Medics urge action on ‘toxic, addictive’ sugar

As global consumption of sugar grows ever more greedy, a public health crisis is developing. Should governments introduce a sugar tax? Or time for something more radical?

The world is in the grip of an epidemic, and its cause is hiding in plain view: in our fridges, our cupboards, and on supermarket shelves. It is toxic, it is addictive and the average European consumes almost 40 kg of it per year (or 140 teaspoons each week). The name of this poison? Sugar.

This, at least, is the view of Professor Robert Lustig, a medical expert famous for his work on child obesity. He claims that fructose, one of the two main chemicals in sugar, suppresses hormones that make our bodies feel satisfied. The more of it we eat, the more we crave.

The consequences of humanity’s insatiable sweet tooth are grim. Once the body takes in more fructose than it can convert into energy, it starts instead to process it into fat stored in the liver. This has been linked to many serious medical conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even manic depression.

Lustig’s description of sugar as a toxic and addictive substance is controversial. But few dispute that it is contributing to a serious crisis in global health. The United Nations now ranks conditions linked with obesity as more deadly than infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria – even in the developing world. And global sugar consumption has trebled in the past 50 years.

Political leaders are so alarmed that some countries are now taking serious steps to regulate sugar. This week the Indian government increased taxes on the sweet stuff by 50% in an effort to protect the country – so far relatively untroubled by the sugar curse – from going the way of the West. The Mayor of New York, meanwhile, recently attempted to ban the sale of large fizzy drinks.

But Lustig and others suggest that these measures may not be enough. Sugar is at least as destructive to our health as many banned drugs, he says, and far more common. Sugar may well be as harmful to our liver as alcohol, and yet it can be bought and sold almost entirely without restrictions.

The curse of the cane

Our favourite sweetener is in fact a dangerous and destructive substance, say some nutritionists. This is not just a matter of an unbalanced diet or undisciplined eating: the rise of sugar is a social evil which has infected almost every culture in the world. The only way to break this habit is to regulate sugar as strictly as we do alcohol or tobacco.

‘Puritans!’ respond the sweet-toothed millions. We all know sugar is bad for us, and most people make some attempt to curb their consumption. The reason we fail is simple: sugary food is delicious. It is only ourselves we harm with this so-called ‘addiction’, and that’s a matter of personal choice – no government has the right to strip the icing from our lives.

You Decide

  1. Should sugar be banned?
  2. Do we have a moral responsibility to live healthy lives?

Activities

  1. Sugar, tobacco, cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, salt, red meat. After a class debate, sort these substances into three categories: those that should be free to buy, those you would regulate and those that should be banned.
  2. Using an equation, show how the body converts sugar into energy.

Some People Say...

“Anything good in life is either illegal, immoral, or fattening. Everything else causes cancer in rats.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m pretty sure I don’t eat 140 teaspoons of sugar a week.
You might be surprised: not all sugar comes in white crystals. Many staples of the modern diet contain a surprising quantity, including apparently innocent items like fruit juice and bread. And almost half of our sugar intake now consists of high fructose corn syrup, a refined sweetener which is thought to be particularly bad for your health.
Yikes. How can I cut down?
First of all, the obvious things: drink water instead of soft drinks, eat fewer sweet snacks and make sugary desserts a treat rather than a regular part of your daily diet. After that the best tactic is to use raw ingredients: most of our sugar comes from processed or pre-cooked foods, so eating fresh food is a good way of staying healthy.

Word Watch

Epidemic
When a disease or medical condition spreads rapidly through a population. This often happens by infection (as with AIDS, for instance, or the bubonic plague), but in the case of obesity the causes are social.
Obesity
To be classified as obese, a person usually has to be overweight enough for it to be a serious danger to their health. There are currently over 500 million obese people in the world.
Fructose
Meaning fruit sugar because it is found in fruits (although you would have to eat huge amounts of fruit for them to be a serious health risk). The other most important chemical is glucose.
Manic depression
People affected by this mental health condition (also called bipolar disorder) swing between moods of depression and extreme euphoria. Sugar alone cannot cause this disorder, but some research suggests that excessive consumption may make things worse.

Subjects

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