The Sugar Tax: A Narrow-minded Approach?

The Objective

In an attempt to reduce childhood obesity in the UK, the UK government has introduced a sugar tax for sugared soft drinks. The policy objective is first to encourage companies to reduce the amount added in a reformulation of their product and secondly to reduce portion sizes to lead to healthier choices.

By announcing that “reformulation should help reduce obesity” implies a very simplistic view of the causes of childhood obesity. Childhood and adult obesity is certainly not a simple case of drinking too many soft drinks. It perhaps forms part of the problem, however, obesity is multifaceted in its cause. In only naming obesity as the issue here, the UK government has missed the opportunity to highlight other health issues that exist with the consumption of sugar and a chance to educate the population as to these adverse effects.

So, Why is Sugar a Problem to our Health?

Sugar is the ultimate in refined carbohydrate.  It has been processed to free it from all other components of the beet or cane to purify the sugar and therefore it is devoid of micronutrients. As a result, refined carbohydrate (whether sugar or starch) makes demands upon vitamin and mineral reserves for their metabolism and so such carbohydrate depletes the body of whatever reserves of sugar-metabolising micronutrients the body may have, thus making it an anti-nutrient. In effect, it is similar to running your bank account by continually withdrawing tiny amounts of your money without putting anything back in. Eventually, something will give and ill health could ensue – for some this could be early on in their life and for others, chronic ill-health could follow much later.

The Metabolic Processes Involved in Sugar Consumption

There is a vast amount of conflicting information about the effects of sugar on our health [1] and this can be further compounded by taking examples of people that consume sugar and suffer no apparent consequences towards their health.  However, in addition to the negative effect of sugar being an anti-nutrient, there are further issues not to be ignored whereby sugar affects some metabolic processes:

  •  Sugar in the saliva of the mouth enables micro-organisms to ferment the sugar upon the teeth, producing acid, the primary cause of dental caries.
  • Sugar is an inhibitor of the secretion of gastric juice. This can lead to inadequate protein digestion in the stomach and as a result, some protein may pass right down into the lower intestine, encouraging the wrong bowel bacteria and fungi to grow there, causing high levels of toxin production there, damage to the bowel wall and allergies. [2]
  • Sugar consumption causes an in-rush of sugar absorption from the intestine and places a large burden upon the hormonal mechanisms of the body that are responsible for blood sugar control. One soon comes to experience symptoms of this hormonal stress. It develops a craving for more sugar, a “yo-yo” fluctuation of the blood sugar and over-taxes the pancreas and adrenal glands.
  • An association has been found between sugar consumption and arterial disease. In experimental work on chicks, it was found that sugar intake led to atheroma – the lesions of the arterial walls that prepare the way for heart attacks and other circulatory catastrophes. Examining the dietary history of coronary thrombosis patients shows that their sugar consumption is well above average for the population generally. [3]
  • The association of sugar consumption with serious chronic disease extends to both diabetes and cancer. The connection with diabetes is clearly an ultimate result of the adverse effects on blood sugar control. The potentiation of cancerous change strongly suggests that sugar can add to the levels of cell and tissue damage. This seems likely to be associated with a toxic quality of sugar known as glycation, or glycosylation in which the sugar combines with tissue proteins, thereby changing them and altering or destroying their function.[4]
  • Sugar consumption affects the bowel flora (bacterial elements in the large intestine) over and above the effect they may have by inhibiting stomach secretion. Sugar, it seems, promotes an unhealthy bacterial population in the colon in ways that starchy foods do not.

The Many Hats of Sugar

In the UK, 2m tonnes of sugar is consumed each year and although the sugar tax is being applied to soft drinks, this only equates to about 5% of this amount. When we look at overall sugar consumption, people mostly consume sugar through buying ready-made food products that have high sugar content such as cakes, honey, confectionery, sweets and puddings, to name but a few. In this regard, the unthinking household has no idea how much sugar it is consuming as short of reading the food labels, the sugar content in many foods may surprise you – even a jar of green pesto contains sugar!  For an exercise, check carefully the labels on supermarket products. Choose a wide range of food products from the savoury shelves and see how many different and unexpected categories of foods contain sugar.

A Positive Outcome?

The sugar tax is being billed as a positive step to reduce childhood obesity, with the revenue from the tax being allocated to schools to pay for physical education, after-school activities and healthy eating initiatives and although seemingly well-meaning, sadly a quick review of the eating initiative sample menus shows that sugar is still very present in the food choices offered. [5]

Another concern would be that in the reformulation of soft drinks, artificial sugar alternatives will become more commonplace which of course bring their own health issues too, however, this is a topic for another blog.

We have to question whether it is our desire for sweet tasting products which continues to fuel a massive industry whereby added sugar is everywhere or is it a massive industry which is controlling our taste buds and offering little alternative for shop bought produce?

We hope that this article will go some way to educating the reader on some of the many issues associated with sugar consumption and will, therefore, encourage a more conscious consumer.

 

  1. Rippe, James M., and Theodore J. Angelopoulos. “Relationship between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding.” Nutrients 8.11 (2016): 697. PMC. Web. 18 Apr. 2018.
  2. Loud, F.B., Holst, J.J., Rehfeld, J.F. et al. Digest Dis Sci (1988) 33: 530. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01798352
  3. DiNicolantonio, James J., Sean C. Lucan, and James H. O’Keefe. “The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease.” Progress in cardiovascular diseases 58.5 (2016): 464–472. PMC. Web. 18 Apr. 2018.
  4. Stowell, Sean R., Tongzhong Ju, and Richard D. Cummings. “Protein Glycosylation in Cancer.” Annual review of pathology 10 (2015): 473–510. PMC. Web. 18 Apr. 2018.
  5. http://www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/Healthier%20Breakfast%20clubs%2009_10.pdf

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