Is sugar the new tobacco?
This was the exact topic of discussion at a symposium organised by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in October 2016. This international symposium was organised primarily to demystify the evidence on sugar consumption reaching levels of addiction akin to tobacco and to have doctors across India alert their patients about the ills of excessive sugar intake. The renowned medical professionals participating at the symposium had discussed how excessive consumption of sugary drinks and packaged and junk food was making matters worse as consumption of aerated drinks and junk, especially packaged foods, made people unwittingly addicted to sugar, leading to a craving for it, and eventually wrecking their overall health. The doctors stated that this addiction to sugar was similar to addiction to tobacco, and hence a matter of great worry.
Interestingly, the concern that Indian medical practitioners formally started expressing just about a year ago had become a subject of policy-level discussions across Europe and the United States about half a decade ago. In 2015, Action on Sugar, a campaign started by an Indian doctor named Aseem Malhotra, demanded stringent norms to control sugar quantities in packaged foods. The campaign received much-needed media attention and managed to influence the World Health Organization (WHO) as it issued guidelines recommending reduction of sugar intake for adults and children. A year later, WHO also released a report wherein it classified sugar as a threat and suggested extra taxes for sugar-based drinks – like it happened on tobacco – as that would help in lowering their consumption and at the same time would reduce cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.
Considering that the governments on our side of the continent are yet to take a decisive action against tobacco lobbies, it makes sense for them to turn a blind eye or stay in denial. They have just about understood the theory that explains that taxes from tobacco are not meeting the concurrent public healthcare costs. It will be unfair to introduce them to pure, white and deadly, which apparently is the title of a book by John Yudkin, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent nutritionists. The book, through circumstantial evidences, explains how sugar’s rapid rise to prominence in the Western diet, starting in the mid-19th century, had coincided with a sudden outbreak of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The narrative justifies how one had caused the other.
Ironically, when I searched Google to comprehend the Indian government’s stance on sugar, I stumbled upon this interesting bit of news: The central government in August had placed curbs on sugar stocks as an attempt to restrain mills from hoarding and pushing up prices when the demand for sugar spiked during the festive season. Of course, it can also be looked at as an attempt to ensure that sugary foods (aerated, milk-based and fruit drinks, candies, chocolates, cookies, Indian sweets, butters, breads, wines, snacks…) do not become dearer, and the industry does not suffer.
Anyway, my idea of writing this is not to crib about the policies, etc. The thought behind this piece is to alert readers, to warn them to keep a check on sugar intake (not just their own but also that of their dear ones, especially children) by avoiding buying unnecessary packaged foods. When they do buy, they may avoid packaged foods that have sugar amongst the three main ingredients. Thankfully, in the last few years we have managed the mandating of listing all ingredients and declaring the nutritious value of the product on the label.
I wish sweet festivities to you all..