Is sugar a public health enemy?

Popular low-fat products (Photo: Barry Ennor)

Popular low-fat products (Photo: Barry Ennor)

You have probably picked low-fat food products over full-fat products for quite some time since high fat consumption was claimed to be linked to heart disease. And now it’s time to cut back on your sugar consumption as well. What pleasures are left in life? Problem is that sugar consumption is on the increase. By the start of the 1970s, supermarket shelves were full of low-fat yogurts, spreads, and even desserts and biscuits. When creating their low-fat products, manufacturers needed a fat substitute to stop the food tasting like cardboard, and they picked sugar.

However, it has long been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is bad for human health. In 1972, John Yudkin, founder of the nutrition department at the University of London’s Queen Elizabeth College, published a book called “Pure, White and Deadly” where he questioned the link between fat and heart disease and instead put the blame on sugar. After all, he wrote, we had been eating substances like butter for centuries, while sugar, had, up until the 1850s, been something of a rare treat for most people. This was not what the low-fat proponents wanted to hear and as a result there was a concerted campaign mounted to discredit the work of Yudkin.

More evidence that excessive sugar intake is bad for health

Now there is a mounting pile of evidence suggesting that Yudkin was right and that excessive sugar intake is worse for the body than we ever suspected. Many studies have linked high sugar consumption to obesity, and a possible contributor to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration and tooth decay. Mind you, these are observational studies, which can prove association but not cause and effect.

Still it might pay off to heed the advice. It is clear that most of us should cut back on the sweet stuff. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that less than 10% of our energy should come from free sugars. Free sugars are defined by the WHO as all sugars “added to foods by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices”. That is a stretch target for most of us. And if that is not enough, now there are rumours in the press that this target might be reduced to 5%, which is equivalent to five teaspoons or 20 g. This is not going to be easy.

Let’s look at some facts. The world produced about 168 million tonnes of sugar in 2011. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that average global added sugar consumption is about 24 kg a year – equivalent to 65 g or about 260 kcal a day. Of course this is not evenly spread around the world. Consumers in the United States of America is at the top of the per capita total consumption of sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup used in only a handful of countries) with about 64 kg per year, while China is close to the bottom with about 6 kg per year. I have borrowed a graph from the blog of the Conversable Economist to illustrate the spread in energy intake from sugar in different countries. The orange bit is the high-fructose corn syrup.

Calory sweetener

But how do you reduce sugar intake

It is useful to know that a single can of cola contains ten teaspoons of sugar, a Mars bar has five, a bowl of Coco Pops has about four and there are eight in some ready meals. If the ingredient list for a food includes words like sucrose, glucose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave syrup, fruit juice concentrates, invert sugar, cane sweetener, maltose, malt syrup, dextrose and dehydrated cane juice, you will know that part or all of the sugars listed on the nutrition label come from added sugars. That’s when it is time to react.

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