The sour truth about sugar

Bernardo Montes de Oca

Some experts say the consequences could be worse than cocaine. I’m talking about sugar consumption, and though we thought otherwise, it’s not a good outlook. The risks have always been there. In fact, even though we now know more about them, things are getting worse. After years of less sugar intake, the tide has turned, and we’re consuming it more than ever. In 2022, globally, we consumed 178 million metric tons of sugar. For comparison, that’s 43 times the world’s heaviest building, the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. So, it should be no surprise that many are racing to change this, and startups could be the key to a healthier future. 

Our relationship with sugar isn’t easy, mainly because it can be geopolitical. As rich countries embrace healthier products and less sugar, major companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo must find new markets. Unfortunately, those end up being the poorer countries that fall victim to more sugar. In 2022, markets such as Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia saw the most growth for Coca-Cola, while Europe grew less than 1%. The strategy is straightforward: sell the products cheaply, and get people hooked on them. 

These same countries, which consume more sugar, are those with prevailing health conditions 70% of children under 12 in India have cavities, and that number balloons up to 95% in the Philippines. Chile, one of the world’s highest sugar consumers, has seen obesity double in the past ten years with around 40% of the country’s population being obese. Cavities and obesity are only part of a more significant problem. Excessive sugar consumption increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Take Type 2 diabetes as an example. The number of people diagnosed with this condition has quadrupled since 1980, from 108 million to 462 million in 2017. This is one of the fronts that many startups are taking head-on. Breathe Well-being is one such example. The Indian startup offers alternatives to medicine to prevent, manage, and sometimes send diabetes into remission, which can be lifesaving. It has the ambitious goal of helping one million people in India enter diabetic remission by 2025. However, the problem with these startups is that they only aim at the consequences of sugar consumption, and the situation worsens.

Some people are trying. Governments have gone out of their way to highlight the risks associated with sugar. Many countries have attempted to curb sugar consumption by taxing products with excessive sugar. Mexico, a country struggling with an obesity epidemic finally managed to tax sugary beverages in 2017. By 2020, it showed positive results in reduced consumption and a slight improvement in the population’s health. For a while, it seemed the strategy had worked as we were actually reducing our consumption six years ago. In 2016, it was 173 million metric tons, dropping to 170 in 2019. However, after the pandemic, the world sped up its craving for a sugar rush, and companies didn’t hesitate to provide it. 

This is the reason why some soda startups welcome a sugar tax, even if it impacts them directly. Karma Cola was born in New Zealand with another goal in mind. The founders, Simon Coley and brothers Matt and Chris Morrison, wanted to create an ethical, organic soda where everything from the cola nuts to the production was as sustainable as possible. So when the idea of implementing a tax began circulating, they welcomed it even if it meant consuming less of their product. That’s because the startup sees its drinks as a treat, not a beverage. 

Then, there’s the effort we’ve seen for years: sugar substitutes. From the earliest days of aspartame to stevia’s rise to popularity, these products have been the go-to for reducing sugar. The problem is that, just like sugar, we’ve also discovered the risks behind these substitutes. Aspartame, for example, has been linked with severe health risks such as depression, insomnia, and, yes, Type 2 diabetes. So, while we’ve had replacements for years, they still need finetuning, and that’s where startups come in. 

More than 120 startups are trying to develop the next best sugar substitute. One example is Mexican Startup Xilinat, which uses corn waste to produce a sweetener with 75% fewer carbohydrates and 40% fewer calories. Most importantly, it doesn’t require insulin, making it ideal for people with diabetes. Likewise, Resugar is an Israeli startup that has created a sugar substitute with 70% less sugar content. However, it can still have a one-to-one replacement ratio for cooking, which is a first. In fact, their recipe is so successful that it has landed millions in funding and even a deal with Nestlé-Froneri, to produce reduced-sugar products. 

It seemed, just years ago, that we were changing our sugary ways. Instead, we’ve regressed as companies, such as Coca-Cola, make massive efforts to keep us hooked on sugar, and they’ve accomplished it. Excellent marketing and low prices can outperform any health warning. It’s not that we’re ignorant of the dangers; we know about them and see them firsthand. 

Unfortunately, in an uneven distribution, some countries feel the burden more than others. So, in light of these corporate giants refusing to help, our healthier future is in the hand of startups that do want to be part of the change. So much so that some giants are looking to them for guidance. 

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Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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