New Internationalist

Perilous Pleasure

Issue 363

People can easily get confused about sugar. We are supposed to. The sugar pushers go to great lengths to make us – and keep us – that way. Though the science may be complex, the truth is simple: refined ‘free’ sugar is not food.1

What is sugar?

  • Sugar takes several forms, most commonly fructose in fruit and vegetables, lactose in milk, and refined or ‘pure’ sucrose extracted from sugarcane or beet.

  • Sucrose – C12H22O11 – is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and is classified as a carbohydrate: carbon and water.

  • The metabolism of all sugars supplies energy, measured as calories, to the human body.

  • Unlike fructose or lactose, sucrose provides only ‘empty’ or ‘naked’ calories, without any nutrients at all.

What does it do to your body?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) say: ‘Higher intake of “free” sugars – added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices – threatens the nutrient quality of diets by providing significant energy without specific nutrients… Drinks that are rich in free sugars increase overall energy intake by reducing appetite control.’

  • Sucrose is not digested in the mouth or stomach but passes directly to the lower intestines and thence to the bloodstream and the brain.

  • Unused calories are stored as fat.

  • When starches and refined sugars are eaten together and undergo fermentation they are broken down into carbon dioxide, acetic acid, alcohol and water. With the exception of water, all these are unusable substances – poisons.

  • Sugar unbalances the endocrine system, which includes the adrenal glands, pancreas and liver, causing the blood-sugar level to fluctuate widely.

Does it make you sick?

Good health relies on physical fitness and a ‘balanced’ diet that delivers all the nutrients the body needs – no fewer and no more. Balance is normally maintained by appetite. Because sucrose acts upon the appetite it unbalances diet, contributing to a great many chronic conditions.


There is no precise definition of obesity, which relates to the individual. But there is general agreement that a Body Mass Index (your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared) of at least 17 is essential, while 30 or more constitutes obesity. There is overwhelming evidence that a high intake of energy-dense foods – combined with reduced physical activity – promotes weight gain. Energy-dense foods tend to be high in fat, sugars or starch. Obesity is a causal factor in many serious conditions that affect the entire human body.


The exact causes of diabetes are still not fully understood. There are two types. Type 1 develops when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas – which help to regulate blood-sugar levels – have been destroyed. It usually affects younger people. Type 2 usually appears in older people when the body no longer responds normally to its own insulin and/or does not produce enough insulin. People who are overweight are particularly likely to develop type 2 diabetes.


Processed foods, to which ‘free’ sugars are frequently added, displace from the diet fruit and vegetables, which contain essential nutrients that help to prevent heart and circulation disease.


Sugars are the most important dietary factor in the development of dental caries (decay). Bacteria in plaque around teeth metabolize sugars rapidly, creating local areas of high acidity which erode tooth enamel. Brushing is too late to prevent this. Although fluoride helps to strengthen the enamel, tooth decay from sugar still occurs.


Infants develop a predilection for the sugar that is present in both breast and formula milk. This predilection, if satisfied with sucrose, readily becomes habit-forming.


Increased overgrowth of the candida yeast organism; increased chronic fatigue, anxiety, irritability and possibly some serious mental conditions as well.

  1. Sources in print: Technical Report Series 916: Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Disease, Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation, Geneva 2003. William Dufty, Sugar Blues, Time Warner, New York, 1975.
    Sources on the internet:

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This article was originally published in issue 363

New Internationalist Magazine issue 363
Issue 363

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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