Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and respiratory disease kill 35 million per year globally. In 2012, the UN advocated a new health goal of reducing avoidable deaths from non-communicable diseases by 25 per cent by 2025. It identified tobacco, alcohol and poor diet as central risk factors.
The first two have been regulated by governments, but poor diet is actually responsible for more disease and death than smoking, alcohol and physical inactivity all put together.
The evidence for regulating sugar is now overwhelming. At a basic level, it offers no nutritional value. Contrary to what the food industry wants us to believe, we do not need carbohydrates from added sugar for energy.
Sugar fulfils four criteria that justify it being regulated. The first is toxicity. As Professor of dentistry and co-founding member of Action on Sugar, the late Aubrey Sheiham told me ‘sugar is directly corrosive to teeth enamel’. Tooth decay is the most common cause of admission to hospital for UK children, and also the number one cause of chronic pain in kids. Excess consumption triggers type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Insulin resistance is the number one risk factor for heart attack.
Secondly, it’s unavoidable. Sugar is now added to over 80 per cent of junk and processed foods. Much is hidden, making it almost impossible for individuals to exercise choice.
Thirdly, sugar has the potential for abuse, and consumption encourages subsequent intake. By interfering with biological pathways and hormones involved with controlling hunger, it effectively stimulates appetite.
And lastly, it has a negative impact on society. The economic effects of diseases associated with sugar are colossal. Take type 2 diabetes, an entirely preventable condition. The direct costs to the NHS, and indirect costs to the economy from lost productivity, are close to £20bn. This will double by 2035 if we fail to act.
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional treat and a teaspoon of sugar won’t kill you. It’s the effects of chronic exposure and excess consumption that have been far worse than the impact of any class A drug on population health.
The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum limit of 6 tea spoons of free sugar a day for the average adult. This includes any added sugar and sugar from fruit juice, honey and syrups. US guidelines recommend a maximum of 3 tea spoons for children under 8 years old. A typical chocolate bar or can of cola has almost triple that amount!
It’s time to wind back the harms of too much sugar. For the sake of our future health, the government must intervene to unsweeten the UK’s sweet tooth. The first logical step is to ban advertising of junk food.
In the meantime, when you’re next in the supermarket, instead of counting calories, count your sugar tea spoons. Your heart will thank you for it.
Dr Aseem Malhotra is cardiologist adviser to the national obesity forum and founding member of Action on Sugar.
A version of this article originally appeared in the UK’s New Day newspaper on the 16th of March.