Sugar generic
Photo for illustrative purposes Image Credit: Pixabay

The UAE cabinet has adopted a decision to expand the list of taxable products to include sweetened beverages and electronic smoking devices, starting 1st January 2020. A tax of 50 per cent will be levied on any product with added sugar or other sweeteners. We explore the health risks sugar poses to humans and how addictive it is.

Dubai: Excess of everything, it's been said, is bad. That includes sugar, now considered an addiction and among the major body-wasting substances that beset modern man.

Yet today, we eat more sugar than is good for us. Worse, an increasing body of scientific data show that sugar does not only destroy the body but, more insidiously, also the mind.

Governments everywhere, including the UAE, are taking policy actions — through taxation. A sugar tax adopted by the UAE in October 2017, increased the cost of carbonated soft drinks, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, by 50 per cent.

On Tuesday, August 20, the UAE Cabinet announced an expanded list of taxable products, including sugary drinks, as an effective disincentive to curb runaway sugar consumption.

There's a good reason why the stakes are up: A diabetes epidemic is bleeding societies hundreds of billions in healthcare cost.

Figures from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) revealed that, in 2017, 17.3% of the UAE population between the ages of 20 and 79 have type 2 diabetes. There are over 1 million people living with diabetes in the UAE, placing the country 15th worldwide for age-adjusted comparative prevalence.

500 million

number of adults living with diabetes in 2018, according to WHO and American Diabetes Association

World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show there were 422 million adults living with diabetes in 2014; this number jumped to more than 500 million in 2018 (type 2 diabetes) worldwide. The numbers were up both high- and low-income countries.

The problem with sugar addiction

Craving for sugar, in general, is seen as harming only the individual and is non-threatening. Recent numbers, however, show a dreadful effect on society.

Sugar kills. There’s a higher tax being imposed on sugary goods in the UAE to help residents live healthier lifestyles. Read the story at Shreya Bhatia/Gulf News

A comprehensive population study in the UAE shows that nearly 70 per cent Emirati male adults under 30 are already “obese”, with a high prevalence of diabetes. Moreover, 41 per cent of subjects had “impaired fasting blood glucose” — an indicator for prediabetes.

In the wider Mena region, a whopping 39 million are diabetics, according to 2017 data. One report states that diabetes cases in Middle East to rise by 110% by 2045.

How sugar kills you

Among the abuses one can do against one’s body, over consumption of sugar is the lowest-hanging fruit.

Assorted confectionery Image Credit: Pixabay

And we laugh at ourselves when we find it nearly impossible to resist devouring a delightful cheesecake or doughnut.

But health authorities are already waking up to the reality. The WHO used to recommend getting no more than 10% of your daily calories from sugar, but is now considering lowering that to 5%.

For an average, healthy adult, that would mean 25 grams, or about six teaspoons of sugar per day. (A single can of soda has 39 grams of sugar.)

One teaspoon in your coffee or a half cup of ice cream won't kill you — all things in moderation — but the average sugar intake in the UAE is one of the world’s highest.

Fact: Sugar, like illicit drugs, is an addiction. Emotional or psychological dependence on sugary foods and drinks, is known simply as sugar addiction.

- Gulf News

One estimate, by UK insurance provider Protectivity in May 2018 using 2017/18 human consumption data from the US Department of Agriculture's data, shows that a UAE resident consumes an average of 103 litres of soft drinks a year. An average adult here consumes 3,000 calories per day.

Moreover, the UAE already is among the top consumers of sugar with an average person taking 213kg per year. This is equivalent to 53,591 teaspoons annually or 146 teaspoons per person daily, according to the same data set.

Sugar addiction

Fact: Sugar, like illicit drugs, is an addiction. Emotional or psychological dependence on sugary foods and drinks, is known simply as sugar addiction.

Sugar has a negative impact on the brain, too, claims Dr Joel Fuhrman, citing research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study shows how — in the brain — excess sugar impairs both cognitive skills and self-control in humans.

This explains, he said, a weird behaviour: For many, having a little sugar actually stimulates a craving for more. And that's because sugar has drug-like effects in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), one of the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain, or the brain's reward centre.

One huge problem with sugar: it is widely available — from cupcakes to soda to iced drinks. It follows you every corner, it's almost humanly impossible to avoid. That's why more than 50 governments around the world, including the UAE, are curbing sugar through taxes.

Soda being poured into a glass. Image Credit: Pixabay

Pumping you up

Sugar has that rare ability to pump up your energy. But combined with “emotional eating”, it’s a perfect ingredient for a slow self-sabotage.

Then a vicious cycle kicks in: The appetising taste of sugary food leads to low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness, which in turn leads to more sugar craving — and a more severe addiction.

On a cellular level, an excessive amount of sugar can age the body really fast — and strain every organ, according to another study.

How sugar addiction develops

Sugar consumption can create a short-term high and spark of energy in the body. Some studies suggested sugar may be as addictive as cocaine.

Sugar triggers a release of dopamine, a chemical messenger involved in reward, motivation, memory, attention and even regulating body movements. Dopamine pumps up adrenaline.

brain generic
For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pixabay

'I'm not overweight'

Sugar's long-term debilitating effect on the body is known for a long time. For one, a sugar overload greatly increases risk of heart disease — even if you aren't overweight, according to a major study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, citing facts that were already known since the 1950s.

As experts already stated, sugar is addictive. And the long-term health effects of sugar over-indulgence are deadly. Here’s how too much sugar could put your health at risk, leading to organ failure.

(1) Diabetes

Every doctor would tell you there’s a direct link between increased sugar consumption and diabetes. It cripples the health of the population, costs billions to deal with and impairs a country’s productivity.

(2) Obesity

Sugar alone may not be responsible for the global obesity epidemic, but it’s a major contributing factor. Overuse of energy-dense fast foods and sugar, accompanied by a lack of exercise, often leads to obesity.

(3) Hypertension, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer

High levels of obesity, often directly linked to excessive sugar consumption, can result in an increase in hypertension and CVD, as well as several types of cancer.

(4) Mental ill-health

Sugary foods, which are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, give us a quick high. This energy surge soon wears off, and leaves us feeling tired and low. Studies show that excessive sugar consumption can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing and this can directly affect productivity. In 2017, the journal Scientific Reports published research that analysed sugar intake and occurrence of common mental disorders in over 5,000 men and over 2,000 women for a period of 22 years. It found that men with high sugar intakes have a significantly increased likelihood of common mental disorders (such as anxiety and depression) after five years compared to those with low intake. Of course, more research is needed on this subject but it’s certainly food for thought.

Confession time

Chocolate Image Credit: Pixabay

I’m addicted to chocolates. Problem is, I’m already diabetic, for which I take daily medications. Still, I would raid the fridge where I keep packs of sugar-free “tableya” (home-made chocolates from the Philippines).

I justify my cravings by taking only dark, tableya chocolates. It allows me to justify being stuck in a sugar-fueled pothole.

Not far from this bitter chocolate packs, however, are the regular chocolates. I combine them, thinking it would reduce my sugar intake. It’s one of those lies addicts tell themselves.

Don’t blame me. Addicts are good at justifying their condition.

I’m not insulin dependent yet — both my parents are diabetics (mum on insulin and dad died of diabetes complications, after years taking insulin shots).

My blood sugar, which shoots up and down, is not funny. My doctor, whom I must now see every three months for HbA1c test (three-month blood sugar test) isn’t happy.

Recently, she bumped up my dose of metformin (which decreases glucose production and curbs intestinal absorption of glucose) from the initial dose of 500 mg daily to 1,000 mg daily.

In my mind, chocolate is not much of a problem. When taken in moderation, this is true. It’s the sweet thing in chocolates that’s deadly.

Some scientists argue that “sugar is the new smoking”. There’s no hard evidence on this, I thought to myself. Except that a close friend, who is an insulin-dependent diabetic, just had a stroke earlier this month. He underwent stent angioplasty. His doctors explained the stroke came as a result of “diabetes complications”.

So, in other words, it’s not diabetes per se that kills. It’s the diabetes complications that do.

Back to dark chocolates: less sugar means, there’s still sugar. And being an Asian, it poses another problem: I’m a monster rice eater.

Some experts argue humans need zero carbs to survive. Other experts disagree: carbs are “go” foods — you need them to help in the body’s tissue repair.

50 Governments
Sugar addiction is something authorities everywhere are now seriously addressing with policy tweaks.

Over 50 national governments, including the UAE, now impose sugar tax, forcing consumers to curb sugar consumption and food companies to steadily launch low-, reduced- and no-added-sugar products.

Fact: A colleague of mine and his wife survived only on a diet of fruits and vegetables for at least 10 years. They claim they make less frequent visits to the doctor. I brushed it aside. “They’re fruits and vegetable junkies,” I thought.

We already know that carbs trigger a sugar surge in the bloodstream: A cup of rice contains 45g of carbs. It’s cultural. As Asians, we feel miserable when there’s no rice on the table. So it’s a double whammy: too much rice and chocolates deliver slow-release doses of substances that would eventually kill my vital organs.

Here's the tragic part: I already know this. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease now cause four out of every 10 deaths among Filipinos, says the the World Health Organisation. Yet I still eat rice like there’s no tomorrow. I’m trying to control it, OK? But maybe I need help, too.

Sugar was first produced from sugarcane plants in northern India sometime after the first century. The derivation of the word “sugar” is thought to be from Sanskrit śarkarā, meaning "ground or candied sugar," originally "grit, gravel".

Sanskrit literature from ancient India, written between 1500 - 500 BC also offers the first documentation of the cultivation of sugarcane and of the manufacture of sugar in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent.
The Sanskrit name for a crudely made sugar substance was guda, meaning “to make into a ball or to conglomerate.”

In India today, the sugar industry is not large plantation-based but from small peasant holdings.

The cane is processed by private companies or cooperatives. This is because citizens were already occupying the land and couldn’t be forced off when sugar cane was planted. In China sugar is not an item of mass consumption. It is also not a plantation culture.

In Cuba, after Castro’s revolution, the harvest of sugar was militarized. When the Soviet Union crumbled, so too did 85 per cent of Cuba’s sugar exports. Half of Cuba’s 156 sugar mills closed and 60 per cent of its fields were converted to vegetable farms or cattle fields.

Brazil is today’s largest sugarcane producer. In the 1970s due to oil shortages, sugar cane was processed into
fuel as well as sugar.

The world's biggest sugarcane producers in order are Brazil, India, China, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia, Australia, Argentina, and the Philippines. Half of the supply comes from Brazil and India.