It is nearly forty years since John Yudkin wrote the book Pure, White and Deadly. He thought there was a direct link between sugar consumption and heart disease, since disproven. Are we now eating more sugar than ever or are we eating the same amount as in 1980? Is there a link between our sugar consumption and obesity? Wise people at the University of Sydney have given this some thought.
Sugar consumption, up or down?
Surprising to many who had made assumptions about our sugar consumption, we are eating less than 30 years ago. Yep, less. Hang on, before we go any further, what are we talking about? Sugar is not singular, it is plural. Common sugars include fructose, glucose (also called dextrose), galactose, lactose (glucose joined to galactose), sucrose (fructose joined to glucose), and maltose (two glucose molecules joined together).
Add sugar to your coffee and you are adding sucrose; eat a bowl of yogurt and you are eating lactose, and possibly some added sucrose if it was flavoured yogurt; eat a banana and you get a flavoursome mix of glucose, fructose and sucrose.
So what sugar are we talking about? The Uni of Sydney found that we are eating less sucrose, also known as table sugar or cane sugar, in the last 30 years. More specifically, Australia, the UK and the US are eating less sucrose (23%, 10% and 20% less respectively). If you included all sugars used for sweetening then Australia is eating 16% less sugars (note: plural), the UK 5% less, but the US are chugging down an extra 23% sugars. That is, the US are eating less sugar (sucrose) but more sugars, mainly as high fructose corn syrups.
One thing that contributed to the drop in sugar in Australia was a big switch from regular soft drink (soda) to diet versions. We are drinking less sugar-sweetened drinks, with the decline starting at the beginning of the century, such that one third of soft drinks now are diet drinks. Even the kids have got the message. Fewer children are consuming sugar-sweetened drinks and those that do are drinking a bit less.
Is sugar making us fatter?
Will getting people to consume less sugar make a dent in the number of overweight? The answer seems to be “No” on a population basis. Australians and the British eat less sugar and gain more fat. The answer might be “Yes” on an individual basis. It is not just soft drink that can add sugar and calories/kJs to the diet, it is the biscuits (cookies), cakes and sweet pastries that add their fair share too. Cutting back on those will reduce sugar, along with fat and sodium.
What does it all mean?
I dare say that most readers don’t have a sugar problem. The occasional sweet food (eg chocolate) and the occasional sweet drink (eg fruit juice, soft drink) is not going to bring you unstuck. As we consume less sugar, we still become plumper as a nation, so getting Australians and the Brits to cut back further on sugar may not make a big difference to obesity levels. The US, on the other hand, mmmm, maybe Michelle Obama has it on her list.
What you are more likely to have is a sodium problem. Most of you will eat more than you need and possibly venture into the unhealthy levels (especially if you enjoy cheese, olives, sauces, bread, spreads, breakfast cereals). We still have a population stuck in the 1970s worrying about a bit of sugar and not having a clue where their sodium comes from.
Enough on that. I’m off for a lovely Tasmanian camembert on wholegrain toast. Hey, I’ve told you before, I ain’t perfect!
Nutrients 2011; 3: 491-504 (you can download it free from here if you fancy )