Sugar: The sweet killer

Sugar destroys the body in many ways – planting disease, eroding health and ultimately shortening our lives. In short, sugar kills!

Sugar is one of the basic elements found in starchy food. However, the refined white sugar, which we generally refer to using the term “sugar”, is industrially processed and really not suitable or safe for human consumption.

It is devoid of nutrients and acts more like a drug than a food. This substance is addictive and has been called “the most dangerous white powder known to man”. In fact, sugar does more damage to human health than any other poison, drug or narcotic.

Amazingly, refined sugar is viewed as a necessity or an “essential” food – both in the eyes of the public and the government! It is ranked among food staples such as rice and cooking oil, and is a price-controlled item. A sugar shortage is considered a national crisis – crippling eateries, drink and food manufacturers, food traders and the general public.

Malaysians are reported to be among the highest consumers of sugar in South East Asia. In the 1970s, Malaysians consumed about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day. This figure went up to about 21 teaspoons a day in the 1980s. Now, Malaysians are reported to be consuming an average of 24 teaspoons of sugar per day.

The general guideline on sugar consumption is that it should be from 0 to ten teaspoons a day. Ideally, Malaysians should be targeting the lower end of the range.

Over 60 ailments have been linked to sugar consumption, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, and allergies. Some of these killer diseases are showing worrying upward trends in just a few years.

Take for example the deadly disease, diabetes. It has already reached very alarming proportions in the country. Diabetes Type 2 is strongly linked to high sugar consumption and obesity.

In the first National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) carried out in 1986, the prevalence of diabetes was 6.3%. Just 10 years later this figure increased to 8.3%. Now, based on the latest NHMS III, conducted in 2006, diabetes prevalence has increased to 14.9%.

Most people find it hard to believe or accept that they can be consuming an average of 24 teaspoons of sugar a day. That is because we may be thinking only of the “visible” white sugar which we see and buy for use in preparations at home. However, an increasing amount of sugar that is consumed by the public is contained in industrially-prepared drinks and food.

For instance, some soft drinks contain an average of at least 7 teaspoons of sugar per can. During CAP surveys, we noted a number of the commercial drinks and food contained over 10 teaspoons of sugar in just one serving. Consumers are often unaware of how much sugar they are consuming in total throughout the day.

Urgent action needs to be taken to curb our national sugar consumption. In view of the alarming situation, CAP calls on the Government to:

• Work with manufacturers to reduce sugar contents in their products.

• Require manufacturers to amend their labels to clearly depict the amount of sugar in their food. To ensure that this information is understood by consumers, the sugar content could be shown graphically in terms of the number of teaspoons of sugar. (One teaspoon is approximately equivalent to 5g). With this improved labeling, consumers can instantly see the amount of sugar that they will be consuming and adjust their habits accordingly.

• Institute “traffic light” labeling to further enhance consumer awareness. This scheme has been shown to be effective in enabling consumers to assess the significance of nutrient levels within a particular product, and also allows for comparison between products. Under this scheme, red, orange and green colour coding would indicate whether the levels of these ingredients of concern are high, medium or low. The presence of the red, orange or green signals on food packaging would serve as an instant notice for consumers – even children or those with limited nutritional knowledge or numerical skills would easily be able to comprehend these signals. It would also act as a prompt for manufacturers to reformulate healthier versions of their products.

• Bring to a halt the advertisement of highly-sugared and other junk food and drink during children’s television viewing hours. Many junk food advertisements, including those for sweets, chocolates and soft drinks are shown just before or after children’s programmes. Children are susceptible to media pressure.

• Educate school children on the dangers of excessive sugar intake through health education, home science and cookery lessons.

• Educate the public on the dangers of sugar intake through the media especially through the television, radio and the popular press.

• Encourage children to avoid sweet drinks in schools by providing drinking water in water dispensers around school premises. Sweet drinks should not be sold in school canteens so that children learn to select water as a first-choice drink.

• Have a total ban on the sale of junk food in school canteens.

• Ban food hawking within a fixed perimeter around schools so that schoolchildren are not tempted to purchase and consume unhealthy foods.

• Put an end to child-height confectionary displays at supermarkets and grocery stores which are usually placed near checkout counters to attract children.

• Initiate the removal of vending machines dispensing junk food and sugary drinks from areas such as hospitals, airports and schools.

Parents can play an effective role in:

• Ensuring that highly-sugared products and sweets are not stocked in their homes.

• Setting a healthy example for the young by not eating sweets, chocolates and junk food in their presence.

• Not displaying their love for their children by rewarding them with sweet things.

• Making vegetables and fruits appealing to children and clearly explaining the benefits of these foods to them.

Press Statement – 28 January, 2009

Read more on how sugar is responsible for more than 60 diseases in the CAP Guide, How Sugar Destroys Your Health