Sugar is everywhere. If a food item says low-fat, it probably also means that  it contains added sugar.  Almost 80 % of the processed food and beverages we buy  contain added sugar. Did you know that sugar consumption has increased by more than 300% over the past century, and it now may have become public enemy #1 as far as our health is concerned. Sucrose, or sugar as we know it, is a carbohydrate and although our body naturally uses carbohydrates, sugar has unique effects that makes it different from other carbohydrates – maybe even deadly different.

In 1972 British physiologist and nutritionist Dr John Yudkin published a book entitled ‘Pure, White and Deadly. In a nutshell Dr Yudkin argued that sugar is bad for our health.  Unfortunately for millions, if not billions, around the world he lost the argument and, as a consequence, we increasingly continue to pay the price… and pay it with our health.

Dr Yudkin wrote, “…if only a small fraction of what is already known about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would be promptly banned”. He then went on to say that “…all human nutritional needs can be met in full without having to take a single spoon of white or brown or raw sugar, on its own or in any food or drink ”. In other words human beings do not have a physiological need for sugar. Sugar addiction, however, is very real and pervasive.  

Brown Sugar vs White Sugar

‘Is brown sugar better for me than white sugar?’, is a question that I’m  often asked. Many people believe that brown sugar is healthier than white.  The answer is that they are equally bad for us, especially if consumed in excess. The same goes for honey.  While there may be some nutritional benefit in eating honey rather than sugar, one teaspoonful of honey  more or less equals one teaspoonful of sugar as far as our blood glucose and insulin levels are concerned.

Sugar has gone from being an occasional additive, to currently contributing about 20% of total energy consumed across the world. It is often added to low fat or so-called no fat foods in order to improve the taste of these foods. Many processed and ultra-processed foods, including breakfast and baby cereals, have hidden sugar…and lots of it. In the USA, 90% of added sugar and almost 60% of the calories consumed comes from ultra-processed foods and beverages.  Now, if you think that this shoe might fit you too, then it’s important for you to know that your liver can’t handle this level of sugar overload.

Sugar Overload is Dangerous

Sugar overload is the primary cause of the chronic diseases that go to make up what is now called the Metabolic Syndrome – a cluster of conditions such as insulin resistance, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. Most of us can put sugar and diabetes together in the same sentence, after all some people still refer to diabetes as ‘sugar diabetes’. But did you know that some medical scientists are calling Alzheimer’s disease ‘Type 3 diabetes’.  And whereas in the past almost all of us blamed heart disease on saturated fat in the diet, many scientists and clinicians are increasingly pointing a finger at sugar rather than at saturated fat.

And then there’s cancer. Cancer cells love sugar, says Dr Craig Thompson, head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He says that sugar supplies most of the impetus  that cancer cells need in order to divide and multiply. This metabolic pathway to cancer is receiving a great deal of attention in research labs around the world right now.

Too Much Sugar Is Not Good For Your Liver

The liver treats sugar the same way as it treats alcohol and, as we know, too much alcohol increases the risk of liver disease. This is also true of too much sugar. Non-alcoholic  fatty liver disease is on the increase… dramatically so, even in children. Now children don’t normally drink alcohol but they  often eat and drink lots of sugar. Just look at the shelves and checkout areas of your favourite supermarket this Easter – packed full of what Dr Yudkin called ‘Pure, White and Deadly’.

Food and beverages marketed at children almost always contain added sugar. The World Health Organisation states that children under the age of two should not have any added sugar at all, and those aged between 2 and 8 years, should have no more than 3 teaspoonful’s of added sugar per day. This is the equivalent to about 100 ml of fruit juice or any other sugar sweetened beverage. And then remember – no other added sugar for the day. That’s it. If you have children or grandchildren, do you know how much sugar they have during an average day?

Always Read The Label

A few years ago, one of our daughters came for a visit together with her 7 month old daughter and armed with a box of Cerelac  baby cereal. She had been advised by another relative to introduce this cereal into her baby’s diet as her first foray into solid food. Our daughter was horrified when I pointed out that the recommended 50g portion of the Cerelac baby cereal contained 37g of glycaemic carbohydrate –  the equivalent of 9  teaspoonful’s of sugar.  Now who in their right mind will give a baby 9 teaspoonful’s of sugar to eat? Well, it turns out that many of us are doing, or have done, exactly this!

When we only added sugar to tea and coffee – and little else – we had control over our sugar consumption. Today, because sugar, in some form or another, is added to so much of our food –much of which is processed – we consume “25 times more than our ancestors did”,  says Dr Robert Lustig, paediatric endocrinologist and world authority on obesity, diabetes and the other diseases of the metabolic syndrome.

The World Health Organisation states that adults should not consume more than 6  teaspoonful’s of  added sugar per day.  And so next time you are in a supermarket, pick up a 500ml bottle of Fanta Orange, Coke or Cream Soda and read the nutritional information on the label. Take the amount of sugar or glycaemic carbohydrate  – which to all intents and purposes is just code for sugar –and divide by 4.   You will find that every 500ml bottle of sugar sweetened beverage contains  between 15 and 17 teaspoonful’s of sugar. Of course, the manufacturers don’t tell us this up front – we have to do the calculation.  So please read food labels and remember that every 4 grams of glycaemic carbohydrate is equivalent to one teaspoonful of sugar.

The politics of sugar is similar to that of the tobacco industry. We need to fight back because unless we do something today then, as Dr Lustig warns, this generation of children may be the first generation to have their parents outlive them. If this happens, then sugar or rather those that traffic in sugar will have turned out to be public enemy #1.

If you go to my blog and read the post you will find a link to a short and powerful YouTube video well worth watching. 

If you have any questions or if you would like to comment on any of the podcasts please email me at askdrhill@upforit.co.za

I’m Dr Peter Hill for UpForIt.

Till next time: stay healthy and safe.