The sweet truth: 10 myths about sugar

Sugar is delicious. We should not allow anti-sugar zealots to take away our right to enjoy it.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Last week’s launch of a UK lobbying group, Action on Sugar, has started a fevered discussion about whether sugar is responsible for the deaths of millions of people from heart disease, diabetes and a range of other conditions. The group’s aim is to demand restrictions on the use of sugar in food. Yesterday in parliament, a Labour MP, Keith Vaz, even declared that it was time for a ‘war on sugar’ (much to the amusement of wags on the internet).

The press release to mark the launch of Action on Sugar declares that ‘leading health experts from across the globe’ have united to ‘tackle and reverse the obesity and diabetes epidemic’ by targeting ‘the huge and unnecessary amounts of sugar that are currently being added to our food and soft drinks’, adding: ‘Children are a particularly vulnerable group targeted by industry marketing calorie dense snacks and sugar-sweetened soft drinks.’

You may have thought it was just a sweet additive for your food, but according to these assorted experts, sugar is a deadly poison. Is it true? More to the point, does it matter?

Myth 1: Sugar has no nutritional value

Whatever else may be said about Action on Sugar, it is clear that its most high-profile member, cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, stayed in bed when the nutrition classes were running at medical school. Malhotra claims ‘refined sugars offer no nutritional value’. Sugar is a source of dietary energy, perhaps the most fundamental element of nutrition. Nutritionists and campaigners also like to say that sugar is just ’empty calories’. Well, if it’s got calories, then it has nutritional value.

Myth 2: Sugar is unnecessary in food

Here, anti-sugar campaigners seem unable to distinguish between ‘food’ and ‘diet’. No, we don’t need sugar in our diets. There are lots of ways we can obtain dietary energy. But that doesn’t mean sugar is not essential to many foods – particularly sweet foods like cakes, biscuits, chocolate and puddings. In many instances, those foods are basically impossible without sugar, particularly foods that rely on the texture that comes from caramelising sugar. Crème brûlée, anyone?

Myth 3: ‘Added sugar’ is uniquely bad

As far as our bodies are concerned, sugar is pretty much just sugar, wherever it comes from. The ‘added sugar’ shtick is a piece of propagandising. By focusing on processed foods, it appeals to those who think that anything ‘natural’ is good. But apples, bananas, honey – you name it, lots of ‘natural’ foods are ladled with the stuff.

Myth 4: Sugar is toxic

To describe sugar as ‘toxic’ is melodramatic, to say the least. It certainly stretches the ordinary meaning of the word to the limit. Sugar is toxic in the sense that ‘it may have harmful effects, usually over the course of decades’. That’s not what I would understand the word ‘toxic’ to mean.

No one (apart, perhaps, from the most outrageous advertiser) would claim that sugar is a health food. Until fairly recently, the mainstream view was that sugar’s negative effects were limited to rotting your teeth and to being unnecessary calories that might cause you to put on a bit of weight. Now there is evidence that in large quantities it could increase the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, too. But sugar is better characterised by the old slogan ‘naughty but nice’ – like a lot of our enjoyable bad habits. It is not a poison.

Myth 5: Sugar is addictive

Eating sweet food is nice. Many people miss sugar when they cut down on it. Mix in some very modern neurobollocks – about how sugar ‘lights up the same areas of the brain as hard drugs’ – and it is suddenly treated like crack cocaine.

The term ‘addiction’ is used far too promiscuously these days, suggesting that inanimate objects, from sugar to booze to slot machines, can control us. This is surely nonsense, as the successful efforts of so many people to wean themselves off drink, drugs or any other form of stimulation confirm. It is a sure sign of our diminished view of humanity when it is seriously suggested we can be ‘hooked’ on sugar.

Myth 6: We are consuming more and more sugar

In both the UK and the US, the consumption of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other ‘caloric sweeteners’ has been in decline for over a decade – even before the anti-sugar crusaders came on the scene. It seems that for those worrying about their weight, swapping sugary pop for the sugar-free version or maybe a bottle of water is an easy fix. Sugar consumption is still higher than in the past, but it is on the way down. Do we really need a scare campaign to reduce sugar consumption when people are already making that decision?

Myth 7: Sugary foods are a food industry plot to get us hooked on cheap ingredients

The idea that we are controlled by the food industry is as bad as the idea that we are controlled by sugar. Nobody is piling our shopping trolleys with sweet treats but us.

Myth 8: The food industry is ignoring established health advice about sugar

Even now, the notion that sugar is a unique menace is controversial. The mainstream view is that one calorie has the same effect as another: we get fat if we consume too many calories of any food. This view suggests that all the nasty stuff, like heart disease and type-2 diabetes, is caused by being too fat, so we should just eat less. Government reports on sugar in the past have concluded there is too little evidence to condemn sugar as a particular cause for concern. This mainstream view may well be wrong, but if that’s still the official advice, then the food industry is hardly at fault if it produces sugary foods. In any event – and this may surprise some health faddists – cakes, chocolate and sweet drinks existed long before there were multinational conglomerates around.

Myth 9: Sugar is the new tobacco

This particularly overheated notion came from one member of the Action on Sugar gang, Simon Capewell of Liverpool University. He declared: ‘Sugar is the new tobacco. Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health.’ But comparing tobacco – which in one form, cigarettes, may lead to an early death for half its users – with a popular food ingredient only reveals the conspiratorial, they’re-all-out-to-get-us worldview of the modern food prohibitionist.

Sugar is the new tobacco in another sense, however. All the illiberal, scheming, regulation-by-the-backdoor lessons learned from the anti-smoking brigade are now being employed by every interfering lifestyle busybody, whether their particular hang-up is booze, obesity or salt.

Myth 10: Science – and ‘the experts’ – can tell us how we should live

In recent years, governments have increasingly leant on The Evidence to decide how we should be nagged, nudged, taxed, restricted, regulated and otherwise manipulated in order to lead an officially approved lifestyle. Why bother with the age-old questions of how to lead the best life you can when you can reduce it to eliminating ‘risk factors’ in a quest for longevity?

What all these lifestyle campaigns come down to is choice: who decides how we live our lives? Of course, understanding the consequences of our choices is useful when we decide whether it is wise to smoke, drink, guzzle sugary drinks or anything else. So please, medical experts, when you actually sort out what a healthy diet consists of – good luck with that – do let us know. In the meantime, forgive us if we try to figure out how best to eat for ourselves.

But it is also the case that sugar, alcohol, tobacco and the rest bring us great pleasure. How we balance the possibility of long-term harm against short-term enjoyment is a question we all should be allowed to answer for ourselves. The screeching from the public-health lobby aims to take that choice away from us.

The outlook that the scientist and the doctor know best is at best a cop-out from making moral choices for ourselves. More and more, however, it has become an excuse for the authorities to remove those choices altogether. No matter how lurid the scare stories are, we should not submit to this fearmongering, lifestyle authoritarianism.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked and author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today