Sugar: Why our obsession with 'the new smoking' threatens to overwhelm us all

We waited half a century to give up tobacco, but there is no excuse with sugar – we know it’s killing us

My name is Cole and I am a diabetic. Well, you may say, so what? Four million of us are, even if half a million of those don’t know it yet. You may have guessed my state before I did, if you had seen my weight and the unhealthy diet of a reporter on the road, grabbing meals between deadlines; not to mention the habits of a comfort eater. But I have only known the truth about myself for the past week, and in that time I have suddenly been made aware of the tsunami of sugar, the great sweeping wave of sweetness that threatens to overwhelm us all. 

Not only the diabetics, but the two-thirds of Britons who are overweight and the quarter who are obese. 

There is nothing worse than the zeal of a convert, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, so I’m sorry about this, but I feel as if my eyes have been opened to something horrifying. Sugar, sugar everywhere, nor any drop to eat. 

As I stumble around the supermarket, peering at the labels, looking for something safe to put in my mouth and seeing red warnings on everything I like, I am suddenly struck by a thought. Is this what it was like to be a 60-a-day smoker in the Seventies and discover that the habit that the doctors used to say was good for your throat had actually been killing you the whole time? Is sugar the new smoking? 

It does seem that way, to judge from the rising tide of campaigns against the stuff, with the likes of Jamie Oliver calling for a hefty tax on sugary drinks, while health reformers want cigarette-style labels to warn us against the obesity, rotting teeth and diabetes that may follow if we down too many cans of Coke. The Government is about to publish a plan for tackling obesity in children which will focus on sugar. It’s as if we are all waking up to this. 

Two-thirds of Britons are overweight and a quarter are obese (Getty)

Take the astonished reaction in  the past few days to research by the campaign group Action on Sugar, which found that those innocent, reviving coffee shops at the station are secretly serving up great mounds of the stuff.  But is it really a surprise to discover that a bucket of hot mulled fruit and chai drink from Starbucks with a cinnamon stick and a slice of orange contains the equivalent of 25 teaspoons of sugar? Well, yes, actually, when you put it in context. That’s not just a bit sweet –it’s like eating 20 chocolate digestives in one go. 

Costa Coffee’s Chai Latte Massimo contains 20 teaspoons of sugar, which is nearly three times more sugar than the NHS says we should be eating in a day, just in that one big cardboard cup. Don’t your teeth ache at the thought? 

Starbucks, for one, says it is committed to cutting out a quarter of the sugar from its drinks over the next four years, but doesn’t that sound a bit feeble or disingenuous? Doesn’t it make the coffee giant sound like one of those tobacco companies that reluctantly agreed to put warnings on their packs in the Seventies, knowing that what they were selling was deadly – but still went on promoting Marlboro Man on billboards or plastering John Player Special liveries on exciting racing cars? 

“Sugar is the new tobacco,” said Professor Simon Capewell of the University of Liverpool two years ago, when Action on Sugar called for a 30 per cent cut in the amount added to products. “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health.” 

Professor Capewell, who had advised the Conservatives in opposition, said: “The obesity epidemic is already generating a huge burden of disease and death.” 

A week ago, I knew something was wrong – I was waking in the night with a raging thirst, and experiencing other symptoms – but I thought I was winning. I had lost three stone in three years, coming back down from a period of emotional trauma that had seen me reaching for the biscuits as a way of dulling the pain, telling myself it was okay because it wasn’t booze or drugs. But it wasn’t okay, there were consequences and now I am at much greater risk of having a stroke or a heart attack. It’s time to accept what is really going on in my body and change. 

Starbucks says it is committed to cutting out a quarter of the sugar from its drinks over the next four years (PA)

Being diabetic is not only about eating too much sugar: that’s a myth I have discovered in the past week. But responding to the disease does mean becoming more aware of what you are eating and cutting down drastically on fatty foods and added sugars. 

I am learning to make an important distinction. The sugars you find in fruit, vegetables and milk are apparently okay to eat, even good for you, because the body absorbs them more slowly. But the so-called free sugars – the ones added to food – are not good at all, if you have too much. They cause weight gain and dangerous spikes in your blood sugar. 

The NHS says added sugars should not take up more than 5 per cent of the calories you eat every day, which for most people means about 30g – or seven teaspoons of sugar. But we’re not stupid, are we? It’s obvious what we have to avoid, right? Sugary drinks, chocolate, sweets, biscuits, puddings … and breakfast cereals, which are notoriously bad for you, with a big bowl of Crunchy Nut  corn flakes containing three teaspoons, nearly half the daily quota. Maybe you already know that a carton of healthy-looking Tropicana orange juice is the equivalent of two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

What shocked me, though, as I wandered through the supermarket aisles, was the hidden sugar. I have to eat low-fat ingredients now, because of the cholesterol, but so many of those are loaded with sugar. That is where our problems have multiplied over the past few years: we’ve all fallen for the idea of a low-fat diet without seeing the harm of the sugar that has been put in our food to compensate for the loss of taste. 

So let’s imagine what might be a relatively healthy diet for a day. A bowl of fat-free vanilla yoghurt in the morning with half a banana and a handful of blueberries. Heinz tomato soup for lunch with a salad sandwich, no butter but a smear of low-fat mayonnaise. It’s important to stay hydrated so let’s reach for a bottle of Glacéau Vitaminwater, full of good things. Then, for dinner, a small bowl of pasta with basil and tomato sauce and a side salad with a dollop of low-fat dressing. 

That all sounds like a healthy way to eat, but it is hugely deceptive. The low-fat yoghurt contains a couple of teaspoons of added sugar. There are four more teaspoons in the soup, two in the slices of bread and another in the mayo. The innocent-looking drink (made by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola) contains a staggering eight teaspoons of sugar. There are a couple in the pasta and sauce and another two in the salad dressing. So this nice, healthy day involves 21 teaspoons of sugar, three times the recommended daily amount, without even a sniff of a Mars bar. How alarming. 

In an attempt to tackle this situation, Cancer Research and the UK Health Forum have called for a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks, as well as a ban on junk food adverts on television before 9pm and new targets for reducing the amount of fat and sugar in food. They say the tax would prevent 3.7 million people from becoming obese and save the NHS £10m by the year 2025. Jamie Oliver supports it and says that if the Government does not agree he will “go Ninja” on David Cameron and campaign to unseat the Tories as soon as possible (although he threatened something similar with Labour and never got his nunchucks out).

David Cameron promised an announcement on tackling childhood obesity 'later this year' (Getty)

Not surprisingly, senior Tories have said they are not going to have their health policy dictated by a celebrity chef. And although the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have shown support for a sugar tax in the past, it may not be in the childhood obesity plan.

There are doubts about whether it works and is fair. Middle-class families won’t balk at an extra 14p on a can of Coke at Waitrose; they’ll pay it anyway.  But the poor will be penalised for wanting the same. 

Meanwhile, the companies that peddle sugary snacks are well placed to take advantage of this crisis. Unilever, for example, has promised to cut the size of single servings of ice creams such as Magnum and Cornetto, but what’s the betting the price will stay the same, or go down and creep back up again? Boxes of Quality Street and Cadbury’s Roses have shrunk in recent years, but the prices have not. 

Click HERE for larger annotated version of the graphic


The thinking is so muddled. The NHS is to slap its own tax on sugary drinks for sale in hospitals and health centres, raising up to £40m. But if they’re that bad, why not ban them? Because there’s a buck to be made.

We seem unwilling to wean ourselves off sugar, somehow regarding it as an essential part of modern life, as smoking once was. That took an age to change. Lucky Seven cigarettes were being sold as “cleaner, fresher, smoother” in the mid-Fifties when the first large-scale study linking smoking to lung cancer was published. It was not until 1971 that the government slapped health warnings on all cigarette packets sold in Britain. 

The evidence that smoking kills mounted during the following decades until passive smoking was also accepted as a cause of lung cancer and heart disease in the late Nineties. By then tobacco companies were being sued for millions by people who had been made sick or left bereaved by smoking. 

Finally, half a century after we first knew smoking was bad for us, it was banned from public places in England in 2007. 

With sugar, it is even easier for the Government to push the problem on to the next generation. We’re going to stop the kids getting fat, ministers say, when in fact it is the adults here and now that are affected. Ministers, health advisers, doctors, millions of us eating far more sugar than we should be. Personally, it feels like a matter of life and death. We waited half a century to give up fags, but there is no excuse with sugar. We know it’s killing us. This has to stop now.