The Guardian, Thursday 9 January 2014 19.39 GMT
We have no physiological need for refined sugar: before the 16th century we managed with tiny amounts of it. In fact, all the glories of Renaissance art and thought were created on just a teaspoonful of sugar per head per year. But by the 20th century sugar had become ubiquitous. And its industry had become so powerful that it had penetrated the heart of governments. The sort of access sugar barons enjoy was exposed when Bill Clinton famously interrupted an Oval Office assignation with Monica Lewinsky in 1996 to take a phone call — the call was from one of the Fanjul family who control much of sugar production in the electorally key swing state of Florida. (The Fanjuls have played it both ways: another brother was one of George Bush’s top fundraisers.)
- Not on the Label
- by Felicity Lawrence
The Action on Sugar initiative, launched in Britain and the US this week, is recognition that different weapons are needed in the battle against the promoters of this vector of disease. A distinguished posse of professors has signed up to the campaign to cut sugar consumption by 30% by naming and shaming big companies that sell us these empty calories.
The evidence that excess consumption of refined sugars is damaging our health is now as clear as the case against tobacco. Nutritionally bankrupt products loaded with sugars have displaced the whole foods our bodies need. To tackle the preventable diet-related diseases that have reached epidemic proportions around the globe – obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers – we simply need to eat less of them. But the vested economic interests of the food, drink and farming industries are blocking change. They lobby ferociously against attempts to set lower targets for consumption or restrict marketing or recalibrate subsidies. They have captured regulators so successfully that a guerrilla campaign is needed to speak directly to consumers. Leading the charge with Action on Sugar is cardiovascular expert Graham MacGregor, veteran of the successful campaign to force the food industry to reduce blood-pressure inducing levels of salt in its products. The fight against sugar will be much tougher and dirtier.
Cutting sugars represents an existential threat to large parts of the food and drink industry. Take salt out and they are left with a problem that their products are short of good ingredients and don’t taste of much. Take sugars out and they are left with not much at all. Sugars give them their bulk. In theory, they could use proper whole foods instead, but then their economic model starts falling apart. Their businesses are built on taking the cheapest of cheap commodity ingredients, deconstructing them, and turning them into “added value” goods – not in lightly processing real unrefined foods.
Consumption of sugars is a function of price, availability and production, and has been for centuries. The price of refined sugar dropped dramatically at the beginning of the 18th century as the English, Dutch and French Caribbean colonies were established. A mass market developed, with the amount eaten in Britain increasing over the next hundred years from about 2kg per person per year to about 8kg. Sugar, and cheap bread, became the fuel of the industrial revolution; it fed the factory workers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Governments have long subsidised sugars and protected their domestic markets in them, fostering the interests of a handful of transnational corporations. As a result, sugar comes at us from every quarter. The fundamental problem is a mismatch between supply and our biology.
By the age of 15, 21st-century British boys typically have a 40kg-a-year sugar habit, according to the official National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the equivalent of 1,000 cans of cola or 11,800 sugar cubes – they are matching or exceeding the consumption of impoverished 19th-century manual workers doing up to 14 hours of physical labour a day. Action on Sugar cannot change the trade system that makes this profitable, but as the health costs of diet-related disease soar, it may at least awaken a new audience to its madnesses.