The New Killer in Town

It is everywhere. It is packaged in all shapes, sizes and colours that attract instant attention.

No age is exempt from its utterly, ensnaringly tempting appeal. So much so that it is truly addictive: the young naturally get hooked, but many cannot resist even when they are older. Tantalisingly wrapped, it is given away as present on all and sundry occasions, and brings much delight despite its potential threat.

After fat and salt, sugar has been added to the list of killers that threaten the people living in the modern world. Their hallmark is that they do not kill directly or quickly – they lure you through your taste buds, work their way to your stomach, sneak into your body after being digested there and in your intestines, and wreak havoc if they happen to be present in amounts that exceed the needs of your body for energy and nutrients.

I am reminded of the words of a philosopher, that the tongue (which contains the taste buds) is the one organ that can be the source of both our joy and our misery, depending on how we use it. Because we eat and we speak through it – therefore what and how much we eat, and what words and how we speak them can lead to a make-or-break difference in our lives, as we all know from our own experience. Hence the expressions ‘evil tongue’, ‘forked tongue’, ‘eat/swallow your words’.

For that matter, haven’t we heard even in our august National Assembly the colourful ‘tombe dehors to pou guette’? I will digress briefly to caution readers against being unduly fooled by the bits of cross-party parliamentary incivility in the Westminster model of politics that we have adopted, because there is the local equivalent of what happens in the British Parliament, as ‘Lexington’ portrays in The Economist of August 13th 2011: ‘After they heap scorn and vitriol upon one another in the debating chamber, members of the British Parliament retire companionably together to the bars and tea rooms of the Palace of Westminster. Friendships across party lines are easy, because the next election is generally years away.’ Further, ‘British politicians accept the rules of a simple game: the ruling party governs (occasionally in coalition) while the opposition bides its time.’ During which makes and remakes can be played out, be in wind/rewind or other modes depending on moods and swings.

In the same issue of the magazine there is a book review on the sugar trade. Headlined ‘Sweet and rich’, the book’s title is ‘The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies’ (by Matthew Parker). It opens with the remark that ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the foundations of the modern globalised world were made of sugar,’ starting from the 15th century when ‘Europeans first encountered its sweet delights.’ It goes on to point out how large tracts of land were seized in the Caribbeans and South America, and refers to the ‘formidable families’ who were behind the sugar trade, how the ‘wealth that came from sugar was extraordinary’ and ‘the “plantocracy” accumulated massive fortunes.’

Let’s face it: we cannot but succumb to whatever is sweet. The challenge that the World Health Organisation, through guidelines on sugar consumption that it has recently released, poses to us ‘how sweet?’ As one of the generation that has vivid and oh-so-sweet memories of white sugar-crystal coated sucre d’orge, pastilles limon, gateau costé, piaou, gateau patate dripping with tongue-licking syrup, gateau napolitaine, laddu, gulab jamun – and who along with many, indeed many, others of our generation are still alive and kicking, I feel I am justified in asking what is the fuss all about?

Here I must perforce shed my doctor’s cap – though further on I will have to put it on again. Not before noting that our range of sweetmeats has expanded almost exponentially to include such irresistible tongue-teasers as barfi, ras malai, genoise, black forest to name but a few.

I mean, what’s wrong with these guys? Do they want to make us all become bitter – is that preferable to being sweet? Unfortunately, we have to resign ourselves to accept that their intentions are honourable, as they want to save us from ourselves. There are fashions in medicine also, and the current one is focused on sugar – or, rather, its restriction. Because, along with salt and fat, sugar is now an accomplice in the production of a number of diseases which slowly but surely gnaw away at our insides. They will eventually kill, but along the way they maim, cause a lot of suffering and distress to the individual and then his family.

Everyone has heard about the diseases and conditions associated with these threesome (fat, salt, sugar): obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, acne, headaches, fatigue, aching joints, aggressive behaviour, and tooth cavities, mental fogginess, decreased immune strength and many more. So WHO now advises that no more than 5% of our total daily calories (2000 for the average adult) should come from sugar, as against the currently recommended 10% or less. 5% is equivalent to about 25 grams of sugar (100 calories, 6 ¼ teaspoons), so each teaspoon contains about 4 grams of sugar.

The bulk of the sugar moderns consume is found in what is considered to be the biggest culprit: processed foods. The implication is that, for one, it would be better for us to meet our sugar needs in the form of natural foods and, two, (TIME Magazine, March 24, 2014) ‘in the long run, the onus to reduce sugar consumption may fall on the food industry.’ TIME accompanies its article with pictures of examples of processed foods and the amount of sugar (in grams) that they contain. Even a frozen pizza contains sugar – as much as 26 grams!

Sugar is highly addictive, says WHO, observing that ‘the worst culprits of added sugars come from soft drinks, energy drinks, juice drinks, and “designer” coffee drinks.’ It gives an indicative list: 1 Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino (Grande) = 64 grams sugar; 1 Rockstar Energy Drink = 62 grams sugar; 1 Tropicana Tropical Fruit Fury Twister (kids drink) = 60 grams sugar, and adds that ‘the next group of offenders would be sugar and candy, then cakes, cookies and pies, fruit drinks, dairy and non-dairy frozen desserts (ice cream, sorbet), milk, and crackers.’

WHO therefore recommends: ‘Aim to nurture your sweet tooth only through fresh fruits as much as possible…you will also get vitamins, minerals, and fibre.’ It recognizes that ‘Getting off the sugar isn’t easy’ because ‘it’s highly addictive – some say as addictive as cocaine.’ But it’s worth the gamble because ‘Your health, your body, and your mind will thank you for years to come.’

Are we prepared to restrict sugar, fat, salt? It’s all about exercising control over our tongues, and that control comes from the mind, based on knowledge of what is good and what is bad for us. Long list of do’s and don’ts. Which we can simplify by adopting the Buddha’s advice of following the ‘Middle Path’: moderation in everything. Along with doing regular exercise, preferably in the open, not only to burn any excess calories, but also and as if not more importantly, to ‘connect’ with nature and bond with friends we meet with in the process.

I just remembered: I must renew my stock of black chocolate, and finish that fenousse bought the other day. And do an additional round tomorrow morning. Bon appétit to all.

 


* Published in print edition on 28 March 2014

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