Ben Bruges examines our addiction to sugar 

In Hastings we have a problem with obesity. Just over one in four Reception year children are overweight or obese, rising to one in three by Year 6 (end of primary). Childhood obesity is associated with poor psychological and emotional health, with fat-shaming bullying as an additional burden. Obese children become obese adults (of which Hastings has significantly more than the national average) who then have a higher risk of ill health and disability leading to early death. Life expectancy is lower in Hastings than the national average. There is a link between social deprivation and poor diet: Hastings is among the 20% most deprived districts in England and about 29% (4,900) of children live in low-income families. 

Walking through Priory Meadow or along the seafront you’ll encounter shops and stalls using every trick in the book to encourage children and their parents to purchase candy floss, doughnuts, sweets, ice-cream. Yet all of these ‘treats’ have one main ingredient – sugar, increasingly recognised as a dangerous drug and one of the worst causes of obesity and ill health of our generation, more so than fat. Why aren’t they plastered with health warnings? 

Sugar is addictive 

Dr Robert Lustig, an American paediatric endocrinologist, likens sugar to controlled drugs. Cocaine and heroin are deadly because they are addictive and toxic – and so is sugar: “We need to wean ourselves off. We need to de-sweeten our lives. We need to make sugar a treat, not a diet staple,” he said. “If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead.” 

If you aren’t convinced that sugar is addictive, try taking the 30-day challenge to cut out sugar. YouTuber WheezyWaiter reported feeling terrible cravings up to day four, the withdrawal stage, feeling great by day seven where he started to feel the benefits of the loss of weight, but then felt awful again by day eleven. One of the problems he found was the sheer lack of non-sugar options in the supermarkets or takeaways. He concluded, as the cravings began to pass, that a ‘sweet tooth’ is something you maintain by… eating sweet things. The result after 30 days? He felt fuller most of the time, his energy levels were not crashing up and down, he had an increase in mental clarity benefiting memory and learning, clearer skin, fresh food tasted better. Also long-term beneficial health effects, including a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. (Search: “We quit sugar for a month, here’s what happened” youtu.be/wBtslkL5nUA)

Sugar pushers lie!   

One major problem is that it’s difficult and inconvenient to cut out sugar because most prepared food in the supermarket and the takeaway is stuffed full of it. There are various ways they can lie and cheat about the sheer amount and type of sugar in the food that we buy. 

For example, these are all sugar: golden syrup, malt sugar or syrup, maltose, caramel, levulose, turbinado, jaggery, invert sugar or syrup, glucose, molasses, fructose, sucrose, hydrolysed starch, date sugar or syrup, treacle, isoglucose, dextrose, dried oat syrup, sorghum syrup, honey, cane juice, brown sugar, palm sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, fruit juice concentrate, grape sugar, coconut blossom nectar, blackstrap molasses, agave nectar or syrup, beet sugar, carob syrup, maltodextrin, maple sugar or syrup. Fast food outlets even use dextrose (a sugar) on chips to help achieve that golden colour. 

Sugar is sugar is sugar

One of the myths that these confusing labels rely on is that some sugars are better than others – that ‘agave’ is a better source than refined sugar. Whatever the source of sugar, it will be made up of glucose or fructose molecules and will act on the body in the same way. The trace elements that may well be beneficial are present in such small quantities you’d have to consume an unhealthy amount of sugar to get any benefits. Similarly, it’s surprising how full of sugar fruit juice is, but consider this – when you eat an apple, along with sugar you also consume dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals which fill you up. Apple juice includes an unhealthy amount of sugar and none of the fibre; far better stick to whole fruit. 

‘No added sugar’ or ‘naturally occurring sugars’ are essentially meaningless terms. When you realise sugar is sugar regardless of the source, the only part of the label that makes sense is the amount listed under ‘of which sugars’ – look there and you’ll be in for a surprise. A BBC investigation found that Innocent Smoothie Pomegranate Magic (250ml), which is full of fruit, has a total of 33g of sugar, which is 110% of your daily free sugar allowance in one drink. 

‘Free sugar’ is a relatively new, and welcome, measurement combining added sugar with naturally occurring sugars. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends a reduction in sugar intake to 5% of our total energy intake, equivalent to seven teaspoons/cubes or 30g of sugar per day for an adult, 24g for children aged 5-11 and 19g for children aged 4-6. 

The same BBC investigation also found a Kellogg’s Cocoa and Hazelnut Granola bar was labelled ‘no added sugar’ even though date paste had been added and the cereal contained 13g of sugar per 100g. Kellogg’s told the BBC the date paste “is used to bind the grains together so the clusters in the granola don’t fall apart – not to sweeten.” As the date paste wasn’t added to sweeten, the granola can carry the ‘no added sugar’ label.[www.which.co.uk/news/2019/08/four-ways-sugar-is-fooling-you/]

A generally deficient diet often leads to reliance on sugar. When nutrient deficient, you keep trying to eat more to get what you lack but only ingest carbs and sugar. Sugar tastes great but doesn’t fill you up. So, calories from sugar tend to go on top of those calories that you are consuming from more healthy sources. 

There are sugar pushers all around us! 

In 2014 the UK food industry spent £256 million promoting ‘unhealthy’ foods sold in retail alone. UK shops use price promotions to increase our consumption of sugary foods and does so twice as much as the rest of Europe. These promotions work – around 8.7% of the sugar we bring into the home is a result of price promotions; those to children are particularly effective, being shown to affect their preferences, purchase behaviours and consumption. 

What’s to be done? A follow-up article will consider what local health and education services are doing to tackle this problem, and if it’s working. 


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