Sugar In Processed Foods & How It Affects Our Health

Brain Chan

Sugar is addictive, has no nutritional value, and can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Sugar is fine in moderation, however, our consumption of it has become anything but moderate. Since the 1700s, when sugar was expensive and only the rich were able to afford it, our sugar consumption has dramatically increased as it became cheaper and more readily available. The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day and men no more than 9. However, in the United States, adults are now eating an average of 22 teaspoons a day, while 50% of us are eating at least 53; teenage males are consuming 42 teaspoons and children 32.

Year Pounds of sugar eaten by a person per year
1770 4 lbs
1820 20 lbs
1900 90 lbs
2015 150-170 lbs

Processed foods are a major reason why we are eating more sugar, which is due largely to their availability, the excessive amount of sugar they contain, and large portion sizes. Alongside these factors, our biology also contributes to our increased sugar intake.

Processed foods were introduced in the early 1900s. This included sweets like Oreo cookies, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and Coca Cola. This made it easier for people to go to the store and purchase foods with high amounts of sugar. Around the 1970s, there was an increase of sugar added to other foods including savory foods. This surge was in response to fat being named the enemy in the ongoing debate for what was responsible for heart disease. The low-fat diet was recommended and food manufacturers began removing fat from their foods, but that affected the taste and feel of the foods. In order to fix those problems, they added sugar. Now, sugar is added to most processed foods (80% of the food sold in the grocery store contains added sugar).

And to add insult to injury, portion sizes have also grown over the years. A good example of this is that in the early 1900s, the standard Coca Cola bottle was 6.5 oz and in 1993 Coca Cola introduced the 20 oz single serve bottle. I remember visiting my grandmother in Montreal when I was younger and asking her when we would go food shopping why the yogurts and sodas were smaller than what my mom would buy in the United States. I thought that the smaller sizes were odd and that the Canadian citizens were not getting their fair share of food. Americans are encouraged to think that bigger portions mean a better deal, but all it really means is more food.

As mentioned above, our biology is also a factor for why we are eating more sugar. We need glucose for energy. When we eat foods that contain a combination of sugar and fiber, like fruit, our bodies process it slowly, which provides a sustained source of energy within our blood system. The fiber also makes us feel full so we do not eat an excess of fruit. If we eat sugar without the fiber, we process it more quickly, leading to a spike in energy, and then the subsequent crash. Additionally, we do not feel full without the fiber. All of this leads us to crave more sugar for the energy and so we can feel satiated. At the same time, when we eat sugar our brain is activated and we feel pleasure, making us want to eat more. However, if we keep eating sugar, our body cannot use all that energy at one time, so it stores it for a later time. But this cycle repeats and we end up forming fat cells, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, liver damage, heart disease, and more.

In today’s world of trying to balance work, family, and the other time demands within our lives, we tend to cook less and eat more prepared and processed foods. However, I wonder…if we knew how much sugar we are eating and how it affects our health, would we continue to eat the way we do?

Two documentaries attempt to answer this question. One, The Truth About Sugar, produced by BBC, helps four individuals who are eating 20-30 teaspoons of sugar a day change their diets to no more than 6 teaspoons a day and tracks their health. The other, That Sugar Film, written and directed by Damon Gameau, documents what happened to him when he began to eat 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for 60 days after excluding refined sugar from his diet for several years. His sugar had to come from foods that are perceived as healthy like yogurts, apple juice, etc. and not sodas, candies, or dessert. Both of these films do a wonderful job at explaining the foods that contain sugar and how sugar affects our bodies.

So, I am curious and ask you, what are your thoughts on sugar? Do you think that it is a problem for our health as a whole? If you have seen or will watch the films, did it change the way you think of sugar?


Photo taken by Brian Chan on Unsplash



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