Ireland is the fourth highest consumer of sugar in the world, according to Dr Eva Orsmond in the documentary Sugar Crash last week.
Most people will remember Dr Eva from her days as an advisor on Operation Transformation and now she’s back with a one-off documentary, trying to change our “toxic relationship” with sugar.
Food consumption has “tripled in the last 100 years” and we have gone from being the skinniest country post-war to predictions that, “Ireland will be the fattest nation in Europe by 2030”.
This “sugar culture” we have adopted has arisen over a time period of food industries sneaking sugar into ingredient lists under different names, without people realising it. There are over 50 different names for sugar used in ingredient lists.
A widely known fact in relation to sugar is that fizzy drinks contain a lot of it, with an average of nine tea spoons in a single can. Most people are unaware however, that the amount of sugar in a can of fizzy drink contains more added sugar than is recommended in the diet for a full day.
According to Dr Eva’s team, by just drinking one can of these sugar filled drinks every day, greatly increases you risks of developing type two diabetes, independent of weight or any other factors.
The World Health Organisation recommends a daily amount of no more than 24 grams or six tea spoons of added sugar for adults. The average Irish person consumes four times that amount per day – a staggering 24 spoons of sugar.
Added sugar means any type of sugar that was added to an ingredient by the manufacturer, the chef or the consumer. It is estimated that 75 per cent of all foods have sugar added to them.
Dr Eva advises to address the problem as early as possible by reading the sugar content in products and making decisions to buy products with reduced sugar as well as swapping sugary drinks and foods for low sugar alternatives.
In Ireland 100 children are in hospital a week with teeth related issues. Dr Eva relates this statistic to the “shocking high levels” of added sugar in the diets of children.
In following a family of five in Kilkenny, Dr Eva tells them that each member of the family has excess levels of sugar in their diet. Fruit juices, smoothies, sauces and casual biscuits with cups of tea, she says, are all the main components in the excess sugar levels for the Ryan family, and apparently many others.
The family managed to reduce their total sugar consumption from 65 spoons to 18 in one month. They “cut out the junk” including biscuits, sweets and ice cream.
They also changed the type of yogurt they used to a reduced sugar variety and checked the sugar content in foods before they buy it.
It is suggested in the documentary that “food lobbyists” promote foods with politicians and people of influence in society while avoiding transparency on health issues.
Foods that claim to be low in fat are often high in sugar, and food claiming to be sugar free have sweeteners added instead.
Choice words and clever omissions in food labelling and packaging are tricking people into thinking the food they buy is healthy, when in reality it could be doing them more harm than good.
Interestingly, when Dr Eva spoke to a food industry representative, he offered no suggestion that the sugar content in food correlates to the increased health issues and rising obesity levels in Ireland.
Dr Eva and the other professionals agree that the food industry is in denial over the health risks associated with high sugar content in foods.
John Hancox, a 68-year-old type 2 diabetic diagnosed 30 years ago, explained he takes 14 tablets in the morning, 12 at night and 5 injections a day.
He said his relationship with sugar was an “addiction” and he was certain it played a major part in his health problems.
He had undergone a kidney transplant, lost both of his legs to gangrene, had a double bypass and lost 40 per cent of his vision – all of which he associates with excess sugar in his diet.
“Refined sugar and excess fructose is causing damage to health and wellbeing with millions of people,” said Damon Gameau – an Australian film maker, who experimented with eating 40 tea spoons of sugar a day to see the effects it would have on his health.
He found that while consuming the same amount of calories he did previously, by replacing his normal food with low fat and high sugar “health” foods he put on over 8 kilos in weight in 60 days.
So why is sugar so bad? Refined sugar is composed of glucose and fructose, excess amounts of which cannot be broken down as energy and so is stored in the body as fat.
As the liver cannot break down all the sugar, the fat is stored around the organs, which in turn puts more pressure on the organs to function properly.
Much like excess fat slows us down, it slows down our organs too, making our bodies work harder to do less inside and out.
One quarter of Irish children are now overweight or obese. Obesity has more than doubled since the 1980’s and in 2013 over 42 million children worldwide were found to be overweight or obese.
Reports show that 60,000 people were diagnosed with diabetes in 1995. In 2015 it more than tripled to 191,964 with predictions for 2030 in excess of 237,022 – almost a quarter of a million people.
Sugar is linked to increased blood pressure and type two diabetes, which also increases the risk of cardio vascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.
And why do we love sugar so much? Dr Eva and her team have the answer: dopamine offers a high when sugar is ingested in the body, much like a drug, which causes impulses in the brain to tell us sugar is pleasant and rewarding and therefore good.
The image of a child having teeth pulled, a man in a wheelchair, the sheer volume of excess sugar an average family has per day all reinforce the purpose of the program: to highlight the effects sugar is having on our lives without us knowing.
The point is to convince us to change our pattern of behaviour and this program does a good job of explaining why it is necessary.
Sugar Crash is the wake-up call we need to realise high amounts of sugar, hidden or otherwise, do nothing to benefit our health and if we want to prevent Ireland from becoming associated with an obesity problem, now is the time for change.