Sugar: should it be banned?


I’ll never forget my daughter’s first sugar free birthday party. Food was exquisitely arranged on a garden table. But instead of chips and dip, there were carrot sticks and hummus. Instead of cupcakes, rice cakes. And the only cherries on top were tomatoes. Even the birthday cake was sugar-free. Lily was only two, but knew she’d been ripped off. “Mommy,” she asked in a loud, horrified whisper, “Where is the party?”

Is it a toxic drug?

The rise of healthy children’s parties reflects a worldwide backlash against sugar. Some of this is thanks to Dr Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who says that sugar in excess is addictive and toxic, much like alcohol. Dr Lustig’s words have gone viral, with his lecture, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, viewed more than 3.5 million times on YouTube. You can see him interviewed on 60 Minutes and listen to him in Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast series. You can even buy his book Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar.

Dr Lustig links sugar to the rise in obesity, which in turn is linked to high rates of type II diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, he wrote: “Of the 600 000 food items in the American grocery store, 80 percent have been spiked with added sugar; and the industry uses 56 other names for sugar on the label. They know when they add sugar, you buy more. And because you do not know you’re buying it, you buy even more.”

Calm down to a slow panic, folks

Still, sugar-free parties – isn’t that a bit excessive? Are we overreacting here? “Yes,” Discovery Vitality’s head of wellness, Dr Craig Nossel, says. “In dealing with the complicated world of nutrition you need to not only consider the physiological impacts of your decisions, but also the psychological factors. In my experience any form of total deprivation tends to have the opposite of the desired effect, and teaching children moderation from an early age is probably one of the best tools you, as a parent can equip them with.

“The real problem with the increasing sugar consumption that we are seeing is not from the occasional treat at a birthday party, it stems from the fact that drinking sugary beverages and eating sugary foods is becoming the norm.”

Fat facts 

The South African Society for Obesity and Metabolism, a non-profit scientific society, said research shows about 20 percent of South African children between the ages of five and 19 are obese. These figures may even be higher.

While our children are getting fatter, we can’t entirely blame sugar. Obesity is a multi-factorial condition, the society reported in a statement. “It is not only sugar but also the amount of fat in the diet, quantity of food, lack of exercise, irregular eating like skipping breakfast, genetics, etc. Sugary drinks are a big no-no as well as too much fruit juice, which should be diluted. Just because [a food] is sugar-free does not mean it is healthy in large quantities.”

The society agrees that sugar-free birthday parties are overkill. “Teach your children about healthy food choices and healthy food habits, not only cutting out sugar,” is its advice.

Cut added sugar

In terms of nutrition, added sugar is a waste of space. “Physiologically, children do not need added sugar in their diets at all,” says Dr Nossel. “The only recommendation around sugar is a maximum intake allowed per day. South African guidelines state that sugar should make up no more than six to ten percent of your total energy intake per day. Based on an average intake this would mean that just one glass of sweetened juice or soft drink contains more added sugar than most children should consume in an entire day.”

There are multiple dangers for babies and toddlers who eat too much sugar – it does more than just rot your teeth. “Excessive sugar consumption poses many risks, which can be particularly detrimental during the developmental years of childhood,” says Dr Nossel.

“There is a large body of evidence that has linked a high intake of sugar to an increased risk for certain chronic diseases, as well as being a key contributor to obesity and dental caries. In addition to this, because sugar is high in calories but has very little nutritional value, it tends to displace more nutritional foods from our diets, a phenomenon known as nutrient dilution.”

This being the case, you have to wonder: why is there added sugar in some baby cereals? For example, a baby cereal may be labelled “rice” on the front of the box, but reading the nutritional information panel reveals that 100g of powder contains 10.5g (just more than two teaspoons) of sugar.

What's in kid food?

We asked Nestlé, makers of Cerelac and Nestum, why sugar is added to babies’ cereal. Ravi Pillay, spokesperson for Nestlé South Africa, came back with the following statement: “The Codex Alimentariusis an international food standards body and provides standards for all baby foods, which include the usage of sugar. All Nestlé baby foods comply with this international standard. Both Nestum and Cerelac contain some sucrose (sugar), many of which are naturally occurring in the raw material that is used in the manufacturing process, as well as some added sugar.

“Like all foods, sugar-containing foods must be eaten sensibly in the context of a balanced and varied diet. We need to reiterate that mothers and caregivers should not add additional sugar to infant cereal or any other food they may prepare for the baby.

Nestlé reports it has an ongoing research and development programme looking at ways of reducing sugar without compromising taste and quality. “Nestlé’s general sugar policy is intended to help consumers, both adults and children ,reduce their intake of sugar,” said Pillay. “Since 2007, we have been reducing sugar in all our products and by 2011 the overall sugar content of all products has been reduced by 30 percent.

“Furthermore, empowering consumers with science-based, understandable information is key. We use tools such as guideline daily amounts (GDA) to help our consumers evaluate the role of a product in their daily diet. We have committed to displaying front-of-pack GDA labeling on 100 percent of the relevant products worldwide by 2016 and providing portion guidance on all our children’s and family products by 2015. Although there are no GDAs for babies, we do have portion guidance on all our baby cereals.”

Many brands of baby food have added sugar. And added sugar also occurs in other places you might not expect. Dr Nossel adds, “Baby foods are a very good example of hidden sugars, as are certain yoghurts, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, cereal bars and honey. As always reading the label will assist with making more informed choices.”

The alternatives 

What’s a good mother to do? Replace sugar with a substitute, such as Natvia? No, says Dr Nossel. “Rather than replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners, parents should try to develop children’s palates to appreciate more subtle flavours of sweetness found in whole foods such as fruits.”

Spot the sugar

“Sugar comes in many forms and is denoted by many names on food labels which can complicate matters,” explains Dr Nossel. “When reading labels, look out for terms which refer to added sugar: honey, molasses, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate, deflavoured fruit juice, high-fructose corn syrup and fructose.”

You’ll find sugar under carbohydrates on nutritional information labels, where it’s measured in grams. There are 5g of sugar in one teaspoon. Divide the total amount of sugar by five – this will give you the amount of sugar the food contains. For example, a child’s yoghurt with 10g per 100ml, would contain two teaspoons of sugar per tub. 

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