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April 6, 2012

A sweet killer

Scott Stockdale

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Sugar, which has been ubiquitous in our diets for who knows how long, is now being cited as a cause of fatal diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, according to Dr. Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity expert at the University of California.

But well-established eating habits are hard to break, and Canadians like their sugar.

An October 2011  Statistics Canada report stated that Canadians consume an average of 110 grams of sugar per day, about 26 teaspoons. However, the report doesn't distinguish between natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables and refined sugar, found in candy, cookies, cakes, cereal and a long list of other goodies.  Because natural sugars don't spike the blood sugar level to the same degree as refined sugars and they're eaten with nutritious foods containing vitamins, minerals and fibre, they're healthier than refined sugars.

Moreover, sweets and added sugars crowd out more nutritious food. They also add unwanted extra calories to otherwise nutritious food, such as yogurt or oatmeal.

Beyond that, added sugars can harm our hearts by driving up triglycerides (a type of fat circulating in our blood stream), and possibly contribute to elevated blood pressure. Perhaps even more concerning is emerging evidence that also suggests excess sugar contributes to inflammation in the body, which over time may play a role in the development of chronic disease. And, finally, sugar has an addictive quality that tends to leave the eater craving more.

And this is just what the sugar lobby and the big food companies spend billions of dollars to enhance.  In 2010, U.S. food companies spent $8.5 billion marketing food, beverages and candy to the public – in essence telling people what to eat. And this supposedly free market system – which is really a cartel – is the reason 850 million people go to bed hungry every night:  due to a shortage of money, not a shortage of food.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars are spent to make junk food artificially cheap, abundantly available and highly tempting for children. While multinational food companies have successfully lobbied to have the cereals, vegetable oils, sweeteners and flavourings used in processed foods subsidized - in what is billed as a free market economy – the cost of their junk food ads targeting children is tax deductable. And similar to the way a large company like Wal-Mart, crowds out small retail businesses, these big food companies undercut fresh, local food producers, often forcing them out of business.

With multinational food companies determining what we eat, a healthy, balanced diet is becoming a thing of the past, the result being more and more prescriptions for slimming pills, nutrition pills and zero-carb diets. At the same time, obesity levels, rates of under nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are endemic.

To date governments have done little while multinationals  re-engineer our food supply, using government subsidies to make junk food cheap and tax deductable expenses to market their products to children. 

Food ingredients such as sugar, actually kill far more people than pathogens such as Listeria and E. Coli, according to Dr. Norm Campbell,  a University of Calgary cardiologist. If the media and public health officials could capture the public's attention with reports about the harmful affects of food ingredients, it may lead to more government regulation of the food supply.

While this may enrage those opposed to government interference in the marketplace, few complain about speed limits on our roadways or security checks at airports, or tough-on-crime polices for that matter,  because many people believe these regulations contribute to a safer society. 

However, Dr. Campbell said the food industry kills many thousands more than a murderer ever had a hope of doing.

A little sugar “is not a problem, but a lot kills — slowly,” says a report published in the February 2, 2012 edition of Nature, a top research journal. An article in Nature earlier this month suggested an age limit for buying sugared soft drinks, while a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year said some obese children ought to be taken from parents temporarily by child-welfare officials.

The highly respected medical journal Lancet reported last year that 40 per cent of premature deaths are related to diet. As the evidence mounts that poor eating habits and sugar consumption in particular, contribute to chronic and ultimately fatal diseases, how long will it take governments to combat this invisible epidemic?

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