A couple days ago, a group of leading medical and nutrition experts released a call for a 20-30% reduction in sugar added to packaged and processed foods over the next 3-5 years (1). The expert group, ‘Action on Sugar’, estimates that this change would result in a reduction of roughly 100 calories each person eats per day, and will eventually reverse the obesity epidemic (1). Wow. The media has picked up on this statement in a huge way, with headlines like ‘Sugar is the ‘new tobacco’ (2), and ‘Sugar is now enemy number one in the western diet (3). While these headlines sound sensationalist, they are right.
A sickening amount of sugar is added to many processed foods (1). Some culprits are obvious. There are 9 teaspoons of sugar in a can of regular Coke or Pepsi, but others are surprising. Heinz tomato soup has 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Add two slices of white bread to that soup at nearly a teaspoon of sugar, another teaspoon or two in your coffee or tea, and that’s your entire daily sugar allowance. Sugar should comprise no more than 5% of daily energy intake, which is about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 8 teaspoons per day for men (3).
And what is the big deal about sugar? A calorie is a calorie – right? Well, not so much. The calories provided by sugar are void of nutrition. ‘Action on Sugar’ (1) states it best:
Added sugar is a very recent phenomenon (c150 years) and only occurred when sugar, obtained from sugar cane, beet and corn became very cheap to produce. No other mammal eats added sugar and there is no requirement for added sugar in the human diet. This sugar is a totally unnecessary source of calories, gives no feeling of fullness and is acknowledged to be a major factor in causing obesity and diabetes both in the UK and worldwide.
Humans have no dietary requirement for added sugar. Dr Aseem Malhotra, the science director of ‘Action on Sugar’, emphasizes that the body does not require carbohydrates from sugar added to foods (3). Furthermore, high sugar intake may reduce the ability to regulate caloric intake (4), with consumption of sugar leading to eating more sugar, overeating, and ultimately to weight gain (5). Added sugar therefore presents a ‘double jeopardy’ of empty caloric intake that triggers further unnecessary consumption.
Dr Malhotra states that sugar is in fact ‘essential to food industry profits and lining the pockets of its co-opted partners’ (3). The sugar/food industry has tremendous power, sponsoring high-profile sporting events, gaining celebrity endorsements, and employing psychological techniques in their ubiquitous advertising. Maliciously, they target children, who are vulnerable to advertising and to giving in to a sweet tooth (6). The politics of the sugar industry have been covered by this blog in another post. Essential to their tactics is heavy resistance against the scientific links between sugar and obesity. The American Sugar Association website states that ‘sugar is a healthy part of a diet’ (7), and Sugar Nutrition UK states that ‘the balance of available evidence does not implicate sugar in any of the ‘lifestyle diseases’‘ (8). On top of that, the food industry sponsors scientific research that is biased towards showing no link between sugar and adverse health problems. Last month, a large evidence review found that research on sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity is more likely to find no association between the two when funded by the food industry (9).
Clearly, we have a long way to go in fighting against the paradigm of today’s food environment, which is largely dictated by the industry. ‘Action on Sugar’ has some important aims to this end: in addition to reducing sugar in processed foods by 20-30%, they aim to reach a consensus with the food industry that sugar is linked obesity and other negative health effects, to improve nutritional labelling of added sugar content using a traffic light system, and to ensure that scientific evidence is translated into government policy to reduce sugar. Their full list of aims can be found here (10). These aims are likely to be successful, as they are modelled off of sodium reduction efforts that have led to an estimated reduction of sodium in packaged foods ‘between 20 and 40%, with a minimum reduction of 6,000 strokes and heart attack deaths per year, and a healthcare saving cost of £1.5 billion [approx. $2.5 billion USD]’ (1).
So what can we do, as individuals? The first step is educating oneself, so if you’ve read this far then you’re one step ahead. Always read nutritional labelling on packaged foods carefully to determine how much sugar is in what you’re eating. Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and campaign director of ‘Action on Sugar’ states that you can ‘wean yourself off the white stuff’ by cutting down on using it at home, but the main source of sugar in our diets remains that added during the processing of manufactured food (1). The best thing is to heavily cut down on packaged, processed foods in favour of whole, unprocessed foods. Do this, if not only for your individual health, but to stop supporting an industry that compromises the well-being of the world’s population for financial profit. The worst thing you can do is eat sugar.
- Action on Sugar. Worldwide experts unite to reverse obesity epidemic by forming ‘Action on Sugar’. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/actiononsugar/Press%20Release%20/118440.html (accessed 12 January 2014).
- Poulter S. Sugar is the ‘new tobacco’: health chiefs tell food giants to slash levels by a third. Daily Mail. 09 January 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2536180/Sugar-new-tobacco-Health-chiefs-tell-food-giants-slash-levels-third.html (accessed 12 January 2014).
- Malhotra A. Sugar is now enemy number one in the western diet. The Guardian. 11 January 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/11/sugar-is-enemy-number-one-now (accessed 12 January 2014).
- Davidson TL, Swithers SE. A Pavlovian approach to the problem of obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2004;28(7):933-5.
- Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79(4):537-43.
- Calvert SL. Children as consumers: advertising and marketing. The Future of Children 2008;18(1):205-34.
- The Sugar Association. Balanced Diet. http://www.sugar.org/sugar-your-diet/balanced-diet/ (accessed 12 January 2014).
- Sugar Nutrition UK: Researching the Science of Sugar. Sugar & Health. http://www.sugarnutrition.org.uk/Sugar-and-Health.aspx (accessed 12 January 2014).
- Bes-Rastrollo M, Schulze MB, Ruiz-Canela M, Martinez-Gonzalez. Financial conflicts of interest and reporting bias regarding the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review of systematic reviews. PLOS Med 2013; doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001578
- Action on Sugar. Aims. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/actiononsugar/Aims%20/118439.html (accessed 12 January 2014).