A spoonful of sugar isn't really so bad

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

It's becoming an epidemic. An epidemic with long-reaching health effects. No, I'm not having a rant at sugar, here. The epidemic is sugar-free.

In 1942, the first war ration cards in New Zealand looked to regulate the amount of sugar consumed. The allowance was 12oz per person, per week, though this was increased during harvest seasons because of the need to preserve the fruit.

Twelve ounces a week equates to roughly 48g per day and current New Zealand guidelines recommend, in stern-looking charts, a maximum intake of 30g a day for those of us over the age of 11. I know this because I have the privilege of access to the internet, the privilege of time to research, of education and of finances to make food choices.

Well, that last one within reasonable limits. I couldn't afford, for example, to replace all the sugar in my baking with coconut sugar or honey. And I wouldn't, even if I could, because all that (insert quite a few expletives here) is part of the paradigm of hand-wringing worried-well dietary micromanagement that serves nobody very well. Plus, I've tried to help a neighbour make chutney without sugar and it was an unmitigated disaster. Just add sugar, sweetie.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that sugar, in excess, can be nasty for your teeth, your guts and your general wellbeing. And that it is vile how manufacturers can saturate their packaged food and market it at eye level to the tired, the rushed and the kids. And I absolutely have friends who have specific health concerns that have been specifically helped by a specific dietary approach. And this is not about them.

But I don't think sugar itself is demonic. In fact, as far as I understand it, on a very basic level, our bodies don't know if they're dealing with cane or coconut sugar. And they turn food into sugar in order to process it. And it breaks my heart to see primary schoolers either refusing a jam sandwich or stuffing their pockets full of lollies when nobody is looking because of what well-meaning people call their relationship with sugar. Teenagers who tell me that they won't be having a piece of cake, thank you, because their family is going sugar-free. And I don't bake bad cake. And this is not about the cake. Though licking the bowl of left-over cake mix has to rate among my favourite culinary activities. No. This is about the mental and physical health implications of this idiotic epidemic.

Sugar may create fertile breeding grounds for internal badness, but then so does sugar-free. In order to nurture an eating disorder, the few essential elements are disgust, judgement, rules and controls. Renee McGregor (actual clinical dietitian and not, like, self-promoting lifestyle guru) says that over the past 18 months, ''every single client with an eating disorder who walks into my clinic doors is either following or wants to follow a clean way of eating''. Orthorexia - obsession with a virtuous lifestyle - can be the icing and the cherry on the top of a sugar-free lifestyle. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. What kind of messed up society are we? Obesity and eating disorders both on the rise.

Add the modern disordered superiority spin of aspirationalism: ''Look at those fabulous strawberries! So naughty, and so delicious!''. So grown overseas and shipped here. So get-another-mortgage-to-afford-them. So judgemental, on so many levels. I mean, of course we're all Aspiring (not just because there's a plethora of Wanaka businesses named after the Englishified name of Tititea). We've learned well to be little economic units of constant improvement. But can we quit being all saccharinely mindful of the evils of sugar and get a bit of perspective here?

I'm not suggesting we should all go back to wartime preserving (though fruit-infused sugar syrup is a beautiful thing) and vege gardens and homemade bread in order to balance the national bioflora. Those all require time, money, education. Privilege. But we can do other things. Lobby for better labelling. For better education. Plant fruit trees in public places. Yes, even if apples are very high in fructose. Think about supporting a sugar tax. Think about how your government of choice would help perpetuate or alleviate poverty. Because food choices don't exist in a vacuum.

We are more than what we eat, what we consume. And ultimately, sugar-free is no real kind of freedom. It's the emperors new clothes of nutrition. It's a trap, a smokescreen, a collective, unsweet lie.


The more people collaborate to solve a problem, (but not collaborate with Nazis), the quicker things get done. This is collective purpose. The sugar free lie is shared narrative, an accepted norm. You can't pin that on the Peoples Collective. What has Norm ever done for us?