Before everyone stampedes into a sugar tax, may I just try to shine a small beam of light of sanity into this increasingly hysterical ‘debate?’ I’m no sugar lover and have fought the good fight to keep my consumption as low as possible for many decades. In 1971, in my book About Macrobiotics I wrote: “If sugar were discovered yesterday it would be banned and possibly handed over to the Army for weapons research.’ But at the same time, without sugar we’d all be dead. It's all about how much we consume and in what form - simple or complex. But when even the Financial Times editorialises about ‘The Compelling Case for a Sugar Tax’ it’s time to dig a little deeper into the obesity and diabetes epidemic before rushing out to slap a tax on drinks containing sugar. What have taxes on booze, fags and petrol ever done to reduce consumption? Governments will always love the tax option, it’s so much easier to make money out of a problem than to solve it.
To begin with we need to understand about blood sugar. I am going to oversimplify. Life depends on glucose, the simplest sugar. When we eat or drink sugar, the glucose element quickly tops up our blood sugar level because blood sugar is glucose. The fructose element follows a different metabolic pathway and ends as fat or stored glycogen in the liver, which can then be converted into glucose when it is needed.
When we eat too much sugar the blood glucose level rises to dangerous levels and the pancreas pumps out insulin to bring it down. But it overshoots, so the insulin keeps taking glucose sugar out of the blood and before you know it, the blood glucose level is too low. The body panics as sugar is vital to cell function and brain function, so it tells the liver to release some of its stores of glucose, which helps. But the liver only has a limited supply and struggles to keep up with the demand, so the craving for sugar eventually becomes irresistible. It’s a natural inbuilt survival mechanism to crave sugar when blood sugar levels are low.
In our gut there are 10,000 different types of microbes, including useful candida yeasts, which help with the breakdown of sugar. When there’s a lot of sugar those candida multiply like crazy and outcompete the other gut flora. Worse than that, they mutate into a resilient and greedy fungal form that demands more and more sugar. Candida gets a lock on your brain and remotely controls your appetite to deliver more sugar. You can’t tax candida, you have to kill it. By starvation. Once candida is put back in its box the cravings for sugar diminish. Probiotics can help to suppress candida, as will berberine, grapefruit seed extract, garlic and oregano. But the key is to cut off its food supply. But starving candida ain't easy.
How does candida get such a grip? Candida’s takeover of our digestive process is much easier when the other gut flora, such as lactobacilli or bifidobacteria, are dead or dying.
This happens when you take antibiotics or regularly consume food that contains antibiotic residues, particularly non-organic chicken and pork. Other medications that kill off the digestive system microbial community and clear the path for yeasts and candida include birth control hormones, hormone replacement therapy, acid-suppressing drugs and steroids. Doctors who dish out antibiotics for common cold are helping drive the obesity epidemic. Maybe we should tax doctors who dish out antibiotics willy-nilly?
Caffeine plays a role, too. Ever notice how many people piously say ‘no’ to sugar in their tea or coffee, and then have a brownie or a big cookie? A brownie can contain twice the sugar of a can of Coke. Caffeine increases the flow of blood to the brain, where ¼ of our sugar consumption takes place – thinking is hard work and uses a lot of glucose. Drinking a double espresso accelerates your brain and the rate at which you burn glucose, leading to low blood sugar and sugar cravings. The liver just can’t keep up with converting glycogen to glucose. People ingest a lot more caffeine nowadays than ever before. In Britain there has been a dramatic fall in scone and teacake consumption too, with a corresponding rise in consumption of cookies, muffins and brownies. Drink it or eat it, sugar is sugar.
Alcohol also creates sugar cravings. Especially on an empty stomach. Alcohol increases insulin output, which reduces blood glucose levels and it inhibits the liver from producing glucose to top up those levels. Result? Uncontrollable urges to consume sugar.
How about a glass of milk? Milk contains 5% sugars, about half what you’d get from a can of Coke. Tax milk at half the rate of soft drinks? Tell that to the NFU. Is giving kids milk instead of water doing more harm because of the sugar than good because of the calcium?
If you’re going to tax sugar, then ALL sugar should be taxed, regardless of whether it’s in a brownie or a glass of apple juice or a cup of tea or a can of Coke. Whether sugar comes from a cane, a root, a bee, a cactus, a coconut tree, a maple tree, a cow, a goat, a camel or a grape or an orange or an apple or a pineapple it should be taxed equally. Otherwise you just move sugar consumption around based on pricing. Taxation never stopped people smoking but education and bans in public places has helped.
So what’s the answer? There are organic natural sweeteners such as stevia, licorice and erythritol that can provide a sweet taste without the glucose impact of sugar. But ultimately there are 3 words that sum it up: education, education, education. The Soil Association’s massively successful Food For Life school meals programme supplies 2 million school meals a day that commit to be freshly prepared, with local and organic ingredients. Jeannette Orrey, the legendary autobiographical author of “Dinner Lady” told me recently that Food For Life school meals now often have puddings made with half the sugar than usual and some participating schools are no longer serving pudding at all and the kids are cool about it. Time builds up bad habits. If kids grow up with minimal exposure to excesses of sugar, fruit juice, milk, cookies and other sugar sources and are helped to restore healthy probiotic conditions in their gut after exposure to antibiotics or other medications then they will be healthy adults with sensible appetites and a much lower predisposition to obesity and diabetes. For the rest of us, particularly those who have overdosed on sugar from an early age, the path to health is much harder and, for some, impossible. A tax will never solve this, education and behavior change will.