It is the subtle, hidden ingredient that no one finds distasteful. Adding this substance to tea, coffee, cereals and sweets comes as naturally to most of us as eating itself. It is everywhere, often using a different name and even appearing as the chief ingredient in so-called health foods such as sports drinks.
But now health experts are getting very worried about our craving for sugar. The sweet-toothed habit is said by some to be as damaging and addictive as alcohol or tobacco.
As a result, calls are being made in the US and Europe for sugar to be regulated and taxed in ways designed to save us from ourselves.
According to a research team from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), a tax on sugar could stop it from fuelling a global obesity pandemic which contributes to an estimated 35 million deaths worldwide each year from diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
The experts, led by Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist, maintain that sugar is more than simply a matter of calories that make people fat. “There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” Lustig says. “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”
A tax would have the effect of limiting people’s intake of sugars such as fructose, high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose, say the scientists. This would mean a sanction on products with “added sugar”, which the UCSF team defined as any fructose-containing sweetener that is added to food during processing.
“It can also be argued that fructose exerts toxic effects on the liver that are similar to those of alcohol,” adds Lustig. “This is no surprise, because alcohol is derived from the fermentation of sugar.”
Lustig’s team points to health initiatives in Denmark and Hungary – where there is a tax on saturated fat – and France, which has approved a levy on soft drinks, as examples of how the state can control food content for the greater good.
The proposal for a similar penalty on sugar is aimed at the world market. Consumption of sugar has tripled over the past 50 years – as have the global levels of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Here in the UAE, that increase has been particularly noticeable.
The Imperial College London’s Diabetes Centre has identified a tendency towards an unbalanced diet among Emiratis as being a key factor in the rise in adult-onset diabetes incidence in the region. By 2030, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, one fifth of the Emirates’ population will suffer from diabetes.
“Sugary food is a problem in the UAE, especially in the form of cakes, biscuits and ice cream,” suggests Caroline Kanaan, a clinical dietician at the Advanced Nutrition Centre in Dubai. “Many social events revolve around offering sugary snacks.
“But the bigger problem of sugar is in the beverages – where it is even more harmful.” She says it is added to traditional teas served from dawn to dusk, and to children’s milk. “These are in addition to the soft drinks and ‘fruit’ drinks that are marketed to children that are a combination of sugar, food colouring and water.”
Kanaan’s concern that our love of all things sweet could have a dire long-term effect on the health of our children is something echoed by Taif Sabah Al Sarraj, the chief of clinical services at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain.
“It’s important to share the message that parents are the most important influence on their child – they can do many things to help children develop a healthy attitude towards food,” he says. Al Sarraj’s team is part of a new diet-awareness campaign developed in tandem with the US-based Johns Hopkins Medicine group.
The “sugar tax” proposition is aimed specifically at the “hidden sugars” in packaged and pre-prepared food. For many nutritionists, it is this method of using sugar to keep baked food moist that is the real cause of the problem. Pasta sauces and snack bars are just some of the supposedly savoury items that contain high levels of concentrated sugar. Ingredients listed as sucrose, fructose, glucose and honey form deceptive disguises that lead many of us unwittingly to exceed our recommended daily allowance of sugar.
In the UK, the sugar tax argument has met with opposition from groups such as the Food and Drink Federation, which maintains that sugar alone cannot be blamed for the rising levels of metabolic syndrome ailments such as diabetes. “The causes of these diseases are multifactorial – demonising individual food components does not help consumers to build a realistic approach to their diet,” says Barbara Gallani, the group’s director of food safety and science.
In the UAE, nutrition experts like Kanaan do not believe a tax would be as effective as it might be elsewhere in the world. “I think the tax idea is a good start. It might not hinder the people from purchasing them here though, since most people in the UAE have a very high purchasing power,” she says. “But it can at least raise the awareness and be a reminder of the association of sugar with health problems.”
For now, adults can make educated choices about the foods they eat, and through knowledge of food labelling, can at least thin out their intake of fats and sugary foods if they want. Sharing that knowledge with their children and ensuring that the side-effects of a sweet tooth do not endanger the lives of the next generation should, according to some, be our sugar priority.
“Sugar does not only affect overweight and obese children. It is also harmful to the normal and underweight children,” warns Kanaan. “Those who consume an excessive amount of sugar are at high risk of malnutrition since they are only consuming empty calories. Sugar does not contain any nourishing vitamins, nor minerals. It will not nourish children in any way and a deficiency of vitamins and minerals in their diet will affect their sleep and concentration at school.”
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