Sugar remains one of the most dangerous sweeteners the world has ever known, considering its link to many non-communicable diseases. While it is pleasant to our taste buds, it also harms the human system when abused. Sometimes, you don’t even have to abuse it before your health begins to respond negatively to its impact on your system.
In both orthodox and alternative medical practices, sugar has been linked to diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, which sets in when one’s body struggles to metabolise glucose. Perhaps the most dangerous dimension of sugar’s harmfulness to the human community all over the world is the fact that even children are not spared from its wrath. This is especially so in an age of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and ultra-processed foods and beverage products (UPPs).
In children, sugar contained in SSBs have been found to cause obesity and tooth decay and these can negatively impact many aspects of their health and wellbeing, including cognition and interpersonal relationships. Children with decaying dentition can become subjects of mockery and derision, which can also affect their self-esteem. The same is applicable to obese children, who can also be subjects of body-shaming. More so, obese children may not be able to actively participate in physical education or sporting activities, due to their tendency to be inactive and slow.
The existence of many popular and widely-consumed sugar-sweetened beverages means that the battle against sugar will assume a sophisticated dimension, if any meaningful progress is to be made in safeguarding the health of consumers. This will inevitably involve consumer health education and warnings through product labelling.
With an estimated 11.2 million people living with diabetes in Nigeria, there is an urgent need for all stakeholders to fashion ways out of this public health quagmire. For Dr Akin Dada, consultant endocrinologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, diabetes is the second most prevalent non-communicable disease in Nigeria and is strongly linked to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially when there is a family history and the presence of other risk factors.
Therefore, the urgency of preventive actions becomes expedient in the face of the humongous profits SSB companies are making, year in, year out, at the expense of the health of consumers. In 2022, Coca Cola’s global revenue was 43 billion dollars, representing 11.25 per cent increase from 2021.
It is also important that one of the factors that contribute to the rising revenues of SSBs remains their consistent investments in advertising and branding, which have in turn become tools of cajoling consumers into making buying decisions. This has, in fact, been a subject of litigations across the globe, with many civil society organisations suing the likes of Coca-Cola to court, for using deceptive advertising to lure consumers without labelled warnings that could prevent instinctive buying.
The Praxis Project, a national non-profit organisation that works in partnership with national, regional, state, and local partners to achieve health equity and justice for all communities in the United States, had filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association for trying to prevent efforts aimed at curtailing the dangerous impact of sugar-sweetened beverages in those communities. Some of the demands of the Praxis Project from the America Beverage Association were: stop “shaking down” state legislatures to pass laws that pre-empt local soda taxes and stop funding research and advocacy designed to shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.
While such civil society and advocacy groups are more interested in the health of consumers, SSB manufacturers are more interested in profit, even as the cases of sugar-induced non-communicable diseases continue to rise globally. High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, tooth decay and some cancers have been linked to the abuse of sugar, hence the clamour for healthier dietary choices.
In Nigeria, similar advocacy efforts have yielded positive results with the sugar-sweetened beverage tax (SSB tax) being passed into law, as contained in the Finance Act of 2021. Civil society organisations like Gatefield Impact and the National Action on Sugar Reduction (NASR) have done well in this regard and can be credited as masterminds of SSB tax with the primary aim of reducing the prevalence of non-communicable diseases linked with sugar-sweetened beverages consumption. Even though there are concerns that the 10 naira per litre of every sugar-sweetened beverage tax may not be significant enough to instigate deterrence, some stakeholders believe it is a laudable starting point that could get better in due course.
In the words of Dr Patrick Ijewere, CEO, The Nutrition Hospital, Ikoyi, Lagos, “We have to return to the Garden of Eden in our choices of nutrition. The more we consume processed foods, the farther we drift from nature.” Instead of sugar-sweetened beverages, a homemade fresh fruit smoothie may be a healthier recipe.