Is our sweet tooth killing us?

Photo: Webmd.com

The level of sugar consumption within Ireland has skyrocketed in recent years. In less than half a century, we have gone from the thinnest nation in Europe to one of the most overweight. Helen Carroll examines the effects of Ireland’s sweet tooth.

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The consumption of sugar in Ireland has tripled over the last one hundred years and unsurprisingly, so has the frequency of Type 2 diabetes. The situation is worsening at a rapid pace; we become addicted to it from a young age, which is why it is often nicknamed the “alcohol of the child”. Excessive sugar intake can cause liver damage, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and weight gain. We want what is best for ourselves and for any children we have or may have in the future, yet statistics show that if we continue such a sugar-laden diet, this generation may be the first in history to be outlived by their parents. So how did things get so bad?Sugar is an addictive substance, and the more you put in a product, the more people will buy it. Cereal tastes better than oatmeal for instance, yet it's packed full of sugar. Even if we choose to eat oatmeal for breakfast, many people sweeten it with sugar or honey. Ireland is currently the fourth highest consumer of sugar in the world; the average Irish person eats about half an adult male’s bodyweight in sugar every year. The World Health Organisation recommends we consume a maximum of six teaspoons of added sugar per day, yet we consume four times that amount. It's vital that we reduce it, but many people aren't sure how. One of the key issues is that there are so many different names for sugar, and as people became more conscious of exactly how much of it they were eating on a regular basis, companies decided to change the language of their product ingredients. Suddenly, many products had “50 per cent less sugar”, yet new ingredients appeared, such as high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, cane juice crystals and agave nectar. It is extremely difficult to avoid sugar completely nowadays, bordering on impossible; all because of how ubiquitous yet concealed it is within our food.On Monday January 11th, RTÉ aired a documentary called Sugar Crash to highlight where the sugar is in our diet, how to get rid of it, and above all why we should be cutting down. It was a shocking eye-opener. The levels of sugar we consume are off the charts, and are difficult to recognise, so often the only way we see how much sugar is in our diet is when we show irreversible symptoms of it.Tooth decay is one of the first signs we get that we are consuming too much sugar. Dr. Anne Twomey, President of the Irish Dental Association, believes that tooth decay is always caused by sugar. Children get addicted very early, with “follow-on milks” to supplement (or replace) breastfeeding, as well as “teething biscuits”. With children exposed to massive amounts of it so early and in such quantities, it is no wonder we have a problem with it. Even supposedly healthy drinks such as orange or apple juice are packed full of it, so parents can have a very hard time working out what foods their children should and should not avoid. There’s more sugar in one can of coke than is recommended for us to consume in an entire day, and 75 per cent of the products on supermarket shelves have added sugar in various quantities.The most obvious way to attempt to reduce sugar in the diet is to go for “reduced sugar” varieties of foods, but to watch out for the sugar substitutes mentioned above. It is worth noting that the reduced sugar varieties often don’t have much less sugar than the original, but it’s a start. Steering clear of fruit juices and smoothies can help, and opting for the actual fruit instead is far more beneficial to our health. There are four grams of sugar in one teaspoon, so imagining a can of coke as having nearly nine teaspoons of sugar is easier to imagine than 35 grams.Many doctors have argued that tougher legislation needs to be brought in to deal with Ireland’s growing sweet tooth. Last December, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar proposed a 20 per cent “sugar tax” and has vowed to tackle fizzy drinks to help curb the nation’s obesity levels, as we are quickly heading towards becoming the most overweight nation in Europe. The bill was rejected for several reasons, including the administration costs of the proposed tax and cross-border buying. However it is a serious drain on our resources and it can be argued that it's worth the administration costs, as the annual cost of adult obesity in Ireland amounts to 1.13 billion euro a year. Public support is more in favour of such a tax than the government realise, as well as clearer labelling of products, but a concerted effort by both the government and the food industry is necessary to implement such changes.