We consume far too much sugar and it's a disaster for our health. Why is it so difficult to accept these unequivocal facts?
Sugar is our favourite new food villain. Headlines have been littered with references to “sweet poison,” “toxic” high-fructose corn syrup. And for once, there really does seem to be some substance behind the media hype. Nutritionists, doctors and epidemiologists, to name but a few, are more and more in agreement: As far as our health is concerned, sugar is the new tobacco – only worse.
It's being held responsible for an enormous percentage of health problems in modern industrialised societies. To give just a few examples, the overconsumption of sugar has been implicated in diabetes, cancer, heart disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome. And as if that weren't enough, it rots our teeth, gives us wrinkles and makes us fat.
Putting aside what the scientists are saying for a moment, many of us know from our own experience that we'd be better off with far less sugar in our diets. Anyone who has ever tried a sugar detox can vouch for the health benefits of giving the stuff up.
So why is it so very difficult to accept the truth about sugar? Why does the idea of a sugar tax or of restricting children's access to sweets and fizzy drinks seem utterly ridiculous even to those of us who are relatively convinced that sugar is harmful?
Does the news that Action on Sugar, a new campaign group, has been set up to target the food industry strike us as faintly funny and grimly indicative of a nanny state?
A threefold conspiracy: Biology, culture and politics
When it comes to accepting the harmfulness of sugar, we're working against a triple whammy: Biology, culture and politics. Let's examine each of those factors in turn.
We evolved to seek out sweet tastes, as they are an indication of plentiful calorie supply. Our brains are hardwired to process sweet taste as a pleasant sensation. That works really well as a survival mechanism when food in general, and sugar in particular, is scarce. For example, there is evidence that the consumption of fructose (fruit sugar) actually switches off the hormone leptin, which governs feelings of satiety. This makes perfect sense when you consider a context of needing to eat as much ripe fruit as possible while it's available in order to see you through a long winter of food scarcity.
The trouble is, we have the great good fortune of living in times of plenty. Food is freely available all year round. So unless we're vigilant, the entirely natural desire for sweet tastes gets us into trouble.
For many, many centuries, sugar was an indescribable luxury in Britain. Yes, we had honey and fruit and so on, but actual sugar? Even King Henry VIII, who wasn't exactly restrained in his habits, doubted whether as enormous a quantity as about 3lbs of sugar could be obtained for one of his state banquets. Now many of us would consume that amount in just over two weeks. The association of sugar with luxury and indulgence goes back a long way. Then there's the image of sugar as an innocent, wholesome pleasure. Think of baking biscuits with young children. The comfort of a hot chocolate or a cafe latte. Somehow, sugar seems to have it both ways, symbolising both excess and wholesomeness, decadence and simple pleasures.
Sugar is big business. Really, REALLY big business. It's in pretty much any processed foodstuff you can imagine (thanks, in part, to several decades of fat phobia – you have to make low fat products palatable somehow). The food industry has learned from the experience of the tobacco industry and is not going to let this one go without a fight. And big industry has big influence on politics.
It is rumoured that President Clinton was interrupted during one of his – ahem - “appointments” with Monica Lewinsky by a phone call from one of the American sugar barons, complaining about the proposal of a tax to be imposed on sugar growers: the president took that call; the proposal was dropped. Allegedly, of course.
So what can we do?
A sensible starting point seems to be to work with what we can change so that we can manage what we cannot. In other words, focus on altering our cultural perceptions and the political climate in order to deal with a tricky biological situation. That's why Action on Sugar isn't as ridiculous as it might sound on first reading. That's why the description of sugar as toxic is not hysterical hyperbole but the sort of strong language that we need in order to counteract our deeply ingrained perception of sugar as a benign treat.
If we're going to tackle our addiction to sugar effectively, we need to do so on an individual and on a collective level. We need to face up to and take responsibility for our personal dietary habits and the beliefs that underlie them, and we need to do that in a social and political climate that is supportive of our good health.
Have you got what it takes to face up to sugar?
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