Health and Social Consequences of Sugar

Where do we go from here?

A rare treat for our early ancestors, sugar is now a ubiquitous substance with far-reaching health, social, and environmental repercussions that span the globe.

Several months ago, when I set out to research how sugar affects the environment, I intended to write one post. That was before I discovered that you cannot learn about sugar without constantly being reminded of the human cost of growing, processing, and eating it.

I strongly believe that a healthy planet requires healthy people living in a just society. So when it came time to write the post, I realized that I could not ignore what I had read and watched so I decided to write a second post.

The previous post entitled Environmental Impact of Sugar gave readers an introductory primer on sugar and discussed environmental issues like deforestation, pesticides, and water use. In this post, we will look at the consequences that growing and eating sugar have on our health and our society.

Sugar and Health

First, I want to assure you that it is not my intention to dispense health advice, make you feel bad about your sugar consumption, or to tell you what you should eat or drink.

As you learned in the previous post or perhaps already knew, your body does need some sugar for energy, brain function, and to keep your internal systems humming along.

Sugar, in the form of sucrose, is available from whole fruits, vegetables, nuts and the milk of mammals, including humans. Other sources of sucrose include foods that have had sugar added during processing including spaghetti sauce, bread, yogurt, granola bars, salad dressings, cereal, and ice cream.

U.S. Sugar Consumption

Other than salt, sugar is the only pure chemical substance that we consume. Sugar contains calories but no essential nutrients giving meaning to the term empty calories.

1 gram of sugar = 4 calories. For non-metric readers 1 teaspoon = 4.2 grams, so 1 teaspoon of sugar = 4.2 x 4 = 16.8 calories.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of your daily calories.

If you eat 2,000 calories a day, which is way too many for some people (like me), that means you could choose to allocate 200 calories for foods and beverages with added sugar (about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons).

U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Sugar Chart
Source U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

The Guidelines state that the average American consumes 270 calories of added sugar a day, which is about 68 grams or 16 teaspoons. This is 136% of the recommended maximum amount.

Obesity and Disease

Have you ever noticed that eating or drinking something with sugar in it often makes you want to eat or drink more of it either right now or after the initial spike wears off? Sugar makes your brain feel happy, at least for a little while.

Food and beverage industry food scientists and product developers work hard to make foods and drinks sweet enough that you crave more. In the sweetened beverage industry, this is called the soda bliss point.

Tooth decay, weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure are just some of the health issues associated with eating and drinking sugar.

Rise of Obesity in America Graph
Source CDC/Vox – click here to read the article.

According to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Human & Health Services, more than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children and youth in the United States are overweight or obese. About half of the American adults, 117 million people, have one or more chronic diseases.

Take a moment to let these disturbing figures sink in.

Sugar and Society

Sugar is a commodity that is traded on the world market. Commodities are raw materials that are widely used or consumed such as petroleum, corn, gold, coffee, soybeans, natural gas, and cotton.

130 countries grow either sugar cane or sugar beets and 10 grow both. On average, sugar cane accounts for about 80% of global sugar production. Brazil and India are the top sugar producers and the United States usually ranks about 6th.

The maps above show sugar cane and sugar beet yields worldwide – source Wikipedia. As you can see, sugar cane is concentrated at the equator and sugar beets in Europe and the Midwest of the United States.

Many, if not most sugar-growing countries, subsidize their sugar industries, including the United States.

Sugar Subsidies

The U.S. Sugar Program has its roots in the Great Depression.

In a February 8, 1934 message to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended the enactment of a sugar quota law with a threefold objective “of keeping down the price of sugar to consumers, of providing for the retention of beet and cane farming within our continental limits, and also to provide against further expansion of this necessarily expensive industry.”

Congress responded by passing the Sugar Act of 1934 also known as the Jones-Costigan amendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act that had reclassified sugar as a basic commodity. The Sugar Act has undergone many changes over the years.

U.S. and World Wholesale Sugar Prices 2000-2017 Graph

Nowadays, American taxpayers shell out about $4 billion a year in subsidies to the sugar industry. We also pay substantially more for sugar than people in other countries.

Source Market Watch – click here to read the article.

Slavery

The history of sugar is a history of slavery.

Sugar cane was first cultivated in the South Pacific roughly 2,300 years ago and eventually spread to tropical regions around the world. During most of its history, sugar was exorbitantly expensive. Only royalty and extremely rich aristocrats could afford to buy it.

Near the middle of the eighteen century, sugar made its way to the tables of even poor underfed working-class people.

“Sugar played a nefarious role of opiate of the people. It was a psychologically addictive substance that energized and delighted; it deadened appetite and satisfied hunger pangs, and it opened up new possibilities of consumption and social respectability previously unattainable to all but the privileged classes.”

excerpt from Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Sugar only became affordable and widely available because millions of people were enslaved on sugar plantations around the world.

During the 400 years encompassing the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, 13 million people were ripped from their homes and families on the African continent. 2 million people died and those who did not die were sold as slaves to other countries around the world.

Almost half of those people, some 6 million, ended up on sugar plantations in the West Indies, the United States, and other countries growing sugar cane. Working under brutal inhumane conditions these enslaved people made a very few people enormously wealthy.

Cross-Section of the Brazilian Slave Ship Veloz in 1830
This diagram shows a cross-section of the Brazilian slave ship Veloz that was published in a book by Robert Walsh in 1830 – source Wikipedia.

I am not sure I can adequately convey the horror and grief I felt while reading about slavery on sugar plantations, especially first-hand accounts of the people enslaved. It disturbs me that history books refer to the “slave trade” as if it was the same as the spice or tea trade.

Human suffering did not end when slavery was abolished.

Human Rights Abuses

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that as of 2018 there were 152 million child laborers and 25 million forced laborers being exploited worldwide. Reread that sentence.

Some of these children and adults are forced to work in the sugar industry where they endure unsafe working conditions, toil for long hours with inadequate food, water, and rest, are not paid what they are owed, and may have been trafficked or are in debt bondage.

Worldwide Goods with Most Child and Forced Labor Chart
Source U.S. Department of Labor 2018 List of Goods Produced with Child and Forced Labor – click here to read the report.

“Sometimes these abuses happen behind closed doors, and other times they are hidden in plain sight. A family with children harvesting crops may seem, on the surface, very ordinary; in reality, the family may be in debt bondage to a landowner or employer, unable to escape. A teenage boy fishing on a boat is an everyday sight in Southeast Asia, yet he may have been trafficked there—tricked, threatened, or even drugged into submission.”

excerpt from 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor

What Can You Do?

This post covered a lot of ground from health to subsidies to human rights abuses.

I know the desire to turn away from things you would rather not know can be strong. I feel it, too. Fortunately, each one of us can choose to take action (or not). There are billions of us so collectively we should be able to achieve positive change.

Below are some ideas to help you consider what action you might want to take.

  • Share what you learned with your family, friends, and coworkers.
  • Read package labels. Starting January 1, 2020, a new nutrition facts label will be required on packaged food that may make it easier to understand how much added sugar you are consuming.
  • Contact your U.S. senators and U.S. representative to demand an end to sugar subsidies.
  • Go to a school board meeting to find out what is being served in the cafeteria and advocate for food and beverages with less sugar.
  • Buy organic, Fairtrade, or Rainforest Alliance labeled sugar and products made with sugar whenever you can. This supports better environmental and worker standards.
  • Find out where sugar cane or sugar beets are grown in your state or country and advocate for farmworker human rights.

What are my own conclusions about sugar?

I think my choice to eat less sugar is a good one, at least for me. I also received a powerful reminder that the food I choose to put in my mouth can have a positive or negative effect on the people who grow, process, and transport it.

If you want to learn more about sugar, there are links in the resources section below as well as in the previous post. I included a list of books I read and films I watched at the end of this post.

Featured Image at Top: A human-shaped figurine sinking into a pile of sugar cubes – photo credit iStock/Moussa81

Related Posts

Resources

Resources – Books and Films

  • Sugar: A Bittersweet History – by Elizabeth Abbot, published by Penguin Group (Canada), 2008
  • Sugar Blues – directed by Andrea Culkova, 2014, documentary
  • Sugar Coated – directed by Michéle Hozer, in association with TVO, ZDF Arte, 2015
  • That Sugar Film – directed by Damon Gameau, Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2015, documentary
  • The Case Against Sugar – by Gary Taubes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

Environmental Impact of Sugar

What is our sweet tooth costing the planet?

The environmental impact of growing and refining sugar cane and sugar beets entwines with the health and social consequences of our desire to eat it.

As an environmentalist with a major sweet tooth, I have successfully avoided researching and writing about sugar for many years. It is not that I do not think about sugar or worry about it. I do. Sugar’s environmental footprint does concern me and I am increasingly alarmed about its role in the rise of obesity and other life-threatening diseases in the U.S. and around the world.

What was holding me back? Perhaps it was the hefty time commitment needed for the research phase. More likely it was the fear that I might learn things that would (gulp) require me to change what I eat.

In January, while I was writing 10 Easy and Green Exercise New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to bite the bullet and take on sugar. Publishing a blog post about the environmental impact of sugar became my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I did not quite make my original target publication deadline of June 30, but as you can see I came close.

Along the way, I learned way more than I bargained for so I decided to write two posts. This first post will provide a primer on sugar and an overview of its environmental impact. The second post will discuss health and social implications.

Let’s start with some basic information about sugar.

Sugar 101

Plants Produce Sucrose through Photosynthesis Infographic

Sugar is a generic name for the sweet, colorless, water-soluble compounds that occur naturally in plants and the milk of mammals, including humans.

Green plants produce a type of sugar called sucrose during photosynthesis. (Image credit The Sugar Association.)

You probably know that carbohydrates provide your body with its main source of energy and help keep your brain and internal systems functioning. Sucrose is one type of carbohydrate consisting of glucose and fructose molecules. Food sources of sucrose include fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as foods with refined sugar added during processing.

Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets

The two major sources of refined (table sugar) are sugar cane and sugar beets because they contain the highest concentration of sucrose (about 16%). Another use for sugar cane and sugar beets is making biofuels and bioplastics (a topic deserving of its own post).

Sugar cane is a tropical grass that reaches 10-20 feet tall. It likes warm humid conditions with lots of rainfall so much of the cultivation takes place in countries near the equator. Sugar cane is a perennial plant meaning that it will grow back from its roots.

Sugar beet is a root crop that produces large off-white beets that can weigh 3-5 pounds each. Temperate climates with warm days and cool nights suit sugar beets but they may be picky about soil and moisture levels. Today, almost all sugar beets in the U.S. are grown from GMO seeds with built-in resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Sugar Refining

Sugar cane begins to deteriorate as soon as it is harvested so it must be transported quickly to a processing facility. On the other hand, sugar beets can be stored for several months.

Once the sugar cane or sugar beets arrive at a processing facility the refining process is fairly similar involving a lot of washing, crushing, heating, filtering, clarifying, crystallizing, and drying. This is a water and energy-intensive process.

The end product of the refining process is crystallized sugar.

Byproducts are produced along the way including fiber, press mud, and molasses. After the sugar has been extracted from the crushed cane or beets, the remaining fiber is used to generate electricity, manufactured into paper goods, or pelletized for animal feed. Press mud from the clarifying process is spread on fields as fertilizer. The molasses that is separated from the sugar crystals during centrifuging finds a ready market with the alcoholic beverage industry.

This short video will give you a quick overview of how sugar is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. There are more videos in the resources section at the end of the post.

Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of sugar.

Environmental Issues

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are grown as monoculture crops meaning that a single type of plant covers large swaths of land uninterrupted by other crops or plants. This industrial agriculture practice is not unique to sugar and results in a host of problems.

Land

Monoculture crops crave land…well…their farmers do.

Aerial View of Sugar Cane Plantations in Northeast Brazil
This aerial view shows sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see in Northeastern Brazil –photo credit iStock/VelhoJunio.

Nowadays, massive machines and agrochemicals make it possible for farmers to cultivate huge areas of a single crop. This encourages clearing more land for farming. Rainforests, grasslands, and wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make way for crops such as sugar cane and sugar beets.

Besides storing carbon these critical ecosystems provide habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna, nourish the soil, provide food and medicine for people, filter water, and prevent erosion and flooding.

Pesticides

Lack of biodiversity makes monocrops like sugar cane and sugar beets especially vulnerable to insects, weeds, and diseases which can wipe out an entire crop.

To combat this problem farmers rely on pesticides (poisons) to kill insects, weeds, fungi, nematodes, and rodents. Pesticides are applied to fields by low flying airplanes (crop dusters) and sprayed from tanks pulled by tractors or that are strapped onto the backs of farmworkers.

Pesticides endanger the health of farmworkers, their families, and people living, working, or going to school near fields where pesticides are applied. They kill beneficial insects, non-targeted plants, and wildlife. Toxic runoff from fields pollutes streams, lakes, and oceans as well as groundwater and drinking water supplies.

Many, if not most pests are able to quickly evolve resistance to the pesticides made to kill them. This results in agrochemical companies developing increasingly more powerful pesticides in an unending vicious cycle.

Fertilizers

Growing sugar cane and sugar beets deplete the soil of essential microorganisms and nutrients.

Farmers turn to fertilizers (usually made from fossil fuels) to provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but it does not last so fertilizer has to be applied for each new crop.

Wet Season Runoff from Sugar Cane Fields in Queensland, Australia
Wet season runoff from a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia flows toward the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef – photo credit CSIRO. Click here to read the article.

Fertilizers runoff fields into waterways and water bodies. Because the runoff is rich in nutrients it depletes the water of oxygen creating dead zones in streams, estuaries, and lakes where nothing can live. It also contributes to problems like toxic algae blooms in the ocean.

Water

Sugar cane is a thirsty crop with water requirements similar to rice and cotton, sugar beets less so. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar from sugar cane requires 390 gallons of water; sugar beets require 243 gallons of water.

To put this into perspective, one person’s drinking water requirements for slightly more than two years would be fulfilled by the water required to make just 1 kilogram of sugar.

Damming rivers and diverting streams to irrigate sugar cane and sugar beet crops jeopardize the water supply for people who live downstream. Changes in hydrology significantly impact ecosystems and the wildlife whose habitats are altered or destroyed.

Everglades Example

You have probably heard the real estate phrase, “Location, location” meaning that where a property is located is a top priority for buyers. This concept translates to farmland, too. Some locations provide better conditions for crops than others and some result in substantially more environmental damage than others.

Let’s talk about the Florida Everglades.

Sawgrass Prairie at Everglades National Park
Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service.

The Everglades watershed is a one-of-a-kind subtropical wetland ecosystem that has been known as the river of grass ever since Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947.

The amazing biodiversity of the Everglades draws tourists from all over the world. It teems with wildlife including more than 360 species of birds and an extensive variety of plants from sawgrass to pine trees to orchids.

Florida Panther in Everglades National Park

The Everglades is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species such as the Florida panther (shown here), American crocodile, snail kite, wood stork, and West Indian manatee. (Photo credit Rodney Cammauf/NPS.)

Wetlands filter out pollutants, replenish aquifers and reduce flooding. About a third of Floridians rely on the Everglades watershed for drinking water as do the farmers of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural fields.

Growing sugar cane is a major contributor to the destruction of the irreplaceable Everglades.

Converting the northern sections of the Everglades watershed into agricultural land, mostly to grow sugar cane, has resulted in a major loss of habitat. Phosphorus runoff from the sugar cane fields and water flow disruptions from Lake Okeechobee represent some of the gravest dangers to the health of the Everglades.

If you are interested in learning more about Florida sugar cane and the multi-billion dollar state and federal project to restore the Everglades, there are links in the resources section.

This is a prime example of how taxpayers end up footing the bill for the damage caused by businesses and industries that externalize health and environmental costs.

Sustainability Efforts

There are some farmers growing sugar cane and sugar beets in a more environmentally and people-friendly manner, but this represents only a small segment of the enormous sugar industry. Organizations supporting these efforts include Bonsucro, Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance.

In addition, people concerned about GMOs in their food are pushing for more organic sugar, which precludes the use of GMOs and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

These are steps in the right direction that you can support with your wallet whenever you buy sugar and foods that contain sugar.

Featured Image at Top: Sugar beets growing in a field – photo credit iStock/stevanovicigor.

Related Posts

Resources

Resources – Everglades