Aug 24, 2009

Sweetly poisoning the masses

India’s middle class and affluent are steadfast in one respect: they love sugar. Over the years, crave for anything sweet is growing enormously. Sweets to carbonated soft drinks to breakfast cereals and even health products like chaywanprash come loaded with sugar. And we devour it.

No wonder, India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar, and the second-largest producer of sugar.

When Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said in Parliament the other day that he was worried at the drastic slump in sugar production, falling by more than 40 per cent this year, and was therefore considering duty free imports, I wasn’t surprised. Rising prices of sugar, more so at a time when the festival season is fast approaching, can have political repercussions.

Sharad Pawar, as we all know, represents the sugar industry lobby. His interest therefore is to increase sugar consumption which in turn benefits the industry. Obviously the stakes are high for him. But I wonder why the electronic and print media is also backing over-consumption of sugar. I have been asked a number of times whether the government’s decision to allow duty free imports auger well for the domestic sugar industry.

In my reply, I have often said that the present crisis in sugar production should serve as an opportunity to educate the consumers against their growing preference for sugar. Instead of allowing duty free imports, India should let the prices go up to a reasonable level so that consumption can come down. What the nation needs to be told is that sugar is harmful for health, and therefore its use should be restricted and phased-out. The taste bud has to change.

In a country which has now become the diabetic capital of the world, with some 70 million people expected to be suffering from diabetes by the year 2050, the situation is truly alarming. You might say that diabetes is more to do with the changing life-style, but the fact of the matter is that processed food and carbonated soft drink intake is multiplying, and is increasingly becoming part of the neorich lifestyle. Sugar has no vitamins and minerals for digestion and weakens the immune system.

In her book Sugar: Pleasure or Poison, Dr Carolyn Dean says that as sugar consumption increases, more people suffer from diabetes, hypoglycemia, heart disease and hyperactivity. In another study in Norway, higher intake of sugar has been found to be linked with mental problems in the young. Much of the increased intake of sugar in the young people is from soft drinks. Incidentally, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries are the major markets for the soft drink industry.

Dr Dean illustrates how the sugar intake is increasing. It is interesting to know that some brands of ketchup have more sugar per ounce than ice cream. Many salad dressings, she says have three times the sugar content of cola drinks. If you are a diabetic, be careful. Some non-dairy creamers have more sugar than a chocolate bar. The next time you go to a fast food joint and order milk shake, be warned. There are 20 teaspoons of sugar in a milk shake and about eight teaspoons in most desserts.

She quotes an interesting study conducted by two nutritionists Schoenthaler and Schausswas on one million school children from 800 New York schools. Sugar was withheld from these students over a 7-year period. The researchers found a 15.7 per cent increase in learning ability compared with other schools. Of 124,000 children who were unable to learn grammar and math, 75,000 could perform these skills after dietary changes alone were introduced. In another study, 68 juvenile criminals' anti-social acts diminished by 80 per cent within seven months. In a follow-up study with 276 children, one group stayed on the junk food diet while the other group received healthy foods. And the difference in anti-social acts between the two groups was almost 50 per cent.

It is primarily for these reasons that the sugar industry has been able to force the World Health Organisation (WHO) not to make public one its damming studies on the health impacts of sugar. This is what exactly had happened with tobacco consumption. It has taken the United States 50 years to recognise that cigarette smoking is injurious to health. The industry knew it all along, but did not let the government issue the warning. Sugar is no different.

In India, sugar consumption is growing unabated. From an average of 5.3 kg per annum in the early 1960s, it has grown to 18 kgs per capita per year in 2006. I am sure in 2008 when production was its peak, sugar consumption must be around 20 kgs per year. Since averages in a country like India do not mean much, let us look at the consumption pattern in the urban areas. And this is where the nation needs to be worried.

In Punjab, the per capita consumption of sugar exceeds 72 kg, closely followed by Haryana at 70 kg. Both these predominantly agricultural States are far ahead of the rest of the country. My worry is the damage such high intake of sugar is causing in the food bowl of the country. Among the rest of the country, Maharashtra and Kerala lead with 42 kgs; Gujarat with 41 kgs; Uttar Pradesh with 36 kgs; Tamil Nadu with 30 kgs against an average for urban India at 32 kgs.

Ideally, sugar consumption should be kept in the range of 25 kg per year.

I think what is more important is that instead of waiting for the government to educate us about the inherent dangers from increased sugar consumption; we need to take steps that are in the healthy direction. First, try to replace white sugar with organic jaggery (gur). Even in Ayurveda, gur is used as medicine – as blood purifier and prevents disorders of bile. No wonder, workers in polluted industries are given a daily dose of gur.

Try to discourage children and others in the family from consuming more of processed foods and carbonated drinks. Replace these with fresh fruits and vegetables. Like the movement against plastic bags and crackers, school children should be encouraged to launch a similar movement against sugar. For the government, we need to build pressure to bring in adequate safety provisions under the newly constituted Food Safety Authority. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has a bigger responsibility to create a nationwide awareness. But I am not hopeful knowing that the IMA is more interested in generating income from endorsing processed food products. #


Anonymous said...

Very very good article Devinder. Today Dr. Bela was saying during her class in the morning as part of World Kitchen Garden Day that because of our dietary habits , after 40 most of the people get a PHD( Pressure, heart diseae and diabetis)


Anonymous said...

And let us not forget the role sugar has played in Modern World History. Addiction to power is well chronicled by Sidney Mintz in "Sweetness and Power."

Rajan Prakash said...

Wonderful piece. Entirely different angle of sugar. The sweeting agent doesn't seem 'so sweet'.