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Sugar -The Sweet Truth

Sugar to India is as ancient as Yoga and Ayurveda itself as it firmly occupies the position of being one of the panch amrits of nectars of life.

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The simple, irrefutable fact is this: Sugar is an important part of a diet. Sweetness is one of the five “basic tastes” detected by sensory receptors in the oral cavity. In fact sugar is the preferred source of the body’s fuel for brain power, muscle energy and every natural process that goes on in every functioning cell.

With only 15 calories per teaspoon, sugar is no more fattening than any other 15 calories. Like all carbohydrates, the body converts sugar into fuel quickly, unlike say fats, on the other hand, are stored in fat cells to be used later.

India is one of the oldest producers of sugar in the world. In Indian culture and tradition, sugar occupies a prominent place. Sweets are offered to Gods and no ‘shubhkam’ whether it is the acquisition of property, a marriage ceremony or birth of a child is complete without sweets. In fact, every aspect of life is touched by sweets. Not only in India but also all over the world Sugar reflects the finest human emotions of love and care. Lovers call each other sugar. Many popular figures choose to nickname themselves, from legendry boxer-‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, ‘Sugar’ ray Leonard, to Italian renowned singer Zucchera ‘Sugar” Forncciari and West Indian calypsonian ‘Sugar’ Aloe.

What was once celebrated across cultures is now seen as a leading impediment to human health. World Health Organisation has issued warnings on the consumption of sugar and guidelines for the presence of sugar in food items. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) too is working on a regulation to ask processed food brands to have a ‘red dot’ on their packaging to highlight high fat, salt and sugar content. It seems like a reasonable action which was instigated by the ‘India State-Level Disease Burden Trend Report’ which outlines that one in four Indians are going to die by non-communicable diseases. However, there is a need to reflect on the cause of the diseases that were highlighted for e.g. ischemic heart disease, COPD, stroke, diabetes and chronic kidney diseases. Chiefly most of the mentioned diseases are a result of the lifestyle one lead and are a result of a sedentary lifestyle, which is an individual choice. 

Trapped between individual choices and many indirect and non conclusive reports is ‘Sugar’. Some have gone to the extent of calling sugar a ‘white poison’ and demanding, it should be given the same treatment as was given to tobacco. All these allegations are being made without any scientifically verifiable evidence. European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has pointed out that there was no strong and robust scientific evidence on a threshold value for daily sugar intake that is associated with a health risk. This view was formed by EFSA after a deep review of existent worldwide scientific research on the topic. Despite the fact there is no scientific evidence, the anti-sugar lobby is strong enough which seems to have influenced FSSAI; the Food Regulator of India, to take steps, which will not only restrict consumption of sugar but also, give it a bad name. The government agencies are working with little or circumstantial data to zero in on sugar as one of the leading causes of diseases. 

It is to be noted that 200 kcal for sugar was recommended by WHO a few years back. However, the WHO document making this recommendation, mentioned in its footnote that this recommendation i.e. 10% maximum value for the daily sugar, was based on “moderate quality” scientific evidence. Even this moderate quality scientific evidence  is related to a study on dental caries researches and not on nutritional research. According to the FSSAI’s draft, such food products will require to carry red coloring mark on the label. Such color marking has been introduced only in two small countries, counting for less than 2% population of the world. The U.S.A. and the European Union are following Guided Dietary Allowances (GDA) for labeling. Countries like China, Russia, Japan, and Canada etc. covering nearly 80% of the global population do not have any dietary labels. 

It is only logical to deduce that such regulation on processed food products will have a negative impact on consumption and demand for sugar. This would also result in a misinformed choice to cut down on a key nutrient that serves as a fuel to the body. The requirement for each individual is also different depending on their daily routine, and standard requirement cannot be advised. The top examples for this would be sportsman whose energy requirements are drastically higher and they depend on energy drinks to meet the need. 

Demonizing sugar would impact a whole generation if the FSSAI goes ahead with its proposal without understanding the impact it will have on the people. The FSSAI needs to present strong data that assesses the impact lack of sugar will have on the masses in different age groups, geographies and varying lifestyle. It should not blindly follow a populist idea and should understand the practices followed by the majority of the countries globally. They need to build the understanding amongst masses on the need of active living and portioning rather than victimizing sugar which has been a key constituent of diet since ages.

It can be safely concluded that, Sugar –Yes or No is not important but quantity, calories (irrespective from which source) and active or sedentary lifestyle plays a vital role in overall well being of an individual.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Bharati Balaji

The author is Director Legal & Taxation, ISMA

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