The worst thing you can eat is sugar.

Removing sugar from the food industry could reverse the obesity epidemic

Removing sugar from the food industry could reverse the obesity epidemic


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.



  1. Action on Sugar. Worldwide experts unite to reverse obesity epidemic by forming ‘Action on Sugar’. (accessed 12 January 2014).
  2. Poulter S. Sugar is the ‘new tobacco’: health chiefs tell food giants to slash levels by a third. Daily Mail. 09 January 2014. (accessed 12 January 2014).
  3. Malhotra A. Sugar is now enemy number one in the western diet. The Guardian. 11 January 2014. (accessed 12 January 2014).
  4. Davidson TL, Swithers SE. A Pavlovian approach to the problem of obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2004;28(7):933-5.
  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.
  6. Calvert SL. Children as consumers: advertising and marketing. The Future of Children 2008;18(1):205-34.
  7. The Sugar Association. Balanced Diet. (accessed 12 January 2014).
  8. Sugar Nutrition UK: Researching the Science of Sugar. Sugar & Health. (accessed 12 January 2014).
  9. 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
  10. Action on Sugar. Aims. (accessed 12 January 2014).

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36 Responses to The worst thing you can eat is sugar.

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  3. its very good post for health

  4. Very informative, it makes my work a lot easy.

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  6. Marian says:

    If all foods had nutrition labels people would be more informed as to the sugar content in produce. It is the hidden sugars in many processed foods that the consumer is unaware of that cause problems.

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  8. Marilyn says:

    I agree the food has so much sugar added its unreal. I think you should consume no more than 9 grams to 15 grams per meal. If you look at juice or soda they have around 30-50 grams in a bottle or can. That is way too much.

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  10. Stephanie says:

    It is so interesting that if the sugar content of processed and packaged foods was reduced by 20-30% then there will be an estimated 100 calorie reduction per person per day. This really opens my eyes because although I am a woman therefore only supposed to consume 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, I eat more sugar than that before lunch some days. I will be changing my enormous sugar intake habits.

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  14. Pingback: Processed food, Sugar and a Plea for Common Sense | Blog | Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

  15. In my opinion, there is no safe amount of added sugar. Naturally contained sugars in fruit and vegetables are balanced by the fiber, vitamins, enzymes and other properties of the fruit/vegetable which slow sugar digestion and help the body deal with it more easily.

  16. :-P says:

    “The worst thing you can do is eat sugar.”

    Although I agree that nutritional information is important, I think the sensationalist tone of this article does more harm than good. You mention the “obesity epidemic”, but we also live in a society with unrealistic beauty and body image standards. The tone of this article (e.g., eating chocolate, sweets, fruit, anything with sugar… will make you fat) is really an injustice in itself. If you want to educate people then provide an intelligent (non-sensationalist) discussion. Focus on health facts, provide real examples, and at least mention the different types of sugar. If I were a parent, seriously, this would be the last article I would want my teenager to read…. nutrition is only one component to a healthy life (mental health & happiness is also rather important).

    Honestly, I think a whole lot of money could be saved if we just said:

    Moderation + Exercise = Health and Happiness

    Yes, technically, sugar may be “void of nutrition”, but to some of us, it’s filled with happiness. I hate to think that a person of normal weight reads this article and thinks they have to give up sweets, chocolates, wine, and some of the true pleasures of life, because it’s “the worst thing for you”. Lessening sugar is good for many, and yeah, perhaps good for all of us, but, in my opinion, the sensationalist tone of this article sends the wrong message –particularly coming from a “Public Health” site.

    For some of us, we may say: “The worst thing you can do is fail to enjoy life”… and, in sum, I would say eating those three beignets in New Orleans did a whole lot more good than harm… 😛

    • Lindsay Kobayashi says:

      Quick reply – yes, we do live in a society with unrealistic and often damaging beauty image standards; this problem is separate to the issue of clinical obesity that has been tracked using biometric data in many countries and increases the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. These are two opposite ends of the spectrum, if you will.

      Again, the argument made in this article is to not stop eating sugar in your diet, but for the food industry to reduce sugar added to processed foods. I do believe that food is one of the great pleasures in life, and of course that includes desserts and chocolates among other things. Trust me, I love to bake and I love an indulgent dinner out with a loved one. However, these aren’t daily things for me and for most people, but eating packaged food from the grocery store is and there is often hidden, unnecessary sugar in a lot of food items.

    • David Lloyd-Jones says:

      Smug, anonymous :-P,

      I think that to call that article “sensationalistic,” as you do, is flat out delusional.

      The article is calm report on one approach to a complex of very major health problems sweeping across the whole society.

      The tubs of lard wadding down our streets are not a matter of our over-refined “body image” judgements. These sad cases are very public examples of major sickness.

      The commercial promotion of unnecessary treats, and the habit of consuming what should be special treats as daily intake, are parts of this problem.

      What’s sensational is that you, anonymous lil’ 😛 should try to throw doubt on this.


      • :-P says:

        Hi DLJ,

        In my opinion, the article is obviously sensational. I think even Ms. Kobayashi would agree to that. Its title is “The Worst Thing You Can Eat Is Sugar”, the gist of its message is that there is a malicious push (borderline conspiracy) by the food industry to make us fat, and its conclusion is that “the worst thing you can do is eat sugar”. The article’s intention is clearly to get people’s attention. Overall, even if you believe that the article’s message is “right”, its tone/word choice is clearly intended to elicit an emotional response.

        Our words matter. Personally, I hold Ms. Kobayashi and a Public Health Blog to a higher standard. It is very likely true that increased sugar intake leads to increased obesity. However, it is also very likely true that statements such as “the worst thing you can do is eat sugar” are intrinsically tied to negative mental health issues. Please refer to about some of the potential effects of these types of statements. I believe that Ms. Kobayashi has the right intentions, but in the future, I hope she will be more careful with her word choices (at least if posting on a Public Health site).

        Ms. Kobayashi may like to believe that mental health and obesity are at “two opposite ends of the spectrum” and you may believe that my comments promote “tubs of lard wadding down our streets”…. but although your cause may be honorable, and your passion admirable, please be careful about treading on other important public health issues. It is not a given that your sugar crusade is more important than my mental health concerns, nor that body image has no role in obesity.

        Also, thank you for your response, LK.

        • David Lloyd-Jones says:

          Anonymous LK

          My words matter, which is why I sign them. Your words, full of vague imprecations, passive constructions making veiled suggestions, and invented positions to attack, do not matter: they are just one more anonymous internet troll.

          Nobody suggests “there is a malicious push (borderline conspiracy) by the food industry to make us fat” All that malice and conspiracy are your own invention.

          The food industry is mostly trying to make money, which means selling us as much “value added,” i.e. paid processing as possible. Since sugar is cheap, easily added to anything, and addictive, it naturally enters the equation.

          No malice. No conspiracy. Just honest businesses seeking an honest profit.

          Now take your imaginations, imprecations, and accusations, and go home until you’re willing to post some “words” that you’re willing to stand by.


          • :-P says:

            I agree with you here, DLJ. The word “malice” was taken directly from the article — quote below:

            “Maliciously, they target children, who are vulnerable to advertising and to giving in to a sweet tooth (6)…. Essential to their tactics is heavy resistance against the scientific links between sugar and obesity.”… the article then provides several ways in which the food industry intentionally misleads the public…

            My anonymity is my choice. Attack the message not the person. The article implies that there is a broad, malicious, and intentional agenda by the food industry to fool customers and debunk legitimate science (as I said… borderline conspiracy)… Take it easy.

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  19. remedia says:

    For a recent interview with Robert Lustig about the perils of sugar:

  20. Caroline says:

    The simple solution is to stay away from processed foods as much as possible, not try to make them “healthier.” There are many more issues with processed foods than just the sugar content. Rancid fats, extruded grains, preservatives, foods dyes, the list goes on…

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  22. Dan says:

    Ad warning labels and educate.
    If people still want to support these products and companies, it is their choice. I prefer to be educated and healthy, but don’t believe in forcing others to do the same.

  23. Pingback: The worst thing you can eat is sugar | Amateur-Science

  24. Gerard Harbison says:

    Mammals that eat sugar: elephants, rats, pandas, sugar gliders (duh!) , fruit bats…

    • Lindsay Kobayashi says:

      True! All of those mammals, along with many others, eat sugar. Humans eat natural sugars too.

      Perhaps the point made by ‘Action on Sugar’ and myself needs clarification – sugar added to processed foods during manufacturing is unnecessary in a human diet. We are not talking about naturally occurring sugars in foods, such as honey in a direct natural sugar source, or the polysaccharide sugars found in corn. Fructose-sweetened beverages and sugar added to processed breads, sauces, microwaved meals, and so on, are the point of contention here.

  25. Constantin Polychronakos says:

    It is naive to believe that reducing caloric density of individual foods will reduce the caloric intake of individuals, especially with a precision of the level of 100 calories per day. The fantasy goes like this: Each person eats an exact volume (or weight) of food per day and if we reduce the calories per gram (or per ml) we will have a corresponding reduction in daily intake.

    Of course, very few people, if any, eat by weight or volume. Apetite and satiety controls are much more refined than that. Most people maintain a reasonably stable weight by simply eating when they are hungry and stoping eating when they are full, neither sensation having anything to do with the size of the food but rather its caloric content.

    • Lindsay Kobayashi says:

      Thank you for these good points Constantin. Yes, appetite and satiety is much a more complicated issue than simply weight or volume. I believe the point made by ‘Action on Sugar’ about the 100 calorie reduction, is first that it is an estimate, and is an average across the population: if the sugar content of processed and packaged foods was reduced by 20-30%, and people keep consuming these foods in the frequency and volume as they do today, then on average, there will be an estimated 100 calorie reduction per person per day. Of course, some people are heavy consumers of processed foods, and others aren’t, so not every single person is necessarily going to lose weight. Of course, we can’t predict future behaviour of individuals, so we don’t know whether the effect will occur as estimated, but it’s probably safe to say that there will not be a negative effect of reducing the sugar content in processed foods. In a way, the precautionary principle applies here.

  26. Fergus Mason says:

    “Humans have no dietary requirement for added sugar.”

    So what? Just leave us alone, you malevolent killjoys.

  27. name says:

    After health insurance companies, there is no industry I want to see destroyed more than Food Products Inc.

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