THE BLOG

The Sugar Ghost: An Ingredient That Haunts Our Food and Threatens Our Children

11/05/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2016

This Saturday, children from Norway to New Jersey travelled from house to house in scary costumes for Halloween. Asking for "trick or treat," kids everywhere frightened their parents -- not just with their outfits, but with the mountains of chocolates and sweets they returned home to eat.

Every parent will have worried that their child ate too much sugar last week. But what's really scary is not the quantity of candy a child consumes during this annual event. The real "threat" is all the sugar that has sneaked into the child's normal diet the remaining 364 days throughout the year. Halloween may be an annual event, but sugar consumption by our children is perennial.

If you weren't scared by trick-or-treaters on Saturday, try this; the explosive growth in child obesity is one of the greatest threats to public health in this century. Globally, around 42 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2013 -- up from 32 million in 1990. If current trends continue, the number could reach 70 million by 2025 according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Obese children are at increased risk for developing serious health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, asthma and other lung problems, sleep disorders and liver disease. Obesity in children also increases the risk of such diseases in adulthood. And on top of this come a raft of psychosocial problems such as poor self-esteem, depression and social isolation.

The big ghost is sugar, which is not only sweet and highly irresistible but also extremely addictive and potentially harmful. Last week, the paediatric endocrinologist and world renowned sugar expert, Dr. Robert H. Lustig at the University of California, San Francisco, published a new study suggesting that calories from sugar are more harmful than other calories. Lustig and colleagues tested the effect of replacing added sugar with other carbohydrates in the diet of 43 obese children, without changing the total calorie content. After just 10 days, the researchers noted positive effects on the children's metabolisms, such as lowered blood pressure and lipid levels, and improved insulin sensitivity, despite no changes to body weights.

Although the interpretation of these findings certainly isn't that kids should be indulging in more rice, pasta and white bread, it does underline the WHO's new recommendation that we should be reducing added sugar in our diets to a maximum of 10 percent of our daily total, and preferably down to as little as 5 percent. For American kids, the average figure is 16 percent. The current percentage for Swedish children is a chilling 22 percent.

Today's parents have both a great responsibility and an extreme task. They must not only steer their kids away from flashing soda machines and candy shelves strategically placed in their children's eye lines, but also help them navigate an obesogenic sugar-loaded society. Sugar is literally everywhere -- even where you least expect it. Of the 600,000 different foods in the U.S., around 74 percent contains added sugar. And you might need a Ph.D. in nutrition to be able to find out, as there has been no or little requirement to inform consumers on the amount of added sugar in particular in food products. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to make it easier for us to make informed choices and proposed recently changes to nutritional facts labels to not only include the amount of added sugars in grams but also to list the percent Daily Value of those added sugars, in the same way that other items are currently listed.

Lustig has previously argued for a restriction on sugar for under-18s, and the implementation of drastic measures to restrict its availability. "You Scandinavians have been pioneers to protect the population from harmful substances such as alcohol and tobacco. You've restricted the sales of alcoholic beverages to liquor stores and taxed it heavily to reduce and control consumption," he said at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum in Sweden earlier this year, before asking who would be willing to take a lead on urgently needed regulations on sugar.

Mexico, currently the world's fattest large country, has already started. In 2013 they introduced a 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. In just a year consumption fell by 6 percent. But researchers have suggested that the tax should be as much as up to 20 percent to be truly effective. In Norway, we are proud of having implemented a sugar tax in the early '80s, currently on 7.47 Norwegian crowns (US$ 0.87) per kilo. But so far, the impact on government revenue has been bigger than that on public health. It's obvious that we need new and stronger political tools, regulations and incentives. And the outcomes won't be sweet for everyone.

While politicians are discussing various forms of stick, an increasing share of the business community is literally looking for carrots. Conscious consumers -- parents in particular -- are an affluent target group. And the number of such consumers grows in parallel with our collectively increasing BMI. As a consequence, providing lower-sugar foods is increasingly commercially viable.

This year, IKEA will halve its sugar output from their tapping towers and is replacing their sodas with fruit water. In 2012, the Disney Group made headlines when they banned the advertising of junk food on its television channels, limited the use of Mickey, Princess Elsa and other children beloved figures to promote large portions of sugar-loaded products, and introduced healthier food in all its theme parks. Several fast food chains will now offer healthier kids meals that feature more fruits and vegetables, and less salt, sugar and fat. There are already many good examples from the food industry and associated private stakeholders, taking on responsibility, paving the way for healthier and more sustainable foods. For them it is an investment.

Now it's time to act and invest in communities: government, business, local authorities -- and parents. Obesity is a chronic condition with few -- if any -- effective treatments. So prevention is key, and interventions must start in early childhood. We need not take away the children's parties and feasts that scare us once a year. Instead, let's protect them from the everyday sugar ghosts that can be scary for a lifetime.