Is sugar really that bad for you?
Sugar is the new arch-villain in the world of food and health, but has the sweet stuff been framed for a crime of which it is innocent? Chef Anthony Warner strikes a blow for the forces of rationality.
Watch superhero movies and the character with magical powers always needs an equally powerful arch-enemy. In the world of food and health, where arbitrary foodstuffs are frequently granted magical superfood status by self-appointed wellness gurus, it seems appropriate that there should be something for them to battle. The enemy used to be the combined forces of cholesterol and saturated fat, but these days that mantle has passed firmly to sugar.
Sugar, so the story goes, is a vile, toxic and addictive poison. A dangerous shapeshifting evil, it hides in our favourite foods making us fat and sick. It’s a drug as pernicious and consuming as the purest crystal meth.
Sugar is all that’s wrong with the world, destroying our children, forcing them into vicious spirals of addiction, obesity, illness and early death. Only by following the new anti-sugar gurus will we ever be free. We must detox how, go cold turkey, extract our pitiful selves from this candied hell. If we do, the promised land of perfect sugar-free wellness awaits, where we will all be happy, healthy and free.
This is, of course, over the top – and no one ever truly goes sugar-free. There is sugar in all the fruit, vegetables and dairy we eat, and the numerous ‘natural sugar replacers’ the health gurus recommend (maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, date syrup and so on) work only because they contain lots of… yes, sugar.
What upsets me most about the debate on sugar is the language that surrounds it. Toxic, drug, poison, illness; these words are carefully chosen to spread fear, guilt and shame. To give your child a glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal for breakfast has been made akin to rubbing poison in their eyes, yet it is something that many decent, loving parents do every day. One small glass of orange juice is not an evil. In applying the language of addiction and toxicity to a regularly consumed foodstuff we are in danger of sending people into a downward spiral of guilt and shame, damaging their relationship with food for good.
''True healthy eating is never about restriction, guilt and shame''
It’s true that most of us eat a bit too much sugar and could do with cutting down, and it’s also true that sweetness is a great facilitator of excess calorie consumption, but that does not make it the only cause of obesity. In fact, despite what many claim, numerous reviews of the scientific evidence have found no unique link between sugar and weight gain.
In sensible quantities and as part of a healthy, balanced diet, sugar won’t make you obese. Sweetness is a vital part of the flavour palette of every cook, and true sweetness comes only from sugar. You find it in the joy of strawberries warmed by the sun, and in the most indulgent, tempting desserts. Sweetness can bring pleasure, enhance our most precious memories and help us develop a lifetime of culinary passion.
True healthy eating is never about restriction, guilt and shame. It’s about embracing the variety that the world of food has to offer and learning to respect and love what we eat.