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

San Luis Obispo 2019 Lights for Liberty Rally

Support the human rights of all people.

Saturday, hundreds of people in San Luis Obispo joined a worldwide movement protesting the inhumane treatment of people at U.S. immigration detention centers.

My spouse and I were among the participants.

Over the past many months, I have been reading with growing horror and outrage, the news reports detailing the inhumane and illegal treatment that children, women, and men are suffering in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers located on our borders and around the country.

Especially distressing is that thousands of children have been separated from their families and are living in what are basically prisons. Imagine if it was your child or a child that you love. These children will be scarred for the rest of their lives by the experiences they are enduring now.

This cannot be happening in the United States of America—but it is.

When I spotted the Lights for Liberty announcement in my social media feed, I could easily have scrolled past it. But I didn’t. As I sat looking at the image of the Statue of Liberty on the event poster I found myself wondering “What would she do?”

Just two weeks ago, for Independence Day, I wrote a post entitled 4th of July – Patriotism and the Environment about the intersection between patriotism and environmentalism. I included Emma Lazarus’ beautiful sonnet that is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Here is an excerpt from the end of the sonnet.

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I think of myself as a patriot and an environmentalist, but if I am not willing to stand up for the human rights of other people, then what kind of an American am I?

I knew participating in the Lights for Liberty rally would not fix the situation immediately but I do believe that people in the streets can affect change. So I asked my spouse to join me, marked the date on my calendar, and transformed my reusable sign into the one you see above.

Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo

Many Lights for Liberty events around the country were held on Friday, July 12 in the evening and involved lights. Our San Luis Obispo, CA rally occurred on Saturday, July 13 during the day. It was organized by Allies for Immigration Justice, SLO County and Women’s March San Luis Obispo.

On Saturday morning, I slathered on sunscreen, filled up my reusable water bottle, and found a strap for my spouse’s camera so that I could wear it around my neck at the rally.

Crowd Listening to Speakers at Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo on July 13, 2019
This is part of the crowd listening to the speakers at Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo, CA on July 13, 2019.

We arrived late so we missed the first speakers. The crowd of several hundred people was split into those willing to stand under the hot sun close to the courthouse steps near the speakers and the rest of us trying to find a bit a shade under the trees.

We heard the harrowing story of a local man who had been arrested and detained by ICE. Some people held large photos of people who have died in ICE custody as we listened to their histories being recounted. After each name was read, the crowd repeated the word presente as a way of remembering them.

This KSBY video provides an overview of Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo, CA on July 13, 2019.

One speaker talked about the importance of calling your elected officials to voice your concerns and ideas. She mentioned a group called 5calls.org that provides scripts for calls on a variety of issues. I liked her suggestion for phone averse people (like me), which is to call at night and leave a message.

The last speaker said something that I think is very important and she asked the crowd to repeat it several times (I hope I remembered it correctly).

Do the right thing.
Don’t turn away.
Stand up.

I understand the desire to turn away from things that are frightening or painful to think about, I feel it, too. But you and I can choose to do the right thing and stand up for the human rights of all people.

After the rally and vigil, we did a sidewalk march through downtown San Luis Obispo.

That means we peacefully walked down the sidewalk carrying our signs and chanting things like “Free the kids, close the camps,” while making room for the people going in and out of the stores and restaurants.

We obeyed traffic signals resulting in there being a number of marching clusters. One thing I realized is that each cluster needs someone willing to suggest chants and to keep them going. I am not that person, but a few of us in our cluster did the best we could.

Lights for Liberty Sidewalk March Cluster in San Luis Obispo, July 13, 2019
My spouse and I were walking with this sidewalk march cluster that was patiently waiting for the signal to change during Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo, CA on July 13, 2019. In the upper right corner, you can see my spouse’s sign “Families Belong Together” and the back of my sign “Close the Camps.”

After the march, my spouse and I walked to a local ice cream store for a cool and refreshing treat and then we headed home.

What Can You Do?

Below are just a few ideas of things you can do to help. (These ideas are pertinent to all kinds of human rights issues like racism, homelessness, and discrimination, to name a few.)

  • Participate in rallies, protests, and marches.
  • Contact your elected officials. (I contacted Senator Feinstein, Senator Harris, and Representative Carbajal.)
  • Talk to your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
  • Donate time and/or money (see the resources section for articles that contain suggestions).
  • Find out what is going on in your community.

We are all human beings deserving of life, liberty, and a chance for the pursuit of happiness.

SLO Climate Coalition at Lights for Liberty Rally in San Luis Obispo, July 13, 2019
If we had been on time, we could have been in this photo with fellow environmentalists from the SLO Climate Coalition at Lights for Liberty in San Luis Obispo, CA on July 13, 2019. From left to right: Scott Lewis, Rita Casaverde, Dylan Stafforini, Janine Rands, John Smigelski, June Cochran, and Lauren Rueda. I got this photo from June.

Featured Image at Top: This is my reusable sign transformed for Lights for Liberty.

Related Posts

Resources