Sugar is ‘new tobacco’ as junk food takes its toll

Tonight, a BBC documentary will expose the cause of the world obesity epidemic. High-fructose corn syrup could be more addictive than tobacco – and it is in almost everything we eat.

The Western world is facing a crisis. Almost one quarter of British people are obese. Today’s average person is three stone (19kg) heavier than fifty years ago, and weight-related illness kills 2.8 million adults globally every year.

This deadly epidemic could be blamed on a lack of exercise or overindulgence. But a BBC documentary, aired tonight, suggests the reason might be more sinister. It suggests the culprit is a processed sugar that lurks in almost everything we eat: high-fructose corn syrup.

In the 1970s, this substance began creeping into all kinds of food. Mass produced from excess corn, and much cheaper than sugar, it became the essential ingredient in affordable, tasty, low-fat food. Soon, high-fructose corn syrup could be found in everything: from chocolate and sweets, to salads and cereals. Between 1970 and 1990, consumption increased by a staggering 1000%.

But like normal sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is deeply unhealthy. And as the use of it has increased, the diseases it causes have become more common. Between 1966 and 1989, the obesity rate among American men increased tenfold; in the last 30 years cases of diabetes have doubled.

Most people have no idea so much sugar is in their food – but that might not stop them getting hooked. Studies suggest excess sugar and the obesity it causes robs the body of Leptin – a hormone that tells the brain when a person is full. That means once people start eating they can’t tell when to stop – and keep gorging on sugary food that will makes them fat.

Back in the 1990s, David Kessler, head of the US Food and Drug Administration, introduced health warnings on cigarettes. Now, he thinks sugar is just as addictive as tobacco. He believes the food industry has exploited people’s ‘addiction’ to cheap, processed food – and that it is time to act.

Some politicians are doing just that. Last month, New York's Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to ban the sale of large fizzy and sugary drinks from cinemas and restaurants in his city. Though his plans face stiff resistance from soft drinks lobbyists, the fight against unhealthy foods is beginning.

Not so sweet?

Some think junk food should be attacked in this way. Cheap sugars are responsible for an epidemic of obesity and disease. They ruin the health of millions of people, and cost governments billions. Making money from selling these poisonous foods should be totally unacceptable.

But other believe that takes things too far. Unhealthy food only leads to disease if people aren’t sensible about what they eat – and everyone is capable of saying no to an extra slice of cake. Manufacturers shouldn't be demonised for giving people what they want.

You Decide

  1. When it comes to health, is sugar as dangerous as tobacco?
  2. Should governments regulate unhealthy food, or allow consumers to make their own choices?


  1. Write a letter to your school canteen, arguing that it should ban sugary and processed foods.
  2. Design your own line of ready meals that are free from hidden, artificial ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. Choose what foods you will market, and think of ways to make them tasty without using unhealthy ingredients. Design appealing packaging and branding for your range.

Some People Say...

“Chocolate and sweets should be banned.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is this fructose syrup actually worse for me than sugar?
It’s actually not a whole lot different. Both sugars contain glucose and fructose molecules. But in normal sugar, those molecules are bound together, while in high-fructose corn syrup they are mixed up. One of the reasons the syrup is seen to be more damaging is that it’s cheap to produce, and has found its way into a whole range of different foods.
How can I avoid it?
If you want to avoid sugar, you should cut down on processed foods, and cook your own meals with fresh ingredients. Many ‘low fat’ foods – like yoghurts, biscuits and cakes – simply replace their fatty ingredients with high-fructose corn syrup, so keep a careful watch on these. By being sensible and taking a quick look at ingredients it is easy to avoid hidden, and unhealthy, foods.

Word Watch

Excess corn
The story of high-fructose corn syrup begins in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon, the president of the United States, set out to lower food prices. That meant industrial-scale agriculture, which resulted in an excess of corn. The process of refining this excess into a super-sweet syrup was developed in Japan – and proved an ideal solution to the abundance of the crop.
Because eating too much sugar leads to obesity, it is associated with all kinds of illnesses, from heart disease to arthritis. But the biggest culprit when it comes to sugar is type 2 diabetes: an often debilitating disease, associated with a shortened life expectancy, liver and kidney problems, and even blindness.
Food and Drug Administration
The FDA is an agency of the US government, and is responsible for controlling the trade of medical drugs, supervising and taxing the tobacco industry, and monitoring standards of food safety. David Kessler was the head of the FDA from 1990 to 1997 – now, he writes books and articles on diet and health in the USA.
Mayor Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg is a businessman, philanthropist and politician. In the early 1980s, he founded a market information company – Bloomberg – that went on to make him one of the richest in the United States. Bloomberg has been Mayor of New York since 2001.


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