium of Britain’s leading doctors and scientists have formed a group – Action on Sugar – to publicise the problem and what’s to be done about it.

Although defenders of sugar are right that there is no decisive evidence yet that sugar alone leads to obesity and disease, there can be no doubt it is a major contributing factor. The attractive taste of sweet food and drinks makes it easy to consume too many calories. And it is possible, as some doctors think, that fructose – which makes up half of the main type of sugar we eat – is not handled well by our bodies and is turned into fat that is linked with diseases*.

These days sugar seems to be in everything. The amount of sugar sold each year is truly stunning. It’s not just the sugar we buy for home use and the sugar you’d expect to find in desserts and confectionary. Processed food often sells more on taste than on nutritional quality, and added sweetness can make all sorts of food seem more appetising. This means sugar can be found in a huge variety of savoury foods, from ham to curries, soups to ready meals, pizzas to tins of beans. And there’s the large quantities of sugar that go into soft drinks, particularly fizzy drinks and so-called “sports drinks”, where one can may contain the equivalent of many teaspoons of sugar. Many people see these drinks as a major health hazard, and several states in the USA are taking steps to limit their sales.

Our bodies do not need sugar – however much we want it! It fulfils no nutritional need, and cutting back on added sugar makes a lot of sense. (Most nutritionists agree that there is no need to worry about the sugar naturally occurring in whole fruit and vegetables.) Reducing the sugar in your diet is a great help to achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, and the health advantages of doing so are immense.

For all our sakes let’s wish Action on Sugar every success.

 

*We explain how your body processes fructose in our book, How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life

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