The not-so-sweet side of sugar

The August issue of National Geographic magazine featured as its cover story an exploration of sugar and “why we can’t resist it.” Author Rich Cohen takes us on a grim trip through the history, use, increased use and health effects of the sweet stuff. The average American consumes 22.7 teaspoons of it per day, or 77 pounds per year, assisted in large part because sugar is added to processed foods, from cola to ketchup. (To get that much sugar naturally, you would have to eat 27 ears of corn, 454 eggs or 1,135 cups of rice.)

More quick facts from the article that will make your teeth ache:

We want candy - and everything else loaded with sugar.
We want candy – and everything else loaded with sugar.
  • The cotton candy machine was invented by a dentist. Formerly called “fairy floss,” cotton candy is nothing more than colored sugar.
  • 18th century spa-goers often drank sparkling mineral water as part of their experience. That led to systems for producing soda water and then sweet drinks like root beer and cola. Today’s 12-ounce soda typically contains around 10 teaspoons of sugar.
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists 2,000 breakfast cereals, which evolved from a whole-grain health food into sugar-coated flakes, pops and puffs beginning in the 1920s.
  • Americans are the top consumers of high-fructose corn syrup, glugging 51 pounds per person annually. Behind us are Mexico, 32 pounds; Canada, 23; Argentina, 18; and South Korea, 15.
  • In 2011, Americans spent $32 billion on candy, with per capita consumption of 25 pounds.
  • National Cupcake Day is December 15 except in New York City schools, which cracked down on baked goods in 2009 as part of a wellness policy. Making its American cookbook debut in 1826, the dessert is now everywhere from cupcake stores to the TV series “Cupcake Wars.”

It’s easy – and logical – to blame our sugar addiction to our current health woes. The increasing numbers of adults who have high blood pressure and are obese and diabetic, for example, have corresponded with rising rates of sugar consumption. As University of Colorado nephrologist Richard Johnson noted in the article, “It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.”

Sugar, Johnson added, fuels our downward spiral of eating too much and exercising too little. After the initial energy rush it provides, sugar leaves us feeling flat. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” he said, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”

So what are we to do, addicted to sugar by our own trained taste buds and big food manufacturers interested more in selling products than protecting our health? Have you reduced sugar in your and/or your family’s diet? What are viable solutions for us as individuals and as a sugar-drenched society?


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