Beware of the sweet devil

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Beware of the sweet devil

Over-consumption of sugar is causing havoc with people’s health. The Health Ministry must wake up to the crisis

Sugar is no longer sweet. Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended levying tax on sugary drinks, asserting that such a move can lower consumption and reduce obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

This is not the first time that the global health agency has talked about health hazards of artificial sugar. Last year too, the WHO had issued guideline calling for reduction in daily intake of free sugars among adults and children, to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below five per cent or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits, it had said.

Francesco Branca, Director of WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, has argued there was solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay. Making policy changes to support this will be critical if countries are to live up to their commitment to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases.

‘Free sugars’ are all the different types of sugar in the diet, except for the sugars that are found naturally in fruit and milk.

According to experts, much of the sugars consumed today are ‘hidden’ in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, one tablespoon of ketchup contains around four grammes (around one teaspoon) of free sugars. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grammes (around 10 teaspoons) of free sugars, the World Health Organisation observed.

The recommendations are based on an analysis of the latest scientific evidence. This evidence shows, first, that adults who consume less sugar have lower body weight and, second, that increasing the amount of sugar in the diet is associated with a weight increase. In addition, research shows that children with the highest intakes of sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely to be overweight or obese than children with a low intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

The recommendation is further supported by evidence showing higher rates of dental caries (commonly referred to as tooth decay) when the intake of free sugars is above 10 per cent of total energy intake compared with an intake of free sugars below 10 per cent of total energy intake.

Several countries, including Mexico and Hungary, already tax added sugar products. South Africa is introducing a sugar tax next year. It's the only country in Africa to do so. Ironically, the Union Ministry of Heath here is yet to take any step in this direction.

But sooner or later, India too will have to fall in line to curb sugar intake. It can no longer continue to ignore this sweet devil. It has several reasons for it.

First, India has already become the diabetic capital of the world. The number of diabetes patients is likely to rise to 101 million in India by 2030, estimates the WHO. The number doubled to 63 million in 2013; from 32 million in 2000, in the country.

Though we know  sugar doesn't directly cause Type 2 diabetes, we are more likely to get it if we are overweight. Here is where the devil sugar plays its game.

We gain weight when we take in more calories than our body needs, and sugary foods and drinks contain a lot of calories. Diabetes is not fatal but it digs deep in pocket.

Second, it's important to note that fatty foods and drinks are playing a major part in our nation's expanding waistline. Obesity, or being overweight, means becoming vulnerable  to serious health problems such as heart disease and stroke in the future.

Another reason for cutting down sugar consumption is the fact that it's not good for the health of teeth. Painting a grim picture of the dental health scenario in India as “alarming”, doctors say excessive consumption of sugary drinks and junk food is making matters worse as a high sugar-eating habit is causing “addiction” and dental ailments.

About 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the adult population in the country suffers from mild gingivitis (gum disease), 60 per cent from moderate gingivitis and over 50 per cent people overall have dental caries, as per an estimate.

Are these  reasons not enough to seriously think about health hazards of the ‘unholy' item called sugar, and take steps to curb its consumption, Union Health Minister JP Nadda?

(The writer is Special Correspondent, The Pioneer)

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