Sugar is so harmful that it should be controlled in the same way as tobacco and alcohol, according to a team of leading public health experts.
Three US scientists from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) maintain sugar is more than just “empty calories” that makes people fat.
They argue that high calorie, sweetened food is indirectly responsible for 35 million annual deaths worldwide due to lifestyle-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Professors Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis call for restrictions and controls on sugar that mirror those on tobacco and alcohol.
The three set out their views in the science journal Nature.
They point out that, at the levels consumed in the West, sugar altered metabolism, raised blood pressure, disrupted hormone signalling and caused significant damage to the liver that was still not fully understood.
The health hazards were similar to the effects of drinking too much alcohol — which was, in any event, manufactured from the distillation of sugar.
Speaking about the comment article, Professor Lustig, from the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, said: “As long as the public thinks that sugar is just ’empty calories’, we have no chance in solving this.
“There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”
Worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled in the last 50 years, fuelling a global obesity epidemic.
The main culprit is said to be fructose, a sugar molecule that is commonly added to processed food in sweetening agents such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There is increasing evidence that excess fructose has harmful effects on the body.
In their commentary, the experts propose adding taxes to processed foods that contain any form of added sugar.
These would include carbonated drinks, other sugar-sweetened beverages such as juice and chocolate milk, and sugared cereals.
Other strategies included controlling access with measures such as age limits for the purchase of sugary drinks, and tightening controls on vending machines and snack bars in schools and workplaces.
However, the scientists stressed that to achieve a societal shift away from high sugar consumption, the public had to be better informed about the emerging science behind sugar.
Professor Schmidt, from UCSF’s Philip R Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, said: “There is an enormous gap between what we know from science and what we practice in reality.
“In order to move the health needle, this issue needs to be recognised as a fundamental concern at the global level.”
She added: “We’re not talking prohibition. We’re not advocating a major imposition of the Government into people’s lives. We’re talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose.
“What we want is to actually increase people’s choices by making foods that aren’t loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get.”
Professor Brindis, director of the Philip R Lee Institute, said: “We recognise that there are cultural and celebratory aspects of sugar. Changing these patterns is very complicated.”
The experts concluded in their article: “Regulating sugar will not be easy — particularly in the ’emerging markets’ of developing countries where soft drinks are often cheaper than potable water or milk.
“We recognise that societal intervention to reduce the supply and demand for sugar faces an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby, and will require active engagement from all stakeholders.”