Is there a relationship between the hugely higher modern levels of sugar consumption, and the wave of obesity that has swept over the developed world and is now reaching the poorer countries? WHO thinks so.
Today almost everything has sugar inside it. It’s bad for our teeth, we keep telling ourselves, but scientists are discovering how too much sugar can damage almost every part of the body. Till recently it was thought that if sugar consisted of 30 per cent of your diet, it was fine. Then the American National Academy of Sciences brought this figure down to 25 per cent. And everybody seemed OK with that.
But now, there is a storm brewing. A panel of experts appointed by The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that it isn’t safe to consume no more than 10 per cent of sugar in our diet. The powerful sugar lobby, alarmed at it’s profits crashing, has rubbished the WHO and threatened to move US Congress and stop funding to the WHO.
More Than Just Cavities
But first, why this restriction and exactly how harmful is sugar to the body? For one, whenever you eat sweets, you get a sugar rush and blood glucose levels rise rapidly. So the pancreas secretes a large amount of insulin to keep glucose levels down. This large insulin response makes blood sugar fall to levels that are too low 3 to 5 hours after the sweets have been eaten. Now, the body doesn’t like this much fluctuation.
Secondly, sugars are just “naked calories”, that is they are packed with energy, but they have no nutrients. No fiber, no minerals, no proteins, no fats, no enzymes. So the body has to borrow vital nutrients from healthy cells to metabolise the incomplete food. Calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium are taken from various parts of the body to make use of the sugar. That also severely harms the body.
Sugar makes us fat?
In fact, this issue is at the centre of the whole global sugar debate. Last year, the WHO report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases said that people could reduce their risk of obesity, diabetes and some heart problems by curbing sugar consumption.
Now how does that work? Excess sugar is stored in the liver in the form of glucose (glycogen). Since the liver's capacity is limited, a daily intake of refined sugar above the required amount of makes the liver expand like a balloon. When the liver is filled to maximum, excess glycogen returns to the blood in the form of fatty acids. These are taken to every part of the body and stored in the most inactive areas: the belly, the buttocks, the breasts and the thighs.
Once these are completely filled, fatty acids invade active organs like the heart and kidneys. These begin to slow down; finally their tissues degenerate and turn to fat. This can lead to obesity, diabetes and even certain cardiovascular diseases.
Eat less sugar, right?
No, it’s not as simple as that. Today, almost everything you eat has sugar inside it. From soups to sauces to frozen meat. Some breakfast cereals for children are as much as 50% sugar! In America a flue-cured tobacco was found to have 20% sugar by weight.
Indians had better take note. 25 percent of males and 36 percent of females above the age of 20 years in India are overweight. Our country has always had great sugar surplus (a closing balance of 109 lakh tonnes of sugar at the beginning of the 2002-03 season, enough for seven months). In the era of liberalisation, consumption of soft drinks, fast food and processed foods are on the rise. As we get richer, we also are getting fatter — and unhealthier.
Most of the sugar is consumed invisibly in the form of fast foods and soft drinks.
Big Sugar, Big Politics
If the world takes heed of the WHO guidelines, then a huge proportion of the sugar industry's market would disappear, so of course it fights it.
America’s Sugar Association—which includes sugar cane and corn farmers, and industry giants Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and General Foods— or ‘Big Sugar’ are trying to block the WHO report: Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases report. They have threatened to lobby US Congress to cut off the $406 million it sanctions annually to the WHO, and is about one-fourth of it’s budget.
They are also trying to armtwist developing countries to back them. Many are already indirectly backing the US sugar lobby. Sugar Association president Andrew Briscoe said in an April 14 letter to the WHO's director-general Gro Brundtl, “We will exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature of the report.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, non-profit research group based in Washington, DC that tracks money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy, last year the sugar industry donated more than $3 million to American federal elections.
Also, Congress maintains a sugar-support program that guarantees domestic sugar producers a minimum price by restricting sugar imports and buying and storing excess production, as it does with other farm programs. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the program costs Americans $2 billion annually in inflated sugar prices, and storing excess sugar will cost another $2 billion over 10 years.
(Health Freedom Nutrition)
“Our ancestors had to expend a lot of energy just to get through the day… But now (in many places) food is always available, and technology has made it easy to be sedentary. So it's really the environment that's causing the problem.”
—James Hill, Centre for Human Nutrition,
University of Colorado Health Sciences Centre
The interests of agribusiness and fast food are now merging with media and entertainment industries. Food is pre-packaged family entertainment.
What does food mean to children of the TV watching generation? Enjoyment? Entertainment? If one looked at all those TV commercials, then one could be forgiven for thinking that junk foods lead to exciting, strong and brainy kids. TV, newspapers, magazines billboards all point in that direction.
Fast food giants spend tonnes of money and make sure that they perpetuate a lifestyle that suits their pockets even at the cost of making millions of people fat. McDonald's, in a single year, spent about $500 million on TV advertisements alone.
The truth is frighteningly different. As teenagers consume more and more colas and burgers, the number of those becoming obese is alarming. While America leads the pack in teenage obesity, India doesn’t lag far behind.
America’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention found 15 percent of children between 6 and 19 to be overweight, thrice the proportion 20 years ago. And a WHObacked survey of Delhi public schools found that 53 per cent children aged 10-14 eat junk food on a daily basis.
In fact, the WHO calls childhood obesity a global epidemic that is spreading into the developing world. In fact, it is catching up with smoking as the leading cause of illness and death.
Food Industry = Entertainment Industry
Sports, entertainment, news, fast food and movies have become barely indistinguishable.According to Public Health Reports, “advertising, pricing and packaging, and availability all encourage Americans to eat more food, not less. The design of neighbourhoods promotes using motor vehicles rather than walking.”
Environmental risk factors that may influence our everyday behaviours include increased exposure to high-calories fast foods, "junk" foods, and refined sugars. Low-income families must often depend on smaller stores that have a limited selection of fresh foods, often at higher cost. Supermarkets have two times the amount of healthy foods as neighbourhood grocery stores, but there are four times as many supermarkets in white neighbourhoods than black neighbourhoods.
That’s pretty getting to be the story of the world. As teenage obesity is on the rise, it is seen that rather than preventing them, the environment and many other factors are actually guiding children to the path of obesity.
The End of Small Farms
The fast food revolution impacts agriculture and environment. For example, McDonald's, the fast food chain is the largest purchaser of beef and potatoes in America, apart from being the second largest producer of poultry. It goes without saying that they influence the policy on agriculture. So fast food companies are industrialising agriculture and pushing small family farmers off the map. In fact, since 1980, America has almost lost one million medium to small-sized family farms. Thanks to the industrialisation of agriculture the US is losing farmers so fast that it now has more prisoners than farmers.
The Cheap Food Argument
Another argument which the fast food industry throws is that fast food is cheap and it helps the economy. The truth is far from that. The American fast food industry is heavily subsidised and there are steep hidden costs of long-distance transportation for other countries.
Issues of Minority
In America, it was found that when it comes to obesity, minorities are disproportionately affected. Studies consistently report a higher prevalence of obesity in African Americans and Mexican Americans compared with the white, non-Hispanic population. In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2000, 23.6% of non-Hispanic blacks and 23.4% of Mexican American adolescents were overweight, a startling near-doubling increase (from 13.4% and 13.8%, respectively) in the past decade. This contrasts markedly with the prevalence of overweight in non-Hispanic whites of 12.7%. The rates for obesity are also greater for minority children. Over 25 percent of Black and Hispanic kids are overweight as against the national average of 15%.
Fast food giants like McDonald’s fight hard to retain hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidies for "training" their workers. A worker has only to work for 400 hours for the chain to receive its $2,400 subsidy. In essence, the American taxpayer subsidises low wages, automation, and turnover at fast food chains. Farmers get just 21% of the food dollar in the US, the rest goes to corporations.
A WHO-backed survey of Delhi public schools revealed that 53 per cent of children between 10 and 14 years of age snack on junk food every day.
Sweet Trooth Yeh kya ho raha hai?!
Hi! I’m Sugar Puff papa. I just luuuvvvv anything that is sugary. Sweets, pastries, soft drinks....yummy yum. I thought sugar would just kill my teeth and I was ready to live with that but...
“I’ve got diabetes. So my doctor has told me to stop eating sweets altogether”
What's Happening: A high dose of sugar introduced into the system sends the body into shock from the rapid rise in blood sugar level. The pancreas eventually wears out from overwork, leading to diabetes.
“These dentists are millionaires. I’m going to make my son a dentist! I thought I’d just have a some cavities, but I have a full set of false teeth now. And my gums ache too.”
What's Happening: When you eat something, the teeth’s bacteria breaks down the sugar and secretes chemicals, which dissolve tooth enamel. Sugar also makes the blood thicker, affecting the flow of vital nutrients to teeth and gums.
“My doctor says I’m prone to a heart attack. But I have no family history of the disease!”
What's Happening: Sucrose increases blood levels of cholesterol, insulin and the stress hormone cortisol. All these increase the risk of heart disease. It is also known to increase blood pressure.
“My colds and coughs have become more frequent.”
What's Happening: Sugar is often called an anti-nutrient as eating more of it leads the body to use up its supplies of potassium, thiamin and chromium. All sugars, even natural ones, appear to compete with Vitamin C for transportation into white blood cells. Without adequate amounts of Vitamin C, the immune system becomes severely affected.
“These wretched headaches! Aspirins work no more on me. This definitely can’t be because of sweets.”
What's Happening: As you eat more sugar, cells are destroyed as a consequence of being robbed of Vitamin B. Insulin production is inhibited leading to a very high sugar level in the bloodstream. Surveys show that this can lead to a confused mental state or unsound mind.
“My bones ache all the time. My doctor tells me that I’ve got osteoporosis.”
What's Happening: Our blood becomes acidic with the excess consumption of sugary foods. To balance this, nutrients like calcium are borrowed from the bones. High consumption of sugar means that this calcium is not replaced. And that leads to the long-term deterioration of bones, osteoporosis.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be. I guess it’s old age.”
What's Happening: High sugar intake also corrupts muscle performance and impedes strength development
“Gallstones from sugar? Not possible!”
What's Happening: In 1984, the British Medical Journal reported that refined sugar may be one of the major dietary risk factors in gallstone disease.