With the fight against chronic non-communicable diseases seemingly a never-ending and unwinnable battle, it is apparent that one of the foundations on which Barbados was built, is at the core of most of our health issues.
Before tourism became the prop on which Barbados’ economy was built, sugar cane was king and the industry was our most important foreign exchange earner. But its domestic consumption in several manifestations can now be linked to all the headaches Barbados faces with chronic non-communicable diseases.
While it is true that efforts have been made to reduce the level of sugar intake at the primary school level, it seems that this is not good enough. Indeed, there is a school of thought that if Barbados is truly serious about combatting chronic non-communicable diseases the sugar industry should exist only for export purposes and the product should never see the light of day in Barbadian homes in any form ever again. While that might seem far-fetched, medical researchers paint such a dismal picture of sugar that Barbadians have seemingly been drinking and eating themselves into a variety of illnesses and early graves.
Noted American scientist and author of the bestseller Never Be Sick Again, Dr Raymond Francis, describes sugar as a deadly metabolic poison that throws the body’s naturally balanced biochemistry out of sync. He stresses that sugar breaks down the body’s immune system and leaves it susceptible to any number of chronic ailments. He explained that one teaspoon of sugar had the potential to reduce one’s immunity by 50 per cent within two hours. He noted that sugar in fruits was acceptable but in items such as processed fruit juices it occasioned too much bioavailable sugar and led to a sugar spike in one’s blood.
The octogenarian has suggested that sugar intake was a major cause of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and a number of other ailments. As to the quantity of processed sugar which should be allowed, he suggested that none should be used. Indeed, Dr Francis said children were not allowed to buy or use cigarettes or alcohol but were allowed to buy sugar products like candy despite the fact that such sweets posed a greater threat to health than cigarettes or alcohol. Sugar, he suggested, should be totally outlawed.
But Dr Francis’ is not the only voice that has been singing this song. Some Barbadian medical practitioners have previously warned our population about the dangers posed by sugar. Their advice has seen efforts by Government to reduce the availability of sweet drinks at primary schools as well as public relations initiatives geared towards reducing the sale and intake of sugar-based products at schools generally.
Some medical professionals such as Holland’s Paul van der Velpen, head of the Amsterdam Public Health Service, have suggested that in the same manner that warnings are placed on tobacco products, similar warnings should be placed on all products that contain processed sugar. He described sugar as highly addictive with persons finding it just as difficult to rid themselves of the urge for sweet drinks and sweet edibles, as it was to quit prohibited non-prescription drugs.
“Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. There is an important role for government. The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers. This may seem exaggerated and far-fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of the times and can still be easily acquired everywhere,” Van der Velpen once wrote on his state’s public health website.
But if sugar is so deadly, perhaps as addictive and dangerous a substance as crack cocaine, why has the campaign against it been so muted? The answer more than likely resides in the fact that sugar is big business – billion-dollar legitimate business. The global soft drink industry is massive. The confectionery industry is massive. The rum industry is massive. The chocolate powder and malt beverage industries are massive. In addition to providing sponsorship to a number of social activities, these industries are represented by powerful interest groups that do nothing to harm their sustainability and do everything to maximize damage control.
Indeed, many companies often implement strategies to mask the fact that their products contain a surfeit of that deadly, addictive sugar. Therefore, one goes into the supermarket and purchases products that contain exotic-sounding ingredients such as fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, glucose and dextrose. But in essence, these products simply contain sugar, sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Many providers of sports and energy supplements are among the main culprits. Their products are loaded with sugar, which athletes might burn during their exercise routines, but it comes at the expense of potentially undermining their immune system and continuing their addiction to the product.
But how can countries such as Barbados get a handle on this situation? It will call for revolutionary lifestyle changes. We frequently talk too much and act too little. We must be more knowledgeable and guarded about what goes into our mouths. Unfortunately, the important subject of chronic non-communicable diseases is often discussed over muffins, a slice of cake, a cup of hot chocolate and the occasional rum and coke. In essence, we need a culture shock.