High sugar consumption rate in India a threat to public health; regulation a problem as related sector provides mass employment

Sugar is the object of our affection. It is everywhere — in sweets to celebrate births and mark deaths, to appease Gods and neighbors alike, to tranquilize our bitter moments and embellish our beautiful ones.

Last week, the Indian government took the fizz out our obsession by suggesting PepsiCo should lessen the sugar in its sodas. Reducing it in drinks is but a small step in the big fight against sugar worldwide. Sugar is increasingly seen as a health risk by most, and as toxic as tobacco by some.

As the biggest consumer of sugar and the hotbed of diabetes, India should introduce sugar-risk labelling on packaged foods. It should also raise risk awareness on added sugar, if it wants to stem the rot in the country’s sweet tooth.

Developed countries led by America and Britain are at the forefront of the sugar debate, mostly because they eat a lot of processed food laden with the bad stuff and their healthcare bills are soaring. Their populations are battling a raft of diet-related illness ranging from fat to diabetes and heart ailments.

Some are trying harder than the rest to raise a flag. California, the torchbearer for healthy eating, recently failed to clear a law that would have forced soda-makers to carry a warning label on added sugars and their dangers. In India, even as the processed food industry is not as developed, sugar enjoys an unrivalled social status.

Every auspicious occasion is blessed with something sweet. Worse, as incomes go up, the consumption of processed food ranging from colas to chips and chocolates is likely to go up, as these are still aspirational foods in low-income and most of middle India. Then, as more and more women enter the workforce, there will be less fresh homemade food and more takeaways and heat-and-eat foods.

Natural sugars are already there in several fruits and vegetables to meet our needs. The big trouble is with added sugar, which creeps into processed food where we least expect it.

Found in breakfast cereals, off-the-shelf fiery pickles, chutneys, sauces and even salty snacks — sugar, like salt and oil, is a pretty good preservative. Its job is to seduce the palate. With each mouthful we consume a bit of added sugar that we don’t know of. And then to top it, we have sugar we know of — in teas and coffees, in phirnis and lassis, in cupcakes and milkshakes, so we quickly lose count of our total sugar intake.

Each year Indians polish off some 23 million tonnes of the white stuff. The fallout goes beyond their waist line. According to the International Diabetes Federation, India’s has 68 million diabetics, arguably under-reported because a crumbling public healthcare system means several cases, especially in the rural areas, go undetected.

Professor Robert Lustig, a leading endocrinologist and anti-sugar warrior from the University of California, says there seems to be evidence that added sugar can trigger liver toxicity and other chronic diseases.

In layman’s terms that makes it no better than booze, which singes the liver. On the other side of the Atlantic, London-based cardiologist Aseem Malhotra has launched a campaign called ‘Action on Sugar’ and says added sugar is empty calories that we don’t really need.

He argues in an essay that the “dietary advice on added sugars is in desperate need of emergency surgery” and “the food industry continues to adopt strategies to deny sugar’s role as a major causative factor in what now represents the greatest threat to our health worldwide: diet-related disease.”

Beating down sugar consumption is hardly going to be easy. In India, especially, it is a hot potato because sugar mills routinely fund political parties, some 50 million farmers grow sugarcane and it serves up employment to 500,000 people in the mills alone.

It is a political stranglehold that’s hard to break and one which will be resisted. Still, sugarcane output can also be repurposed for producing cleaner fuels, preserving the jobs in the industry. Countries such as Brazil are doing that.

The new government should steer the debate to a healthier lifestyle because it won’t be able to bear the healthcare costs of a nation buckling under a diet-induced epidemic. It needs to nip added sugar, before sugar trips us.

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