How much of sugar is too much?

With sugar as our prime source of energy, sweet taste is one of the most passionate (even addictive) sensations we experience. But what happens when excess sugar becomes an acquired habit?

Photo courtesy: Getty images
Photo courtesy: Getty images

Damayanti Datta

For thousands of years, people have learnt to conquer bees to procure honey, tap date palms to gather golden jaggery and domesticate wild sugarcane grass to innovate crystals of sugar.

Unfortunately, the taste of sweet is a complex phenomenon. The body needs sugar to keep ticking. Sugar coats every living cell in our body and plays a key role in every biological process. The brain can’t function without sugar and rewards the body with pleasure hormones for consuming more and more of it.

With sugar as our prime source of energy, sweet taste is one of the most passionate (even addictive) sensations we experience. But what happens when excess sugar becomes an acquired habit over millennia?

With industrialisation and the fast-food revolution, added sugar now hides everywhere in the food supply, making our diets increasingly unhealthy. We trade off food that is good for our health for food that tastes good. We feast on processed food loaded with refined cereals, added sugar and sugar-sweetened drinks, but few nutrients…the human genome has not had enough time to adapt to our modern eating habits. The result is a public health disaster.

Our lives tilted on a sweet axis, so to say. Sweets were always stocked at home for anyone who dropped by. A social visit to relatives and friends without sweets was considered rude. The Sandesh invariably accompanied us to school in our lunch box every day.

More broadly, the word ‘mishti’ (sweet) stood for a universe of things that looked, felt or smelt good—be it fragrance, colour, nature, music, voice, disposition, behaviour, affection and even anger…Mishti Meye was a way to describe a pretty girl. Language and literature reflected the importance of sweets in our lives. Phrases and idioms like ‘mukh mishti’ (which ranged in meaning from sweet words to sharing one’s happiness by treating others to sweets), ‘michhrir chhuri’ (a honeyed dagger)or ‘mone jilipir pyanch’ (to be as convoluted as the rings of the syrupy jilipi) were part of everyday parlance. The most popular children’s magazines of the day were called Sandesh and Mouchak, both named after sweets.

A story I heard growing up about my city’s craze for sweets was about a ‘sweet revolt’ in Calcutta, when sweets made of milk were banned by the Gandhian chief minister Prafulla Chandra Sen in August 1965, under the West Bengal Channa Sweets Control order. With mounting public rage, Sen had even delivered a speech on All India Radio justifying the legislation in view of a tough economic environment. Both the order and his speech incensed people so much that he was challenged in the Calcutta High Court, with the judges coming down heavily on him. Within a year, he and his party lost in the assembly elections. All for banning milk sweets? Maybe, maybe not, but the banning of milk sweets certainly tipped public opinion against him.

Mill-made, nutritionally inferior white sugar started appearing from the late nineteenth century, aided by protective tariff. Despite protests, bonfires and boycott of sugar and other British-manufactured products during the Swadeshi movement of 1905, the march of the cheaper refined sugar could not be stopped.

In 1907, Sir Richard Havelock Charles, a British physician stationed in India, made the alarming observation that type-2 diabetes was increasing rapidly among wealthy Bengalis living in Calcutta, whereas it was still rarer among the poor Punjabis. He linked this with an increasing intake of sugar. The famous sweet tooth of the region was going out of control.

Swami Vivekananda, the thoroughly modern saint with a prescient eye, wrote in his unforgiving prose: “Formerly, our village zamindars …would think nothing of walking twenty or thirty miles, and would eat twice—twenty koi fish bones and all—and they lived to a hundred years. Now their sons and grandsons…put on airs, wear spectacles, eat the sweets from the bazaars, hire a carriage to go from one street to another, and then complain of diabetes—and their life is cut short, this is the result of their being civilised…”

Book: Sugar: The Silent Killer
Author: DamayantiDatta
Publisher: Rupa (2022)
Pages: 210
Price: Rs 295/-
Book: Sugar: The Silent Killer Author: DamayantiDatta Publisher: Rupa (2022) Pages: 210 Price: Rs 295/-

Has the culture of obsession with sweets given Bengal the highest rates of diabetes in the country? Not really. The southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala top the charts, along with Delhi, followed by Punjab, Goa and Karnataka. Experts have tried to explain the reasons at work, but not very convincingly.

Diabetes, however, is no longer a disease of affluence. It is now a serious concern in poverty-stricken rural households, too. What about diet, then? Bengal is as fanatic about sweets as it is about fish. Research is not definite but some studies do show eating a lot of fatty fish, with high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. Yet, this does not solve the diabetes puzzle. Kerala, like West Bengal, has the highest per capita fish consumption in India.

The bottom line is, sugar is complicated. Just as complicated as we are.

Fifty years ago, a book came out. It could have changed the world. Instead, the author was severely criticised…just because he dared to ask: why do people eat so much sugar? Why do they know so little about its dangers? He had conducted experiments on animals and people for 25 years and come to the conclusion that a lot of sugar in the diet leads to high levels of fat and insulin in the blood. The book in question was 'Pure, White and Deadly: How Sugar is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It'. Written by Dr John Yudkin in 1972, even a few years ago it was lying idle on dusty library shelves like wasted ammunition.

Dr Yudkin paid a heavy price for it. With prominent scientists joining hands with the Food industry to destroy his reputation, his career suffered.By the time he died in 1995, he was a disillusioned man—unrecognised, unrecompensed and unatoned.

Sugar is no more just what you buy for cooking at home. An increasing proportion of sugar is bought as food. What Dr Yudkin calls ‘industrial sugar’ is ‘added sugar’ in today’s parlance and it remains concealed insidiously in our food chain—not just for its sweet taste, but also to add shelflife, texture, body, colour and flavour to our food.

As Dr Yudkin points out, “When you come to think of it, almost all of the tempting food that are taken to satisfy appetite rather than hunger contain carbohydrate that is either sugar or starch. These carbohydrate-rich foods have another characteristic; they are all artificial foods that do not exist in nature”.

Here's an exercise he recommends: take a walk around a supermarket and make a list of foods with sugar among their ingredients. Leaving aside obvious items like cakes, biscuits, desserts and soft drinks, you will find sugar in almost everything: from breakfast food, pasta, pickle and soup. And in many of these, the amount of sugar is surprisingly high.

Unexpected sources of sugar are dips, sauces and spreads. Take peanut butter, for instance. Peanuts contain very little sugar; in fact it helps decrease weight, improve blood sugar and regulate blood fats. You would expect peanut butter to have some of these properties. Unfortunately, most ready-made peanut butters are packed with added sugar.

Dr Yudkin posits two propositions. First, physiologically, you do not need to consume sugar. ‘All human nutritional needs can be met in full without having to take a single spoon of white or brown or raw sugar on its own or in any food or drink’.

He also sounded a warning: if only a small fraction of what is known about the effects of sugar were seen in anything else, it would be banned.

(Excerpts published with permission)

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