Sugar is ‘the new tobacco’: WHO set for battle over sugar

| January 28, 2014
Clive Caines CaribDirect

Clive Caines Cultural Contributor

Health news. Rather than offer my usual recommendations of healthy Caribbean cookery I’ve decided to focus on a food ingredient that is fast becoming seen as the cause of a wide range of illnesses.

Anyone who is mindful enough to keep an eye on health issues will be fully aware that what often starts out as a minor concern ends up becoming a crisis of astronomical proportions. Now while I don’t claim to be some sort of sage I can’t help but be taken in with the fact that since I wrote my article on appropriate sugar consumption the issue has massively risen in prominence thanks to the World Health Organisation discussing whether it should halve its current recommendations for sugar content in all foods. This sample of British newspapers headlines suggest that should W.H.O change their current thinking there’s likely to be open warfare between governments and the food industry.

Sugar is ‘the new tobacco’: Health chiefs tell food giants to slash levels by a third. The Daily Mail.


‘Sugar is the new tobacco’: Cuts to amounts hidden in food could halt obesity epidemic, claim doctors. The Independent.

Sugar is as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco, warn health experts. The Telegraph.

However the debate about sugar levels pans out it would be interesting to keep an eye on a possible subtext in the suggestion that food and drink manufacturers are aware of the problems their products can cause but are willing to hide this information away from consumers.

Given that sugar turns up in huge quantities in the most unlikeliest of foods, see the graphic below, we are all unwittingly eating far more sugar than we’d initially recognise, unless of course you happen to be someone who’s following a much restricted diet.

Sugar War

With so much sugar being unknowingly consumed WHO recommend that we all set ourselves a daily intake level; initially the recommendation was for 10 teaspoons but WHO are now looking to revise this down to half that number.

W.H.O’s sugar level recommendations are also supposedly the guidelines by which food manufacturers operate yet issues with obesity, among other dietary related illnesses, persist. Little wonder that WHO now feel that governments should legislate to force food companies to halve the sugar content from its current recommended levels.

It should be noted that the newspaper headline writers have gone into overdrive despite the fact that WHO haven’t actually issued an updated statement on sugar content levels. The fact that there has been so much reaction before the fact indicates the size of the battle to come: on the one side we have a food industry with pockets deep enough to take on any government and on the other side an obesity crisis that threatens to bankrupt nations if they don’t soon take drastic action.

Campaign group Action on Sugar has been just as vociferous as W.H.O in agitating for change in daily sugar consumption. A.O.S boast an impressive line up of medical advisers, all of who are professorships in their medical specialism, so regardless of whether you agree or not with their thinking on the dangers of sugar it can’t be said to come from an ill thought out or non scientific position. A.O.S are unequivocal in their belief that sugar is not just harmful to our health but given the way that it is being consumed it is positively dangerous. A.O.S medical expert, Robert Lustig is Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology at the University Of California, San Francisco and he explains why he feels that sugar is dangerous saying:

“’Common sense’ and the food industry say that all calories are the same. But the science says that sugar is different – that sugar is dangerous exclusive of its calories, just like alcohol. Children are the primary targets of marketing campaigns, and the least able to resist the messaging. That makes sugary drinks like the “alcohol of childhood”, which makes them obese. At the same time, this very large sugar intake is likely to put children at greater risk of developing fatty liver and diabetes”.

Where W.H.O look to halve current recommendation levels A.O.S seek to have a 20 to 30% reduction in the sugar added by the food industry, this reduction would be phased in over a 3 -5 year period.

For some waiting for the food industry to (a) accept that sugar is the primary cause of obesity epidemics and (b) that sugar reduction is the best way of tackling obesity epidemics is not the approach that fills them with most confidence. You might find this video explanation of why journalist Sarah Wilson decided to give up sugar altogether informative:

Wilson’s reasoning is based more on her own personal experience than any solid scientific research and some, which is fair enough, would see her thinking as flawed for this very reason. It would most certainly be the case that for many going sugar free is one hell of a way to regain a natural equilibrium. There are many from the world of politics, business and science that are least sceptical about claims that sugar poses the same level of threat to your health as smoking.

Former UK Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, states “It is inaccurate to claim a sugary diet is as dangerous as smoking. We have had significant success in the reduction of salt in food but it has to be understood that this can only be achieved working with the industry on a voluntary basis … and it can only be done on an incremental basis.” Dr Victoria Burley, a senior lecturer in Nutritional Epidemiology at Leeds University, challenges A.O.S claims by calling them “alarmist and misleading” and saying “It is nuts to claim that sugar is as dangerous as alcohol. It’s total hyperbole, quite crazy. There is certainly evidence that obesity is linked to cancer and coronary heart disease but there is little evidence that there is a causal link between sugar and obesity. So you can’t say with any certainty that sugar is a cause of death.”

The Food and Drink Federation argues that “Sugars, or any other nutrient for that matter, consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet are not a cause of obesity, to which there is no simple or single solution, that’s why the food industry has been working on a range of initiatives with other players to tackle obesity and diet-related diseases. The sugars in food and drinks are listed on the label so everybody can see what is in the products they buy. The industry has worked to reduce salt levels and saturated fats, but there is no evidence that sugars are particularly harmful.”

What the contrary arguments tell us is that positions on the dangers of sugar will remain hotly contested, especially given what is at stake. What remains for you to do is make up your own mind and act accordingly. If the argument about sugar has provided you with some food for thought, the pun is quite deliberate, and you want to try some sugar free cooking then here’s a recipe that you might appreciate. You’ll not find Peach Cobbler on a list of classic Caribbean recipes but I’m sure that you can find the principle ingredients in the Caribbean.

Sugar Free Peach Cobbler

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