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The Backlash Against Sugar: The Facts

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Our new Strategy Briefing, The Sugar Backlash and its Effects on Global Consumer Markets considers the impacts of this change on consumer behaviour; global ingredients markets; consumer markets such as packaged foods, soft drinks and health and wellness; company strategy and legislation. It's worth looking at current thinking on the pros and cons of sugar to contextualise the research.

doughnut.pngThe demonisation of sugar

Sugar has endured a tide of negative public opinion as the amount of scientific research linking the rise in sugar intake with obesity has increased. Governments are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising cost of illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and cancer, which have risen alongside weight gain. As fat is receding as the main culprit, recent media coverage and public discussion are now laying the blame for the growth of obesity and other health risks principally on sugary foods and drinks.

Sugar is now seen as a health risk by most, and as toxic as tobacco by some. This is leading to the introduction of a raft of voluntary and legal measures to help control intake. The new attitude is driving changes in consumption trends, including a conscious effort by consumers to either reduce their intake of sweet foods and drinks, or eschew sugar completely. Meanwhile, manufacturers are being forced to tackle the problem in various ways, including gradually reducing the content of their products, using alternative types of sweetener, or downsizing portions.

In emerging markets, the picture is – for now – quite different. Although educated, urban consumers in markets such as China and India are becoming more health-conscious and aware of the dangers of eating too much junk food and sugary drinks, for many of the expanding middle classes, consumption of processed and branded food products – some of which are very high in sugar content – is seen as a marker of affluence and therefore desirable.

Fact versus opinion; the facts about sugar

In the media, sugar appears to have taken over from fat as public enemy number one. Hardly a day goes past without a report on its negative effects. The question is, to what extent is sugar (rather than substances such as saturated fats, salt or carbohydrates) the cause of obesity, and how serious is the problem?

The scientific community and food and drink industries are divided in their opinions, although some facts are undeniable. These include the following:

  • While not proven to be the principal cause of obesity, overconsumption of sugar is contributing to the obesity problem, which in turn is leading to increased rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.
  • Eating too much sugar is the most important dietary factor in the development of dental decay.
  • Refined sugars represent “empty” calories, with zero nutritional value.
  • Many soft drinks contain extremely high levels of sugar. For example, a can of regular 7-Up contains 35g of sugar (equivalent to eight teaspoons).
  • Many savoury foods also have high levels of “hidden sugars”, such as ketchup, pasta sauces, soups and ready meals.
  • Sugar can be said to be addictive in the sense that it releases dopamine in the brain, a sensation akin to being rewarded. Increasing numbers of scientists are comparing sugar to drugs that create a dependency, similar to alcohol and nicotine.

Arguments of the anti-sugar lobby

One of the first people to bring the adverse impact of fructose to the attention of the public was Dr Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity specialist and author of the book “Fat Chance”. In 2009, Lustig delivered a lecture called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”, which had received 5.1 million views on YouTube by October 2014. In this (as well in as other highly publicised articles, such as “The Toxic Truth About Sugar”, published in the journal Nature in 2012), Lustig describes fructose as a “poison” which helps the body retain fat and therefore causes obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Fructose and fructose-rich sugars (in particular HFCS) are generally considered to be more detrimental to health than glucose and glucose-containing sugars. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the use of HFCS with a maximum of 55% fructose (although some types of HFCS, such as those used in certain types of bread, are only 42% fructose and 58% glucose). However, sucrose (table sugar) is split 50-50 between glucose and fructose, and conventional corn syrup is 100% glucose.

Once consumed, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose. Fructose and glucose hold the same calorific values but it is thought that the two sugars are processed differently in the body, causing different responses on ingestion.

Glucose (the body’s preferred source of energy) is metabolised within the gastrointestinal tract, entering the bloodstream almost immediately. This causes blood sugars to rise and in response the body releases insulin to help normalise blood sugar levels. Glucose molecules bind to the insulin and are transported to cells that need extra energy. Any unused glucose is deposited in fat cells, stored as fat.

Fructose is, however, poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and is almost entirely metabolised by the liver. When too much fructose enters the liver, the liver cannot always process it fast enough for the body to use it as sugar, so instead it is converted into glycerol, a key component of triglycerides. A high level of free triglycerides in the blood is a key risk factor for heart disease. The condition “fatty liver” is said to affect 70 million people in the US.

Meanwhile, the rapidly absorbed glucose triggers strong spikes in insulin, the body’s main fat storage hormone. Insulin resistance has been found to cause weight gain, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure and, eventually, type 2 diabetes. Some studies also suggest that insulin resistance could be a contributory factor in cancers and dementia.

The anti-sugar lobby believes that sugar is a much bigger problem than fat, as its consumption releases dopamine in the brain, a sensation akin to being rewarded. Increasing numbers of scientists are comparing sugar to drugs that create a dependency, similar to alcohol and nicotine. In the book “Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar)”, Nicole M Avena PhD and John R Talbott explain how sugar creates a repetitive craving.

An article published by the UK’s Daily Mail in September 2014 claimed that new research has found sugar to be even worse for blood pressure than salt. The study, by scientists from New York and Kansas, which was published in an article in the American Journal of Cardiology, found that high sugar levels affect a key area of the brain (the hypothalamus) that causes the heart rate to quicken and blood pressure to rise. Higher levels of insulin caused by overconsumption of sugar may also speed up the heart rate.

Arguments of the sugar lobby

The sugar industry maintains that fears over fructose consumption are exaggerated and that sugar should not be singled out as the main culprit in the obesity crisis. Sugar, they say, has been consumed in natural forms for thousands of years and has not been proven to be harmful. Indeed, according to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), while added sugar is not necessary for a healthy diet, it is harmless in moderation.

The Corn Refiners’ Association claims that studies of sweeteners tend to focus on the consumption of pure fructose. It states that in reality, fructose and glucose are consumed together, which aids in satiety.

According to the American Beverage Association (ABA), US consumers are already consuming 37% fewer calories in sugar from soft drinks than in 2000, and the overall average number of calories per beverage serving is down by 23% since 1998. Therefore, they maintain, sugary drinks cannot be the cause of growing obesity.

Obesity has also been linked with saturated fats and carbohydrates, as well as to sedentary lifestyles. In fact, obesity rates have continued to climb, despite the fact that sugar consumption in some markets (such as the UK) has fallen over the past decade. The sugar industry believes that singling sugar out could harm wider health messages about achieving a balanced diet.

The food industry argues that sugar is an essential component of processed foods because it helps make products more palatable, providing texture and acting as a preservative. There is no one ingredient that can replicate all of the functions of sugar in every product.

One argument against replacing fructose with zero-calorie sweeteners is that the brain cannot be fooled into thinking sweeteners provide the body with energy. Therefore, consumption of zero-calorie sweeteners can lead to higher sugar consumption later.

Summary: Arguments For and Against Sugar Reduction

For Against
Refined sugars have zero nutritional value and are only of benefit if high amounts of energy are needed quickly. Sugar has been consumed in natural forms throughout history and is harmless in moderation.
Studies have linked high levels of fructose with the growing problems of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Sugar is not solely responsible for the rise in obesity – saturated fats, carbohydrates, protein and sedentary lifestyles are also contributory factors.
Too much sugar could lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes which can cause weight gain, lethargy, difficulty concentrating and high blood pressure. When fructose and glucose are consumed together, they are said to aid satiety.
Sugar is addictive in that it releases dopamine in the brain, a sensation akin to being rewarded. Sugar is an essential component of processed foods as it helps make products more palatable, providing texture and acting as a preservative.
Sugar is a major cause of tooth decay Zero-calorie sweeteners are not an effective replacement for sugar as they do not fool the brain into thinking they are providing the body with energy.

Source: Euromonitor International

For much more

This opinion piece lays out the background to the trends which have been identified by Euromonitor International’s Strategy Briefing team in The Sugar Backlash and its Effects on Global Consumer Markets.

Strategy Briefings offer unique insight into emerging trends world-wide. Aimed squarely at strategists and planners, they draw on Euromonitor International’s vast information resources to give top line insight across markets and within consumer segments.

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