Sugar – the deadliest poison of them all?
Each week we consume 238 teaspoonfuls of a potentially toxic substance linked to long-term health problems – often without knowing it. Just how hard is it to go sugar-free?
Published 03/07/2013 | 05:00
Like it or lump it, few of us get through the day without adding sugar to our daily diet. We are a Pavlovian population made up of sugar, treacle and toffee addicts, drawn to the taste of sweetness like bees to honey.
So ingrained is our desire that even writing about sugar now is sending my salivary glands into overdrive as my brain reacts to the very thought of it, whizzing neurotransmitters around to prepare my body for some serious glucose action. Perhaps you, while reading this, are reaching for a chocolate Hobnob?
But that's not a problem, is it? We could stop and eat a piece of cheese instead, any time we wanted. Or could we?
Maybe not. Increasingly, experts believe we can be truly addicted to sugar. French scientists in Bordeaux reported that in animal trials, rats chose sugar over cocaine (even when they were addicted to cocaine).
So if you feel like you are craving a chocolatey treat, that craving is more than just a figure of speech. You may be one of the world's most common dependents: a sugar addict.
But take heart. Around the world, a growing body of expert opinion – the 'No Sugar' movement – is leading a global fightback and warning that our sweet habit is completely out of control, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth of the body public.
Sugar, whether added to food by you or the manufacturer, is the greatest threat to human health, bar none, they say. And unless we wise up and quit en masse, we don't just risk obesity and disease, but national bankruptcy and collapse as the toll our ill health takes on our countries' economies threatens to destabilise the modern world.
The movement is led by Robert Lustig, professor of paediatric endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar, numerous scientific and press articles, and presenter of Sugar: the Bitter Truth, a YouTube clip viewed more than 3,300,000 times.
'No Sugar' proponents also include Australian writer David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison and the new Sweet Poison Quit Plan, just out now, as well as actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who reveals in her new cookbook It's All Good that her family are not permitted to eat any refined carbs (let alone sugar).
At a basic level, sucrose, or table sugar (which is made up of equal molecules of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose) is not metabolised in the same way that a carbohydrate such as flour is. He explains: "An analysis of 175 countries over the past decade showed that when you look for the cause of type 2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes, the total number of calories you consume is irrelevant. It's the specific calories that count. Added sugar is 11 times more potent at causing diabetes than general calories."
The problem lies in sources of sweetness like corn syrup, agave or maple syrup and honey, which contain a higher percentage of fructose than fruit, especially if they have been processed, meaning additional fructose is added in. Some agave nectars, for example, can be 92pc fructose, 8pc glucose.
The food industry loves these sweeteners, especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), as they make every type of food more palatable – from soup to bread.
In particular, it is used in low-fat foods. His theory goes a long way to explaining why the low-fat diets that rose to popularity in the '70s have coincided with a rise in obesity and related illnesses.
Thousands of miles away, nodding in agreement, is David Gillespie, a Brisbane-based lawyer turned researcher whose Sweet Poison books chart his decision to stop eating sugar, resulting in him losing six stone, without dieting, in a year.
He explains: "You are breaking an addiction, so you need to stop consuming all sources of the addictive substance."
What worries Gillespie, though, is not the candy by the checkout – but the fructose lurking in your ready-meal. "Very few of us are making conscious decisions about the sugar we eat," he says.
"The average person is consuming more than a kilo – 238 teaspoonfuls – a week, but I bet they'd be flummoxed accounting for more than a few teaspoons of that. Sugar is deeply embedded in our food supply."
Like Lustig, Gillespie sees our inate weight problem as connected to the rise in consumption of hidden sugar.
Gillespie began reading John Yudkin's book Pure, White and Deadly, published in 1972, which showed that consumption of sugar and refined sweeteners is closely associated with long-term disease.
Fascinated, Gillespie soaked up research papers that connected fructose (in particular) to fatty liver disease, to appetite stimulation, and to gout, diabetes, memory loss and, of course, obesity. He was shocked to learn "how many of our organs sugar systematically destroys without symptoms until it is too late".
The more he learnt, the more Gillespie was determined to do something about his own eating habits. "I stopped eating sugar and immediately started losing weight – without adjusting anything else about how I lived."
His family were not left behind. "The kids are pretty pleased with teeth that don't have cavities," he says. "rarely getting colds and feeling energetic, with none of the highs and lows that come with sugar eating."
That mood rollercoaster is one of the reasons Gwyneth Paltrow gives for quitting sugar: "Sugar gives you an initial high, then you crash, then you crave more, so you consume more sugar.
"It's this series of highs and lows that provoke unnecessary stress on your adrenals. You get anxious, moody (sugar is a mood-altering drug) and eventually you feel exhausted."
Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar by Robert Lustig (Fourth Estate, RRP £13.99)