Sugar is helpful to the body if taken in moderation, write Latif Busari and Abdullahi Yunusa

The media in several countries have been awash in recent years with feature articles, opinions and so-called scientific information on the impact of the consumption of sugar on human health. Some even go as far as to label it “poison” or “toxin”. These have led to debates, discussions, claims and counter claims on sugar consumption and its implications on human health.

Interestingly, the debates and arguments have kept stakeholders in the sector on their toes as they continue to engage each other at different fora on how best to address concerns of interested parties. Issues relating to sugar and health have featured prominently in the yearly editions of the International Sugar Organization (ISO). The ISO provides the global platform where policymakers, sugar producers, trading houses and investors meet to deliberate on critical issues such as sugar and health, prices, production, consumption, regulation and other sundry issues considered important to the sector.

For obvious reasons, Nigeria also has her own fair share of these controversies, given that we also produce and consume sugar as a nation. Quite a number of articles, opinions and documentaries on sugar and health written by Nigerians are available on the internet. Nigeria cannot afford to either keep mute or look the other way as the rest of the world continues to make concerted efforts to address the plethora of issues associated with sugar. In this regard, as done in other climes, facts and superior arguments are the major tools with which policymakers in the sugar sector adopt to address the concerns of everyone.

Authorities in the nation’s sugar industry aren’t unaware of the issues relating to sugar consumption and health. The National Sugar Development Council (NSDC) as the body saddled with the responsibility of regulating the sector is not resting on its oars in its efforts to address these concerns. To this end, it has taken it upon itself to engage medical experts, nutritionists and other relevant stakeholders to provide up to date information and statistics to tell if sugar can indeed be held culpable for certain health challenges such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, infertility and other associated ailments.

Only recently, as part of its sensitization drive and the need to highlight facts and myths associated with sugar consumption, the NSDC held a one-day sugar sensitization forum with the theme; Sugar and Your Health: Facts and Myths. The event drew participants from both the public and private sectors as well as health practitioners and operators of sugar companies across the country. Well-researched papers were delivered by experts from reputable universities and medical institutions.

While declaring the one-day event open in Ibadan, Oyo State, the Executive Secretary, National Sugar Development Council (NSDC), Dr. Latif D. Busari, said available facts on ground show that sugar intake in Nigeria was relatively low compared to other countries of the world. He queried unproven claims that normal sugar consumption could be responsible for health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Dr. Busari who said there was the need to educate the public on the real causes of various health challenges wrongfully being solely associated with sugar consumption, noted that from available facts bad eating habits, heredity, sedentary lifestyle and ignorance are to blame largely for some of the health issues being laid on the doorstep of sugar. He said, “according to the International Sugar Organization data (ISO, 2018), Nigeria and Benin Republic have the lowest per capita sugar consumption figure in West Africa of about 6.9kg per annum, while Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire have the highest figures of 18kg and 12.1kg respectively.

“On the basis of per capita consumption, indeed for Nigeria, we are not taking enough sugar. Nigeria’s per capita consumption has been dwindling since 2008 when it was 11.2kg to 8.6kg in 2013 and 8.1kg in 2015. Compared to these, per capita consumption in India is 19.8kg, 33.7kg in the U.S., 35.2kg in the EU countries,” he stated.

He said by implication, Nigeria is among the lowest sugar consuming nations in Africa and indeed the world, and at least for the country the causes of ailments such as diabetes and obesity have to be located elsewhere.

“It is good that Nigerians are still moderate in their sugar intake but we believe as Sugar Council that it is not enough and we can still go up to 15 or 18 kilograms per cap without any serious health implication once the real facts surrounding sugar consumption are separated from the myths,’’ Dr. Busari said.

In a paper titled, “Sugar and Your Health-Facts and Myths”, a Consultant Endocrinologist from the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Dr. Kola Olarinoye, said sugar isn’t as bad as often portrayed. He said “sugars are one of the three macronutrients that supply energy for the body. Most foods contain these three nutrients but in various proportions. Sugars are important in the diet and form part of a healthy eating plan, so you cannot do without sugars,” he said.

Dwelling on the health benefits of sugar, Dr. Olarionye said, “It is commonly said that sugar is dangerous to health. This may not be an absolute truth, but people are advised not to consume too much sugar because too much of everything is bad. Sugar is indispensable for maintenance of nervous system integrity, takes part in detoxification process as well as provides extracellular structural support”.

On the link between sugar consumption and diabetes, the endocrinologist noted that “some clinical studies have indeed linked the rising consumption of soft drinks to the present epidemic of obesity and diabetes milletus among children and adolescents.” But in refuting this he said, there is “no causal relationship between intake of sugar and diabetes, but there is an association between consumption and obesity, diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome”.

On how much of sugar one should take, he said, “the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that added sugars make up no more than 10 per cent of an adult’s daily calorie intake. For a 2000-calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories a day should come from added sugars; that’s about 12 teaspoons or 48 grams of sugar”. He said dietary recommendation according to the American Heart Association (AHA) holds there should be “no added sugar for children younger than age two, no more than 100 sugar calories from added sugar per day for children older than age two and most women and no more than 150 calories from added sugar a day for most men”.

Speaking on the topic; “Sugar and Nutrition: what does the evidence say?” a nutritionist with the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Dr. Mrs. Aderibigbe Olaide, said sugar provides energy to muscles and acts as a source of energy for the brain and nervous system. On sugar consumption, Dr. Olaide said, “Like most things in life, as long as you eat sugar in moderation it can only provide some sweet benefits. A healthy diet that supports productivity must include sugar”.

“Sugar intake is solely not responsible for its harmful effects on human health, but general hereditary imbalance, other lifestyle factors and improper functioning of glands and organs”.

From the discourse at the forum, it was well established that the human body needs sugar to function optimally. But the caveat remains, like any other food or anything in life, excessive intake of sugar impacts nutrition and health negatively, especially when certain metabolic processes within the body are impaired. So, this should lay to rest the unsubstantiated claims that sugar is completely harmful to human beings and should be avoided. No conclusive scientific proof on this claim is available.

•Busari and Yunusa wrote from Garki, Abuja