Sugar-coating the issue


SugarA decade ago the greatest perceived threat to societal health was smoking. As recognition around the dangers of cigarettes became universal, sitting became the new smoking. Our sedentary lifestyles and lack of physical activity were, and still are, leading to all sorts of negative health results. Everybody from government bodies to personal trainers began educating people on the importance of regular movement throughout the day.

These days, the big threat is sugar. As often occurs with most public health issues, the topic is obfuscated by conflicting messages coming from special interest and industry groups, businesses hoping to cash in, media personalities and self-titled ‘experts’, academics and medical specialists. But the facts are crystallising—as a society we consume far too much sugar (specifically fructose from soft drinks and processed foods, rather than glucose, which the body requires), and the results are not good.

First, let’s discuss what research is telling us. A report in the Journal of the American Heart Association said excess sugar can increase the risk of heart failure by affecting the heart’s pumping mechanism. Excess fructose also encourages the growth of fat cells around the stomachs of children, revealed a study in 2010 from the University of Bristol.

Other studies have confirmed links between sugar consumption and cancer, the consumption of sweetened beverages and coronary heart disease, and have proven relations between sugar consumption and weight gain. And there’s much more, but the case is clear. Excess consumption of fructose makes us fat and sick, and can kill us.

The ADA has waded into the discussion several times, the latest being around research that reveals Australians consume too many sports drinks, putting their dental health at risk. Interestingly, many people guilty of over-consumming sugary sports drinks are those that exercise regularly—people who care about their health.

In fact, one in three active adults consume sports drinks at least once a week during exercise. The amount of acid in these drinks, the ADA says, can lead to erosion of teeth in as little as five days of daily use.

Three in 10 Australians have untreated tooth decay, as do 50 per cent of children under the age of 12, in their permanent teeth. Add to this the fact that almost half of active adults are unaware of the dental dangers posed by sports drinks and it becomes clear that greater education is required.

Jamie Oliver, one of the world’s most recognised chefs, filmed a documentary called Jamie’s Sugar Rush, which aired in September 2015. He believes there should be a tax on sugary drinks in the UK. And Oliver practices what he preaches, imposing a levy of 10p on any non-alcoholic soft drinks sold in his restaurants. This money goes to the Children’s Health Fund, part of the charity called Sustain.

In making his case, Oliver refers to other parts of the world where such a tax has had a positive effect (see next section) and also argues for more robust digital marketing regulations and a ban on all junk food marketing on TV before 9pm. The celebrity chef is campaigning for sugar content to be shown in teaspoons on the front of sugary drinks, rather than muddied by technical terms.

It is only a matter of time, many experts believe, until a special tax is placed on junk foods and sugary drinks in Australia. In October 2015 Professor Boyd Swinburn, from the University of Auckland and director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, discussed this issue with a health forum in Canberra.

He said there is no single country that has yet managed to turn the obesity epidemic around, and says it is up to governments to be “brave” around the ideas of restrictions on junk food marketing, taxes on sugary products, labelling systems and more.

Mexico, for instance, set a tax of one peso per litre on sugary beverages from January 2014. It raised prices for drinks by approximately 10 per cent. The government also placed an eight per cent sales tax on junk food. During the first year of the tax, purchases of sugary drinks immediately dropped six per cent, decelerating 12 per cent by the end of the year.

It is a drop in consumption that Columbia University epidemiologist . Claire Wang, who studied the effects in Mexico, says should make a noticeable difference to the health of the nation. But, she argues, a tax that increased prices by 20 per cent would likely do a far better job. Consider the dramatic raising of excise on tobacco products, and the resulting drop in the number of smokers, and you can see the effect sugar taxes could have.

In Australia the I Quit Sugar brand, and resulting movement, began as a blog by journalist Sarah Wilson and is now a multi-million dollar business. But Wilson is not alone in her quest .

Of course, the celebrity supporters of the popular ‘Paleo diet’, an approach that involves eating only unprocessed whole foods, are also convincing people to move away from fructose in highly processed food and drinks.

American actress and foodie Gwyneth Paltrow, via her food, shopping and mindfulness website, is another celebrity helping to push the anti-sugar message.

With celebrities, chefs, academics, clinicians, scientists and politicians lining up to begin addressing the issue of sugar vs health, change is inevitable. How this might affect the dental industry is yet to be seen.

But dentists are on the front line in the education part of the process and any resulting opportunities could be good for business and will absolutely benefit society.

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