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From slavery to dentistry, the history of the sugar industry is hardly bathed in glory. Mother and chef Merrilees Parker argues that our addiction to sugars may be the death of us all.



Did you know that you are probably a drug addict?

You have unwittingly been consuming a drug that has been expertly ‘pushed’ on you by a large group and array of effective and efficient drug dealers.

The drug in question is sugar, and if you are living in the UK today you probably have a pound a week habit. How could this have happened?

The dealers have been very clever; they have slipped it into our food without telling us.

We have all been duped.

In ‘That Sugar Film’, Australian filmmaker Damon Gabeau takes on the challenge of eating 40 teaspoons of sugar everyday (the average daily amount consumed by an Australian). The rules were that he must only consume foods with hidden sugars (namely fructose and sucrose) in what is perceived as healthy food. No junk food, sweets or cakes. The foods had to be low fat where possible.

Damon had always been an advocate of a diet comprised of plenty of whole fruits and veggies, full fat dairy, good quality meats with fat, and little sugar or refined carbohydrates. Damon was totally shocked to find that his first breakfast on the regime, which was a bowl of ’healthy’ cereal (rather than Coco Pops or Frosties) with low fat yoghurt and a 400ml glass of juice, had a whopping 20 teaspoons of sugar.

iStock by Getty Images

This is where the problem lies, and the reason the dealers have had such huge success. They have simply started pushing it through the back door and into products that we have been conned into believing are good for us.


’Fat is bad, low fat is good‘ has been the mantra of the food industry since the 1950s. When US president Eisenhower suffered a heart attack the world started talking about heart disease. Two sides emerged: on the US side Ancel Keys declared fat was the cause, and on the other side of the pond the British nutritionist John Yudkin argued it was the sweet stuff causing the problem.

History has since showed that Keys’ study was fundamentally flawed. The countries studied were carefully selected. Yudkin meanwhile had tried and failed to make rats fat by feeding them fat. It didn’t work. However, feeding them sugar did make them fat and sick. The sides debated for two decades until in the end Keys won and fat became the food villain. By the late 1970s the low fat diet was well established as the healthiest way to eat. Here comes the kicker: the food industry took the fat out, chucked in some fruit and lots of sugar, and bingo we had a ‘health food’ product.

To the ’dealers’ this was a dream come true. Firstly, sugar is cheap. It’s also a preservative, so the shelf life of food is extended (along with the profit margins). Plus, sugar has been proved to be addictive, so by adding sugar it ensures the addict keeps coming back for more and, kicker of all kickers, it’s perceived as a health food so they can sell their drugs right under our noses!

We are hard-wired to like sweet things. This is in our genetic makeup and comes from the days of feasting in times of plenty to ensure our survival in lean times.


Those lean times simply don’t exist in the western diet anymore and these foods are available all the time. Worse still, these sweet treats have cleverly been placed at the centre of almost every celebration: Christmas, Easter, birthday, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Halloween. They have become the answer to all our emotional needs: love, sex, depression, I need a pick me up. The list is simply endless. So avoiding these foods is really hard. Even if we make a conscious decision to consume less, the marketing barrage makes it almost impossible. Even if we stop eating the really bad stuff we are still left with the so-called healthy food.

Sixty days after Damon started his high-sugar diet he had put on just under 8.5kg in weight, 10cm on his waist. This is visceral fat and the most dangerous of all to carry, being the prerequisite to a whole host of health problems, not least of which is type 2 diabetes and heart disease. He was showing early signs of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. He expressed how unwell he felt but this state would be similar to tens of millions of people in western society. He described them as “the living unwell”.

For me, the most interesting fact is that all these symptoms were caused by eating food that had the same calorific count as his previous diet. However, a large proportion of the calories were coming from sugar, fructose and sucrose. This is definitive proof that not all calories are the same. So when the fizzy drinks companies say that drinking their drinks as part of a calorie controlled diet is fine, don’t be fooled.

Calories from these kinds of foods are so much more dangerous. We should simply stop counting calories and actually look at where the calories come from. All this added sugar is sweetness in its most unnatural form. Eating fruit in its natural form as an actual fruit has a natural healthy barrier in the form of fibre. This ensures that the body doesn’t get a huge hit of sugar. The fibre will sate us and stop us overeating. Try eating five apples in one sitting! But a glass of apple juice, that’s easy. As Gary Taubes, author of ‘Why We Get Fat’ wrote, “Throughout my research I have convinced myself that sugar is the problem and without sugar everything else becomes relatively harmless.”


Surely we just need to read the label? Again, don’t be fooled. Sugar has no nutritional value at all, so therefore the amount added is not required to be listed. And it comes in many disguises: fructose, agave nectar, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, concentrated grape juice, Florida crystals and carob to name but a few. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, as far as your body is concerned it’s all fructose. This makes the freedom of real choice difficult. If we don’t know what we are consuming, how do we know what not to buy?


We need to force the food companies to label what sugar has been added to their food and in a measurement that we can understand. Grammes mean nothing, whereas teaspoons are an easy guide. Would we really drink a smoothie if we knew it had the equivalent of 18 teaspoons of sugar in it? We need to educate people to the dangers of all this so-called health food. Finally, in October 2015, the UK Government published papers on the dangers of sugars and the need to reduce our intake. Let’s get the government to put legislation in place so that we are no longer bombarded by the pushers peddling their wares. If the whole food landscape doesn’t change I seriously worry for our children’s future, and as a mother of two young kids I feel I personally need to fight for these changes.

Let’s all just start eating real food. Let’s not be unwitting sugar junkies. Let’s not become the living unwell. Let’s get addicted to eating wholesome food that fuels us and keeps us in good health. We truly are what we eat, so eat well, live well and be well!


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