The sweetest killer

The sweetest killer
  • Thousands of people die each year because they eat more sugar than they need

Sugar is the main enemy in our diet. Thousands of people die in Spain every year because they have eaten too much sugar. Diabetes, which is the main illness associated with sugar, but not the only one, is responsible for no fewer than 25,000 people dying in this country each year. Scientific evidence recommends that we should consume no more than 50 grammes of sugar a day, but the World Health Organisation has reduced that maximum by half to contain the present epidemic of obesity and sugar-related illnesses. It insists that we should consume no more than 25 grammes a day, which is equal to the amount contained in five dessert-spoons.

That may not seem very much, and in a way it isn’t, bearing in mind that a single can of soft drink contains seven grammes. If that has surprised you, prepare yourself for this: people in Spain consume on average 71.5 grammes of sugar a day, nearly three times the maximum recommended by the WHO. That is the problem in western countries these days. It is no longer a question of health, but one of life or death.

How to control it

The relationship between people and sugar is nothing new. In fact, it forms part of human evolution. The cave-dwellers soon discovered that a bit of something sweet gave them the energy to get through the day. Nowadays, though, consumption has increased out of all proportion in recent decades.

In the 18th century, every European consumed about four kilos of sugar a year. Now, it is around 70, often coming from unsuspected sources such as bread, pastries and ready meals, says medical nutritionist Javier Aranceta, who is on the board of the Spanish Society of Community Nutrition.

He explains that the sugar we consume comes from two sources. On one hand the natural sweeteners in food, such as an orange, or fruit in general; and on the other, added sugars which are used as a condiment when making a product. Added sugar is there in the cake we bake in our oven and the tin of tomato sauce we buy in the supermarket. That is what needs to be controlled and should not exceed 25 grammes a day: the so-called ‘intrinsic sugar’.

Gregorio Varela Moreiras, professor of Nutrition in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the San Pablo-CEU university in Madrid, points out that one cube of sugar contains four grammes. That is a good way to calculate the extra sugar we ingest each day.

A 300g tin of ‘tomate frito’ sauce contains about ten cubes (40g); a so-called 0% yoghurt, which sounds healthy, contains the equivalent of four cubes of sugar. And maybe the worst case, because it is a bit of a fraud: much of the brown sugar you buy in the supermarket is really white sugar which has been dyed with molasses to make it darker.

The sweetest killer

The authenticity of that product can be checked at home with a simple exercise. Try to dissolve a cube of supposed brown sugar in water. If the liquid turns brown, there is no doubt: it has been dyed with molasses. Some of the grains will begin to show up as white. Ideally, to avoid these problems, we should only buy brown cane sugar from specialist shops and reliable stockists.

This is war

The USA was the first western country to declare war on sugar, after discovering how lethal its sweetness actually is. The rest of the world followed on. The alarm was raised in the giant American nation when they discovered that in just over 20 years (between 1980-2002) excess weight had become a health problem affecting one in every three citizens.

That is more or less what is happening in Spain today, where excess weight and obesity now affect one in every four people. The epidemic is growing at practically the same pace as it did in the US when the red warning light went on. Looking at the results, the measures which started to be put into effect in 2013 with the NAOS strategy (Nutrition, Physical Activity and Prevention of Obesity) have not had much effect. Spain is now the second European country in terms of excess kilos in weight, behind only the UK.

Science has been warning about this for years. The exact relationship between sugar and cardiovascular illnesses isn’t really clear, but nobody doubts that there is a direct connection with the appearance and development of diabetes, hepatic toxicity, joint pain and dental caries, which is not a minor problem in an ageing society.

“All these illnesses pose a risk for human health which is even greater than infections,” warned the United Nations back in 2011. “Sugar is as dangerous as tobacco and alcohol. It kills, but it does so slowly.”

A study published in the ‘Medicina Clínica’ journal by Javier Martín, the head of General Surgery at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Madrid, shows challenging figures. Obesity and sugar cause three deaths every hour in Spain. In total, they are responsible for 15 per cent of all the deaths that occur in the country.

Dr Martín is clear: “We need to eliminate fizzy drinks, which are the main cause of juvenile obesity, altogether and get young people away from their Play Station and into football boots.”

Health is not a children’s game. Nor one for adults, either.