I have a question for you. Cigarettes, alcohol, petrol, sugar and high-emission cars – which is the odd one out? All have a highly negative impact on our health. All are produced by huge pan-global conglomerates with massive budgets for political lobbying and marketing. All but one is heavily taxed in this country to raise revenue for the government. Have you guessed? The odd one out is sugar.
Probably one of the most destructive food products consumed daily by millions of people, sugar has successfully avoided any extra taxation at consumer level.
Sugar has been conclusively linked to many key illnesses that now plague mankind – diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and obesity – particularly in the developed world, where sugar consumption is highest. The government’s own advisors have presented numerous research papers over the decades attesting to the hazards of refined sugars. Yet, little or no action is taken against the sugar industry.
The average Westerner consumes 45-68 kg (100-150 lb) of sugar each year, much of it ingested as hidden sugars in packaged and processed goods such as tinned beans, ready-made meals and fruit juice.
Sugar has a powerful effect on the body. A sugar rush has the immediate effect of extra energy and enthusiasm but, as we are all too aware, this is then followed by a crash as the body tries to pull our blood sugar levels back into balance.
It is clear that highly refined foods, especially refined sugar and white flour, can affect pancreatic regulation of blood sugar levels. In turn, impaired insulin secretion can lead to potential disease states, especially type 2 diabetes (JAMA, 1997; 77: 472-7).
The long-term impact of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages on children’s body weight has also been studied by researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard School of Public Health. They found a 60 per cent greater risk of becoming obese for every additional can or glass of sugar-sweetened soft drink consumed above the average of just over one such drink a day (Lancet, 2001; 357: 505-8).
The simple correlation between children eating highly refined foods and poor nutritional status is confirmed by neurologist Dr Jay Lombard in his book The Brain Wellness Plan, which highlights a strongly suspected link between dietary refined sugars and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Worryingly, the marketing arms of the sugar industry have long exploited the huge consumer market of young people, children and infants, and show no signs of slowing. Pester-power is even more effective than ever before.
Fizzy drinks, ‘fruit’ strips, candy floss-making toys, electrically powered lollypops and sugar products featuring appealing cartoon characters make up virtually all the advertising on TV channels such as CITV and Nickelodeon, directed exclusively at the young.
Although most reputable supermarkets no longer place these products near the checkouts, children who have their own pocketmoney can still buy sweets free of adult supervision. Sweets in this country are too cheap. For £1, you can buy copious amounts of jellies, chocolates and boiled-sugar candies.
The insidious all-pervasive lure of sugar has even reached the organic movement and the Soil Association. In 2000, the You Magazine/Soil Association Awards found some unlikely products as award-winners – jellies, chocolates, jams, coffee, ready-made meals, and even spirits and lager.
Some say that products with little/no nutritional value should not be given organic status, let alone win awards. Nevertheless, at least one positive thing has come out of the taste for organic sweets: organic sugar production is more sensitive to environmental issues.
Examine the labels of children’s vitamins and you’ll be astounded at the inclusion of sugars and sweeteners. As the owner of a vitamin company and a parent, I am appalled at what passes as nutritional in most of these kiddie vitamins. It is certainly better for children to eat a good and varied diet, and top up with green foods for extra nutrients, rather than take a daily sweetie with a handful of vitamins added.
A controversial solution is to place a heavier rate of value added tax (VAT) on all sugar products, especially those directed at children.
One way for all parents and consumers to draw attention to this issue and bring about a change is to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dr Gordon Brown, and ask him to introduce a higher rate of taxation for sugar and all sugar-containing foodstuffs, especially those that are clearly and directly aimed at children.
Your letter might suggest that he use the additional revenue raised to inject funds into the NHS or for educational programmes to wean the British public off their sugar ‘addictions’ on to healthier foods. More education for the educators themselves might also result in an agreement to ban sweets from schools and colleges.
One suggestion is for schools not to allow lunches to include fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolates in their school lunches. This works very well in my six-year-old daughter’s school and might encourage parents to become more creative and mindful of health in their lunchtime offerings.
The crux of the problem lies in convincing the government that sugar is not a food, but a largely unnecessary luxury that we cannot afford.
Cheryl Thallon is co-founder and director of the vitamin manufacturing company Viridian Nutrition.