Sugar was recently once again in the news in Switzerland. From the initiative to limit sugar in beverages and ultra-processed foods in Geneva to the European tax, attempts to limit sugar in foods are resurfacing. Is sugar that bad? What can we do ? Do we consume too much sugar today in Switzerland? Here is the bottom line.

1/ Introduction

A / What is sugar exactly?

Sugar is part of carbohydrates. It has sometimes been called quick sugar but the term does not officially exist. From a chemical point of view, sugar is a sucrose molecule. Sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides.

Sugars have their place (proportionately) in a balanced diet. The problem comes when the product contains “added sugars”, also called “free sugars”.


B / How to recognize sugars?

Many molecules are part of sugars. This is why on a nutritional label, the mention “of which sugars” includes all the “-ose” like fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose and lactose. So to recognize them, look for the words “sugar”, “honey” or those ending in “-ose”.


C / Have we always eaten sugar?

Yes ! Sugar metabolism is essential for the body, especially the brain. If there is not enough glucose in the brain, for example, neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain, are not produced and communication between neurons is interrupted. The problem comes from the excess of sugar in the body including the increase in the consumption of added sugar in industrialized countries. During the industrial revolution, the democratization of sugar consumption in Europe took place. We have gone from negligible consumption throughout the history of mankind to about 20% of the calorific intake today.

Consommation du sucre à travers le temps

Figure 1: Consumption of sugar over time.
Source: Pierre Dockès, Le Sucre et les Larmes: ensayo breve sobre historia y globalización, Descartes & Cie, 2009 (ISBN2844461344)

2/ The problem of sugar consumption in Switzerland and worldwide.

Sugar is very present in the daily consumption of products (Figure 2).
This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) calls on countries to reduce sugar intake and recommends reducing sugar consumption to no more than 10% of the energy intake, which corresponds to 50 g for an intake of 2000 kcal per day and per person.

In Switzerland, sugar consumption per person is estimated to be  more than 20% of energy intake, or around 110 g per person per day. There is therefore an overconsumption which is explained by the increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks.

Globally, there are disparities in sugar consumption, with for example 8% of total energy consumption in Norway compared to 17% in Spain. Intake varies not only by country and situation, but also by age (usually higher in children). (1)

Le sucre de les boissons dans les pays européens.

Figure 2: Sugar from beverages in European countries
Source : https://www.letemps.ch/sciences/sucre-sodas-suisses

3/ Health update, sugar myths.

Myth # 1: As long as you don’t get fat, you can eat sugar or the only problem with sugar is that it makes you fat.

It’s a misconception. The links between sugar consumption and various health problems are much more complex. According to a WHO report, it increases the risk of non-communicable diseases and is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease. Indirectly, it is linked to an unbalanced diet. Sugar not only makes you fat, it makes you sick.


Myth # 2: It’s better to eat sugar than saturated fat.

This is not what scientific studies suggest. In a  systematic review and meta-analysis [an analysis of a compilation of scientific studies], the researchers concluded that “current data do not support a recommendation for low consumption of saturated fatty acids”. While a relationship has been established with sugar and mortality from cardiovascular disease.


Myth # 3: In Switzerland we eat less sugar than our neighbours.

Switzerland is rather a bad student among its European neighbours with 110g of sugar per day and per person. For Italy it is 82g, France 91g and Spain 76g (1).

Ventes des boissons sucrées dans le monde

Figure 3. Sales of sugary drinks worldwide.
Source : https://iucpq.qc.ca/sites/default/files/communiquepresse_barometreiccr_final.pdf

Myth # 4 Sugar is not addictive.

It’s an open debate. Some researchers have published studies showing that the same parts of the brain in rats are activated by cocaine or heroin. Studies must still be carried out before concluding.


Myth # 5: Added sugars are necessary for the brain.

Glucose is essential for the brain, not added sugars! We can get everything we need from unprocessed, natural foods. We have seen it before, Man does very well without added sugar, he has done it even for centuries!


Myth # 6 glucose-fructose syrup is a good alternative to replace sugar.

This remains to be demonstrated. Studies claim that the health effect of glucose-fructose syrup is negative. While the concentration of glucose in the blood is regulated by insulin, fructose is metabolized only by the liver. The consumption of fructose would generate an accumulation of adipose tissue and lipids in different parts of the body. On the other hand, it would induce a feeling of less satiety.

4/ Environmental impact.

Finally, we must mention the environmental impact of sugar. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) foundation, sugar production has serious consequences for our air, soil, water and wildlife. One of the biggest concerns is that sweets pollute rivers. In addition, conventional production of sugar cane and sugar beets requires massive amounts of pesticides.

5/ The solutions.

If initiatives like the tax one in Geneva have an effect on limiting sugar in food, here are many actions that you can implement today:

References