A few weeks ago, it was my 20th birthday. Instead of celebrating this grand occasion — the beginning of the third and, arguably, the most influential decade of my life — in a spectacular fashion, I opted for a quiet, normal indulgence — birthday cake. I lacked the will to bake my own so I figured that I would buy one from the supermarket. However, the supermarket varieties seemed too bland and boring for the prices that were offered. I also decided that cake was too unhealthy, however I was not going to forgo at least a minor indulgence for my birthday. In the end, I came to the decision that Sainsbury’s brand, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies were my treat of choice.
Falling victim to the sway of a late-night snack, I indulgently ate one of the cookies. I vaguely knew that snacking just before bedtime was a bad thing, however I did not know the exact reason for this. When bedtime came, I fell asleep naturally. Unfortunately, I was soon to be made aware of my grave error. In the middle of the night, sometime around 1 am, I suddenly woke up. Usually, I would be apathetic about such an awakening — maybe a vehicle alarm or a roaring motorbike engine was responsible. However, this time, no matter how hard I tried, I could not fall back asleep. Regardless of the number of tosses and turns, rhythmic breaths, or imaginings of a distant, quiet paradise, I could not return to my slumber. Furthermore, not only was I awake, but I was alert; it was like I had not slept for only 2 hours. In the morning, I felt lethargic and tired, and wished that I had never eaten that cookie.
Whilst sugar is often branded as harmful and unhealthy, it is essential for the proper functioning of the human body. At a fundamental level, sugar forms the backbone of our genetic makeup, with DNA being composed of innumerable deoxyribose-containing nucleotides. Not only does sugar play a role in our genetics, but it serves as the primary source of energy for all living organisms. It therefore must not be viewed with complete disfavour. However, the worrying form of sugar — added sugar, which makes its way into our food and drinks — does deserve its bad reputation.
In the past, sugary treats were reserved only for the rich. During this period, the bulk of the human population persisted on a diet rich in vegetables and fruit — food which can be cultivated with relative ease, and which reduced the need for travel. In fact, the birth of agriculture paved the way for modern societies; the loss of the need to travel allowed families to congregate into communities — first came the village, then the town, and ultimately the city.
It was only years after the industrial revolution of the 1700s that the techniques required to process sugar on a large scale became available. However, technology was not the only factor that played a role in the proliferation of sugar. Sophisticated distribution networks were necessary for the invasion of sugar — a crop grown in warm regions such as the Caribbean — into western Europe. The lack of such networks created a scarcity of sugar in Europe, and with scarcity comes increasing prices. The profitability of the sugar trade thus caught the eye of past western powers, namely France and Britain, and spawned many of the conflicts in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th century.
Once sugar was introduced to the western world, its consumption grew larger and larger, reaching a peak, in 1961, of 47.3 kg per capita in the UK. However, in 2019, the sugar consumption in the UK was just 29.8 kg per capita. What happened? A quick and simple answer would revolve around purchasing power. The costs of living outpaced wage growth during the decades that elapsed between the 1960s and today. Accounting for inflation, the cost of tuition is higher and the costs of home-ownership are higher. This argument might seem convincing, but if you have ever visited a supermarket, you would think otherwise.
Of all the snacks found in a supermarket, custard creams are my favourite. In a Tescos store, a packet of 32 custard creams is worth 40 pence. One custard cream biscuit, according to the packaging, accounts for 4% of your recommended daily sugar intake — and the unhealthiness of this is signposted in red. 40 pence will not make a dent in anyone’s budget, and sugary snacks are generally very cheap in comparison to healthier alternatives. The decline in purchasing power per capita is therefore not responsible for the fall in sugar consumption. The difference between the 1960s and today is that we are now aware of the consequences of high sugar consumption. Healthy-eating campaigns and Weight Watcher’s ads have morphed our taste for sugar from sweet and succulent to poisonous and toxic. This change in social taste is ultimately responsible for the fall in sugar consumption, to the benefit of us all.
The real danger of sugar is that it is just as addictive as many of the mainstream illegal drugs — I will use cocaine as an example — yet it is much cheaper. A quick internet search will reveal that 3.5 g of cocaine costs between £95-120, amounting to a price of £27-35 per gram of cocaine. One custard cream in the Tesco’s pack of 32 contains 3.4 g of refined sugar, amounting to a price of 0.24 pence per gram of sugar. The unit price of cocaine is therefore 13,000 x the unit price of sugar. An addiction to cocaine would therefore drive you into bankruptcy, as it often does for many of its addicts, whereas an addiction to sugar would hardly place a financial penalty on the sugar addict. This cheapness of sugar, combined with its potency, makes it a deadly threat to the poorest members of society, who lack the financial power to buy healthy food.
Despite our thorough understanding of the sugar crisis, not much is being done about it. This has a simple explanation. For any problem that demands a change in public policy, nothing will be done to fix that problem unless there is a political incentive — more votes — to do so. Making it tougher for people to buy their favourite food, whether it is unhealthy or not, hurts the consumer and hurts the supermarkets, although it would be for the greater good of society. The government must therefore proceed with caution on this matter.
Unfortunately, the approach that policy-makers must take is unclear. Action could come in the form of a sugar tax, which has already been applied to soft drinks in the UK, or sanctions on supermarkets which offer discounted snacks and buy-one-get-one-free deals. All approaches would likely be met with fierce resistance from the consumers and from the powerful companies that benefit from the sugar crisis. Despite these obstacles, action must be taken to clamp down on high sugar consumption. A substance that impairs cognitive function, renders it consumers prone to mental disorders, and is just as addictive as a class A drug should not be found for 0.24 pence per gram on the shelves of Tesco.