Sweet as sin

By Nicole Mathewson

PebblesMmmm. A sugar rush. You can’t beat it eh? But how much sugar do we consume? A lot more than just what we add to our tea or cereal. What about all those fizzy drinks, lollies and cakes? And it doesn’t end there - sugar is a staple ingredient in most processed foods including savoury ready-made meals. Globally, sugar consumption increases by about 2% per year, and is currently around 150 million tons!

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?
With so much sugar, you’d be forgiven for not being able to imagine a life without it. But did you know humans evolved without ever using it? The only kinds of sugar we need to remain healthy are lactose (found in milk) and fructose (fruits, vegetables and anything naturally nutritious). The kind of sugar we’ve come to know and love, though, is sucrose (aka sugar, refined from sugar cane or beet).

Sucrose was gradually introduced to our taste buds over time. It began innocently enough in the 1700s with a teaspoon or two in tea, but by the end of the century consumption had more than trebled. It has continued to increase worldwide ever since.

We have become so used to sugar that many people forget sucrose is just “empty calories” — it has no nutritional value. Medical problems associated with over-consumption of sucrose include obesity, increased chronic fatigue, anxiety, irritability and possibly serious mental conditions. [1] Scary huh? And this isn’t just happening in rich countries — it is also occurring in the developing world, and faster than ever.

“The consumption of sugar still goes up despite all the fanatical attacks from health cranks,” smugly says Sir Saxon Tate, boss of British sugar giant, Tate and Lyle.

A less than sweet industry
Sugar Cane HarvestingAs well as being terrible for our bodies, and almost addictive, sugar also widens the gap between the world’s rich and poor.

From the beginning, the sugar industry has not been nearly as sweet as the product. Sugar production was a big part of the slave trade, funded the expansion of European empires and put much of the original capital into capitalism.

Inequality is still rife today. For example, British Sugar’s majority shareholders, the Weston Family, receive NZ$76,700 a day from their shares, while Bekele, a typical sugar cane cutter in Ethiopia, earns less than NZ$3 a day. [2]

The power of the sugar giants
In the 1970s some companies in the sugar industry, and some which heavily used sugar in their products (e.g. soft drinks manufacturers) banded together and established various foundations’ and institutes’ which used their influence to undermine or silence any reports linking sugar with health problems. [3]

“The sugar industry has learned from the tricks of the tobacco industry,” says Professor Philip James, chairman of a national dietary guidelines committee in the UK. “Confuse the public. Produce experts who disagree. Try to dilute the message.” In the same way that oil companies deny climate change sugar companies try to persuade us that their product is not damaging.

And in New Zealand we can see the influence of these companies. Plans to remove full-sugar drinks from secondary schools have been criticised because the agreement between the Government and two of the biggest beverage companies won’t come into effect till 2009 and still allows diet drinks which can contain caffeine and artificial sweeteners which are hardly healthy. Green MP Sue Kedgley sees it as a public relations move. Children will still be exposed to “nutritionless, enamel-destroying soft drinks with addictive and controversial additives in them”, she said. [4]

Environmental concerns

Sugar plantations are harmful to the environment, being to blame for the loss of huge areas of fertile land (which could be used for growing food for local people, rather crops for export) and reducing water levels. After sixty years of sugar production in Pakistan there has been a 90 percent reduction of freshwater available. Pesticide spraying is also a problem, with twenty five million cases of serious chemical poisoning each year.[5]

It’s not all bad though. You’ve heard of Fair Trade chocolate and coffee, but you might not know you can get fairly-traded sugar too from Paraguay, available from Trade Aid stores. And it’s organic too, so no nasty pesticides were used. The most obvious way to escape from being caught in the sugar trap is to simply eat more fresh fruit and vegetables! You’ll gradually regain control over your appetite and eventually realise you don’t really need sugar at all — but if you must, try to make it fairly traded. Sweet!

Brown SugarBrown Sugar

Did you know?
A can (330ml) of regular soft drink contains up to 10 teaspoons of sugar.

  • We are the 11th biggest soft-drink consumers in the world.
  • Worldwide, about a billion people are chronically overweight and, on the flip side, a billion are chronically hungry.
  • Ethanol is a sugar-based fuel produced by fermenting cane juice. It is clean burning and can be used to fuel vehicles on its own, or mixed with petrol or diesel. Brazil has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by using ethanol rather than importing fuel, and other countries could do the same.
  • Mauritius in the Indian Ocean generates nearly half its electricity from bagasse (the crushed stalks of the sugar cane plant, after cane juice has been extracted for sugar production), and other countries, including Pacific islands such as Fiji could potentially do the same.

Learn more:
Read the New Internationalist magazine on The Sugar Trap

Take Action:

  • Join Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign
  • Be aware of what you’re eating and where it came from.
  • Encourage others to take notice too.
  • Write to your local supermarket to ask them to stock Fair Trade sugar.

References:

[1] http://live.newint.org/issue363/perilous.htm
[2] http://www.maketradefair.com/en/index.php?file=sugar_pr06.htm
[3] http://live.newint.org/issue363/keynote.htm
[4] http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/1/story.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10414952
[5] http://environment.guardian.co.uk/columnist/story/0,,1932189,00.html

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A version of this article was originally published in JET magazine.

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