On a recent road trip up the North Coast of Queensland (my home State), my 11-year-old son and I stopped along the roadside at a sugar plantation. He was in awe of the plant’s long, elegant stalks and the way they collectively swayed in the summer breeze. I cut off a stalk at its base. “Zac, munch on the end” I said, pointing the plant at him. He flinched at first but I assured him it was OK. He grabbed the stalk and began chewing with the side of his mouth – his molars denting the sides of the hardy plant with resistance. His eyes widened suddenly with sweet delight. “Wow Dad that’s awesome”. I guess he’d never tasted a metre-long Mars Bar before. Slowly but surely the plant’s bulk began to gum up his little mouth until he could chew no longer.

In its natural unprocessed state, it’s hard to eat a lot of sugar. Its inbuilt deterrent – fibre – stops us from eating too much. Think about how many oranges you could eat in one sitting. Maybe two at best.  It’s the fibre in the orange which prevents over-consumption. The fibre fills our gut and ‘I’m full’ signals sent to the brain curb our appetite. Compare this to how many glasses of orange JUICE you could drink in one go. Easily two. That’s about 6-8 oranges. That’s a lot of fructose (fruit sugar). You see, sugar is not inherently BAD for us, after all, it’s real food from the ground, but of course, we don’t eat sugar in this way anymore. We grow it, cut it, crush it up, squeeze it out and add it to almost everything we eat. We hide it in bread, milk, tomato sauce, even baby food. Sugar is everywhere. So is obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Food scientists are now researching the possible link between sugar and the world-wide rise of chronic disease. Can they prove an irrefutable link or will Big Food Companies continue to duck and weave at the face of mounting evidence?

Why is sugar under the spotlight?
Statistics confirm that Australians consume between 20-30 teaspoons of sugar per day compared to less than 10 teaspoons 30 years ago and that our intake of processed foods has increased by 51% over the same period. In 2011 the UN general assembly stated that non-communicable disease i.e. heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia is now a bigger problem for the developing world – not the developed world (we always knew THAT was a problem). In Africa, India, South America and Asia these ‘diseases of affluence’ are now a bigger problem than acute infectious disease including HIV. With over 75% of all supermarket packaged foods laced with sugar, new theories are beginning to link high sugar intake with this sudden and rapid decline in world health. This is despite the declining consumption of the usual suspect – dietary fats – as the perpetrator.

This ‘globalization of illness’ is causing an unsustainable burden on health systems worldwide and in 2015 has lead the World Health Organisation to release a policy on sugar which limits its intake for adults and children to between 25 and 50 grams per day (6-12 teaspoons). This includes all sugar added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer and those appearing in honey, syrups and fruit juices. Whilst the evidence to implicate sugar is not conclusive (it never will be without unethically based human trials) it provides a strong and compelling argument. Put another way, if sugar was ‘on trial’ one would argue that whilst sugar has no alibi, no smoking gun or reliable witnesses – it’s almost always found at the scene of the crime.

Next Month: So You Think You Don’t Eat Much Sugar?