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

 

Almost everyone likes sugar. Many people like it a lot – a fact that hasn’t escaped food manufacturers.

No longer is sugar simply something to be added at table or used in cakes, biscuits and jams. It has become ubiquitous: you now find it in all sorts of unexpected places – sauces and salad dressings, cured meats, breakfast cereals, curries and ready meals. And, of course, large quantities are added to many fizzy drinks.

There is currently a debate about how much sugar people consume in the industrialised nations. The sugar industry would like us to think it is modest; but – based on the amount of raw and refined sugar produced per year, supported by surveys of populations – it seems that over the past 45 years there has been at least a threefold increase in sugar consumption. In recent years, the increase has been even faster at about 4 to 5 percent per year.

Bangladesh appears to be the country with the lowest sugar consumption at 8 kg per person per year and Israel the highest with an astonishing 66 kg per person per year. Given that this is an average figure, some Israelis must be consuming considerably more – virtually the equivalent of their entire body weight in sugar!

With rising levels of obesity in industrialised and emerging nations alike, and an alarming increase in type 2 diabetes around the world, the question arises of whether these alarming health trends have anything to do with our bodies becoming swamped by sugar.

Recent studies have been examining this. In one*, data from 175 countries showed that levels of diabetes increased with increased availability of sugar, even after taking into account body weight and physical activity levels. The researchers therefore concluded that there was a probable relationship between diabetes levels and sugar consumption, but stressed that their methodology could not prove it. (Reaching secure conclusions about cause and effect requires vast long-term studies.)

In an unrelated study**, the American Heart Association has estimated that sugar-sweetened drinks are responsible worldwide for around 180,000 deaths per year: 133,000 from diabetes, 44,000 from heart disease and 6,000 from cancer. The researchers expressed concern; but again commentators have cautioned about drawing premature conclusions about cause and effect.

Evidence is certainly mounting that sugar consumption at today’s levels may be a major contributor to poor health. Indeed, some communities in the United States are already considering ways of reducing sales of sugary drinks through taxation or banning large portion sizes. Perhaps we should be doing the same on this side of the Atlantic.

Certainly, though, we could each do with a hard look at the stunning amount of sugar we may be consuming. Cutting down will do us no harm, and may prove to be great for our health.

 

*Link to the diabetes and sugar study: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057873

**Multimedia resources, including taped interviews with an AHA expert offering perspective on the science, are available on the right column of this link http://newsroom.heart.org/news/180-000-deaths-worldwide-may-be-associated-with-sugary-soft-drinks?preview=b39f71c47418e98ba6ebd2660b859f96

 

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