In April last year, South African scientist Professor Tim Noakes was found not guilty of misconduct, by the Health Professions Council of South Africa, following a hearing after a report made against him in 2014 by then president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, Claire Julsing-Strydom for advising a mother on Twitter to wean her child onto low-carb, high-fat foods. The charge brought against Prof Noakes was that he violated medical ethics by giving allegedly unconventional professional advice on Twitter.
Prof Noakes is a proponent of the school of thought that carbohydrates, mainly sugars, are the main culprits in the contraction of non-communicable diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gout and depression among others. Sugar had also long been pegged as the cause of tooth decay and gum disease.
It was a path recommended by the late Dr Robert Atkins, who founded the Atkins Diet as well as an empire that included books and a wide range of branded products. The company Atkins Nutritional Inc folded in 2005, two years after Dr Atkins died, but the low carbohydrates movement has continued to grow.
While not following Atkins per se, more and more discerning persons are refraining from refined sugars, which include brown and white sugars, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup among others and sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol for example. Some are going cold turkey no sugar, while others are moving towards non-caloric sweeteners such as stevia and saccharin.
This shift has not yet seen any drastic change in the incidence of non-communicable diseases, because the fact is that for as many persons as go off sugar another, perhaps two more, take their place. Studies have shown that sugar is addictive and that it affects the brain. While some researchers have come to the conclusion that sugar’s addictive qualities are as compulsive as cocaine, others feel that such statements could be seen as exaggerated. However, Dr Alan Greene, a world-renowned pediatrician and author, was quoted in 2016 as saying, “Medical addiction changes brain chemistry to cause binging, craving, withdrawal symptoms, and sensitization. Excess added sugar can do this too, through changes in the same pathways as addiction to amphetamines or alcohol. Sugar addiction could be an even harder habit to break, according to recent evidence about how added sugar affects our stress hormones.”
For over two decades now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been advising that individuals should reduce their intake of “free sugars” to lower their risk of obesity and tooth decay. According to the WHO, free sugars are those added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as those naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. However, it does not go as far as linking sugar consumption with other lifestyle diseases, nor does it refer to the addiction correlation.
Based on all of the evidence and advice, the general consensus has to be that refined sugar despite its prevalence in our lives not only does nothing for our bodies but can cause actual harm. The question of how something so wrong can taste so right can be asked but may never really be answered. The experts believe that tastes are learned and can be unlearned; palates can be taught to appreciate the natural sweet flavours occurring in foods sans additives.
The WHO has been encouraging governments to make public health interventions that would see proper nutrition labelling, restricting advertising of sugar additive foods to children and to work with local manufacturers to have them reduce free sugars in the foods they are processing. However, at the end of the day, it will be individual choices that matter. Clearly no one can be or will be forced to change they way they consume food. Hopefully given the correct information, people will make the right choices.