We add it to our tea, sprinkle it over our cereal and use it as a pick-me-up when in need of an energy boost - but, for a great many people, the precise amount of sugar in their daily diet is something of a mystery.
However, like salt and saturated fats in the past, sugar is now coming under the spotlight as a ‘hidden enemy’, added in high amounts to foods as unlikely as canned soup, bread and low-fat yoghurt.
Sugar is known to be a major factor in contributing to lifestyle-related type 2 diabetes and obesity, which in turn can increase the risk of some cancers.
Now public health researcher John Mooney, from Sheffield University’s School of Health and Related Research, has made the case for bringing in regulations governing the amount of sugar in food and drink - which could range from ‘traffic light’ guidelines on packaged meals to slapping a tax on fizzy pop.
As part of the university’s Life Festival, a week-long series of health events and activities, John gave a talk titled ‘Pure, White and Deadly: Is Sugar a Bigger Threat Than Heroin?’ - comparing the sweet substance’s effects to those of hard drugs.
“Sugar isn’t as intrinsically dangerous as heroin, but it’s to do with the level of population exposure,” said John.
“Just about everyone takes sugar. It stimulates the reward centre of the brain, which in itself isn’t a problem, it’s how we seek out food, but eventually overexposure will cause you to need more to get the same effect.”
Another of sugar’s dangers is that it ‘inhibits satiety’, stopping people from feeling full, John said.
“This is probably why fast food outlets got into serving bucket-style proportions of fizzy drinks,” he added.
“In our early days we were only exposed to fructose - natural sugar - in times of plenty, so it was really advantageous to binge on fruit.
“Fruit comes with fibre so the ‘hit’ from the sugar is reduced - it’s much more gradual if it’s consumed as nature intended.”
John said levels of sugar increased in processed foods after the dangers associated with high fat became a concern in the 1960s and 70s.
Big food companies responded by cutting fat, but then made their products more palatable by adding extra sugar.
A national study earlier this year found many ‘healthier’ foods actually contained hidden calories - a can of low-fat chicken soup contained a full teaspoon of sugar, compared with the regular soup’s three-quarters of a teaspoon.
Meanwhile a jar of ‘25 per cent less fat’ peanut butter contained half a teaspoon of sugar, instead of quarter of a teaspoon in the full-fat jar.
John said: “We could do a lot worse than take into account the World Health Organisation’s revised guidance, which said sugar should account for 10 per cent or less of total energy intake.”
A British Medical Journal paper last year also claimed that introducing a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks would cut the number of obese adults in the UK by 180,000.
Bringing in a traffic light system on food packaging - with a red symbol for items high in sugar - would likely cause firms to change the recipes in their products, John continued.
“They don’t like having red lights on their products - they would chase green labels by reformulating products,” he said.
“That would be a major means of tackling the problem at source. Obviously you may get a reaction around the ‘nanny state’ telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat, but I think that would be OK if there was a free choice. At the moment, there isn’t. If we reduced levels of sugar across the board, people probably wouldn’t notice.”
Ways to cut down your sugar intake
Most adults and children in the UK eat more sugar than recommended, the Government’s latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey found. Food and drinks with a lot of added sugars contain calories, but often have few other nutrients - instead, calories should come from other foods such as starchy foods, fruit and vegetables.
Official NHS advice recommends:
- Choosing water or unsweetened fruit juice instead of sugary fizzy drinks
- Swapping cakes or biscuits for a currant bun, scone or malt loaf with low-fat spread
- Gradually reduce sugar in hot drinks or added to breakfast cereal until cutting it out altogether
- Check nutrition labels to help pick foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version
- Try halving sugar called for in recipes – this works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream
- Buy tinned fruit in juice rather than syrup
- Choose wholegrain cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey