Smoke signals: Sugar industry needs to embrace moderation (like the rest of us)

Smoke signals: Sugar industry needs to embrace moderation (like the rest of us)

Sugar is not like tobacco. So why does the sugar industry keep borrowing tobacco industry terms?

Most of us could cut back on the sweet stuff. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends less than 10% of our calories should come from added sugars, but few of us manage that. 

According to FAO figures, average global added sugar consumption is about 24 kg a year – equivalent to about 260 calories a day – but in the EU, the figure is closer to 32 kg a year, or an average of nearly 350 calories a day. (And Americans eat nearly half that again in the form of high fructose corn syrup.)

But does sugar warrant the bad press it’s had in recent months? I think not, but industry is not doing itself any favours with its response to genuine concerns about the health issues that come with too much sugar.

Even the most vociferous sugar critic (I’m looking at you, Robert Lustig) doesn’t suggest that the odd spoonful of sugar is going to kill you. The problem is over-consumption – a big one, considering that most of us are guilty of it. What’s more, looking at average consumption is only helpful to a point; there are some consumers who eat and drink far, far more sugar than could be construed as healthy.

Tobacco, on the other hand, has no known ‘safe’ consumption level.

Cringeworthy, knee-jerk denial?

There has been a flurry of studies linking sugar with poor health outcomes – and every one of them is clear about the problem being large amounts of dietary sugar, rather than any sugar at all. But that’s not what you’d think from reading reactions from industry – and, to be fair, some pretty hysterical headlines from the media.

The industry needs to accept that there is a mounting pile of evidence suggesting that excessive sugar intake is worse for the body than we ever suspected. In particular, excessive consumption has been linked to heart disease and cancers, in some very large observational studies. Sugar users have been quick to point out that these are observational studies, which can prove association but not cause and effect.

“Importantly, demonstrating association is not the same as establishing causation,” said the American Beverage Association, after a major US review linked high sugar intakes with significantly increased risk of death from heart disease. This kind of knee-jerk protectionist reaction makes me cringe.

Where are the double-blind randomised controlled trials? Well, it’s simply not possible to design such a study – at least not without major ethical concerns. Who’s volunteering their children, from birth, for a strictly controlled diet alongside an intravenous solution that may or may not be sugar syrup for the next 50 years, so we can see once and for all which group has the highest rate of heart disease?

And doesn’t this sound familiar? That’s right, the tobacco industry rolled out the same message.

As recently as 2003, the British tobacco firm Imperial used as a defence in court documents: “Cigarette smoking has not been scientifically established as a cause of lung cancer. The cause or causes of lung cancer are unknown.”

The UK government had accepted the cancer-tobacco link in 1957. Thankfully, no one had to volunteer their kids to ‘prove’ that link in a controlled trial.

The middle road

Of course, there are exceptions to blundering PR messages in the sugar sector. It was refreshing to hear AB Sugar’s head of food science saying earlier this week that the company “would not advocate a high sugar diet”. Yes, sugar can have a role to play in making foods and drinks tasty, and it should be okay to say that; we don’t have to live on kale and açaï berries.

I have a message for sugar makers and sugar users: It may not be unhealthy per se, but you need to accept that sugar is not healthy either. Accept that intakes need to continue on a downward trajectory for a while yet. Diversify your portfolio to include zero-calorie sweeteners. Keep cutting sugar.

Then reap the rewards of a healthier population – that can keep eating moderate amounts of sugar for longer – and avoid the PR nightmare of constantly trying to defend a nutritionally questionable product.

Everyone loves sugar. Unlike the tobacco industry, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

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Comments (6)

Acharya - 14 Feb 2014 | 10:43

Sugar in India

The shift to highly refined foods like whit rice, wheat as well as refined foods has done enormous damage the health of the people. that refined grains have high glycemic properties is no justification for the high consumption of sugar. Sugar is just empty calories like most of the alcohol sold in India and the alcohol is also from the same source. Further it has other serious implications eg pollutes scarce water quite heavily leading to other health problems. And india can do without the sugar lobby which pollutes our public life, As for the science part from the time Prof Yudkin began writing about this white poison about hald a century back,the evidence against sugar has been growing but the medical and political establishment have been deaf and blind!

14-Feb-2014 at 22:43 GMT

Arvind Chudasama - 12 Feb 2014 | 10:18

sugar, health and bigotry

Following an exhaustive review of some 1500 studies on sugar published in the British Medical Journal last year, the authors Te Morenga et al noted that ““any link to body weight was due to overconsumption of calories and was not specific to sugars”. Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, responding to the study, pointed out that “the association between sugar and poor health has remained contentious over the past few decades.” A totally narrow focus on sugar is simply too limiting, as “Many starchy foods, particularly highly processed grains and potato products, have a high glycemic index, raising blood glucose and insulin more rapidly than an equivalent amount of sucrose.” He goes on to say that “Unfortunately, the 2003 WHO report disregarded evidence suggesting that refined grain and potato products have metabolic effects comparable to those of sugar.” It is apparent that the charlatans parading their medical and nutritional backgrounds, greedy for publicity, are quite prepared to attack sugar without reference to solid scientific evidence.

12-Feb-2014 at 10:18 GMT

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