Although the fact that sugar is unnecessary is nothing new, it has generally been seen as fairly harmless. The impression that has emerged in studies over recent years is that large quantities of sugar can cause direct damage to the body.
“It is not a matter of counting calories, but of being aware of the fact that different types of calories have different effects on the body,” says Ann Fernholm, a science journalist whose dissertation focused on molecular biotechnology. She has used her background to immerse herself in the issue of diet and how sugar affects the body.
“The type of sugar known as fructose, which is found in white sugar, is processed by the body in the same way as alcohol. It is absorbed by the liver, and when we overconsume sugar such as by drinking soft drinks and eating sweets, the liver starts to produce fat, which disrupts blood lipids and ultimately causes fatty liver. This was previously most commonly associated with alcoholism. Nowadays, about one in ten Western teenagers has fatty liver and the numbers are even higher for the adult population in the US, for example,” says Ann. “Sugar consumption in the Western world has essentially seen a constant rise since the mid-1800s, from about 4 kilos of sugar to the current consumption levels of 48.5 kilos annually per capita.”
“If you examine sugar from a sustainability perspective, it gets even worse,” says Ann. “We talk about the importance of reducing consumption of red meat to save the environment, and that is important. Yet sweets have more of an unnecessary climate impact. We grow sugar beet in fertile soil, but then we discard all of the vitamins, minerals and fibre that are healthy for our bodies. We produce white sugar using an energy-intensive process – pure calories that cause fatty liver, obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
According to a study conducted by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, the production of marshmallows has just as much of a climate impact as pork production. Swedish consumption of sweets and soft drinks currently causes enormous greenhouse gas emissions. “And we must remember that all of the calories from soft drinks and sweets are empty calories, while pork contains vitamins and minerals, such as iron, which our bodies need.”
“Exercise is an antidote to sugar, and a high sugar intake can be partially offset by exercise. Yet those who consume large quantities of sweet junk food will ultimately suffer poor health, regardless of how much they exercise,” says Ann Fernholm. “By taking a more proactive approach to improving our well-being, society could save enormous sums of money every year on sick leave and healthcare costs.”