By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
According to US health experts, sugar is as damaging and addictive as alcohol or tobacco and should be regulated. The University of California team suggests new policies such as taxes are needed to control soaring consumption of sugar and sweeteners. Prof Robert Lustig argues in the opinion piece called “The Toxic Truth About Sugar” in journal Nature for major shifts in public policy.
Several countries are imposing taxes on unhealthy food; Denmark and Hungary have a tax on saturated fat, while France has approved a tax on soft drinks. Now, researchers in the US are proposing similar policies for added sugar and sweeteners, amid concern about the amount of sugar in the diet. The consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years, with links to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes say the authors of the piece, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis.
In a comment in the journal Nature, Prof Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and a leading child obesity expert, says governments need to consider major shifts in policy, such as taxes, limiting sales of sweet food and drinks during school hours, or even stopping children from buying them below a certain age. He said, “It [sugar] meets all the criteria for societal intervention that alcohol and tobacco meet.”
The authors write that sugar is more than just empty calories — that growing evidence links fructose overconsumption with health problems including hypertension and diabetes. “Early studies” link it to cancer and cognitive decline, they write. They also argue that like tobacco and alcohol, “it acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake.”
While he acknowledges that they face “an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby”, they write in Nature, that “with enough clamor for change, tectonic shifts in policy become possible”. They added, “Take, for instance bans on smoking in public places and the use of designated drivers, not to mention airbags in cars and condom dispensers in public bathrooms. These simple measures - which have all been on the battleground of American politics - are now taken for granted as essential tools for our public health and well-being. It's time to turn our attention to sugar.”
Commenting on the Nature commentary, Dr Peter Scarborough of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford, said taxing certain food products was something policymakers should consider. But he said taxing only one type of food could have unintended consequences, such as people cutting back on fruit and vegetables to save money for other purchases. He said, “If you only tax one aspect of food like sugar you can have unintended consequences. If you tax fat, salt and sugar, combined with subsidies for fruit and vegetables, you'll get healthier diets.”