The not-so-sweet side of sugar

We're a nation with a true addiction to sugar.

We're a nation with a true addiction to sugar. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Opinion: Our love of sugar poses difficult questions about addiction - and the product's troubling history, says Aidan Semmens

Interesting fact of the week: cigarettes contain added sugar. In the case of 'American blend' cigarettes, it can make up 20 per cent of the weight.

This may be one of the reasons people often pile on the pounds when they give up smoking. Their bodies are finding a different way to get a constant hit of the drug they really crave. Sugar.

Interesting fact number two: in 1715, when Britain's sugar habit was starting to cause concern, consumption in this sweet-obsessed land was about 5lb per person per year. Today it's normal to consume 20 or 30 times that much.

No wonder Public Health England is challenging businesses to cut sugar by five per cent this year and 20 per cent by 2020. Though this may be a bit like switching to low tar cigarettes – or jumping from the 30th floor instead of the 31st.

I don't have a very sweet tooth. I can't stand sugary drinks like Coke or lemonade, I don't take sugar in tea or coffee, and I try to limit my intake of cakes, biscuits and chocolate. We eat toast, not sugary cereals, for breakfast. And I'm never hungry enough to fob my body off with the sugar-and-fat concoctions of fast-food outlets. I try in general to avoid 'processed food' of all kinds – that stuff the writer Michael Pollan memorably dubbed 'edible foodlike substances'. Oh, and I don't smoke either.

Nevertheless, there's sugar in that toast. I know just how much, because I put it there myself, in the form of malt, when I bake the bread. In shop-bought loaves, there is probably more. Then I like to smother it in peanut butter (6.2pc sugar) or marmalade (a whacking 63pc).

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There's hardly a tin, a jar or a bottle in the cupboard that doesn't contain some sugar. It's the ingredient no food manufacturer can leave out if they want people to keep buying.

David Attenborough once suggested that one way to look at human life was to consider that the 'purpose' of our species was to facilitate the spread of grass – lawns, parks and grazing lands, vast fields of wheat, barley and rice.

But grass is not the only type of plant to have made use of humans in this way. Sugar may be a latecomer to the game, but it has done a fabulous job of replicating itself over the past 350 years or so.

Grass did it by feeding us, and enabling us to multiply across the planet. Sugar got us hooked.

Our parents use it to pacify us, we get high, then come down and go wild demanding more. The addictive process is well outlined by science writer Gary Taubes in his book The Case Against Sugar. And as he says: 'Once people are exposed, they consume as much sugar as they can easily procure.'

He also quotes Oscar Wilde on 'the perfect pleasure': 'It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?'

Wilde was writing about cigarettes, but the same applies to sugar. And what better definition could there be of an addictive drug?

The British empire-building rush for coffee, tea and chocolate came only after people started adding sugar. And the link with tobacco goes back to the 'triangular trade' which began in the late 16th century.

British ships carried slaves to the Caribbean, where they worked raising sugar to ship back to Britain and Europe. When the early American colonies joined in, tobacco was added to the eastbound leg of the triangle – and to the slaves' labours.

Cities like Liverpool and Bristol were built on that 250-year trade. And so, in a sense, was the United States, its history steeped from the beginning in racial exploitation and a kind of drug-trafficking.

Another spoonful of sugar in your tea?