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Sugar-country senator defends sugar

Last week, Senator Boswell from Queensland launched a strong defence of the sugar industry in Federal Parliament (95% of Australia’s sugarcane is grown in Queensland). He opened his address to the Senate with the statement “Sugar is often at the heart of life’s celebration.”

If you’ve ever had to deal with the excess energy in children caused by sugar consumption, followed by the worse behaviour caused by the blood-sugar low afterwards, you may agree with me that sugar is not worth it. Yesterday at my daughter’s parent-teacher interview the teacher said that she can always look around a group of children who are behaving badly in the morning and identify those who ate a sugar-laden breakfast. So although sugar may be at the heart of life’s celebrations it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, as there are many sugar alternatives that still provide sweetness without the ill effects on body and mind. Granted, not all sugar alternatives are safe but some, such as xylitol and erythritol, seem fine and at least until research suggests otherwise that is what we use for our children’s indulgences. Erythritol, for example, is 60–70% as sweet as table sugar yet it is almost non-caloric, does not affect blood sugar, does not cause tooth decay, and occurs naturally in some fruits.

Senator Boswell also tried to hinge his defence of sugar on the dubious and meaningless claim that “Sugar is a safe ingredient. It is a natural part of our life and culture. It is a natural product made from plants and cultivated in soil.”. There are countless “natural products” that grow on plants that are unambiguously dangerous and outright inedible. But I suspect the image that the Senator was attempting to conjure up is one of  sugar being something like an organic vegetable one might find at a farmers market, rather than a highly-refined product spawned from industrial processes.

Considering that the sugar-cane industry in Australia uses a host of pesticides to control pests and diseases (which cost the industry $111M in 1996), Boswell’s claim that sugar being natural and cultivated in soil is not overly persuasive. Sugar undergoes many steps during refining process so that refined sugar cannot really be considered as a “natural product” any more than vodka, which also derives from plants cultivated in soil.


Processes used to refine sugar. Source:

Boswell’s next claim is a good one and centres around the importance of the sugar-cane industry to the economy of Australia. According to Canegrowers Australia the Australian sugar-cane industry:

  • is the 3rd largest raw sugar supplier in world;
  • is the 7th largest agricultural exporter in Australia; and
  • generates $1.7 – $2 billion value of production.

While it’s true that the sugar industry is undoubtedly making an enormous input to Australia’s economy, it must be asked at what cost. Boswell (or rather his clever speech writers) blasts popular writers for damning sugar without substantial evidence. In response to his claim I state the following indisputable facts:

  1. Refined sugar (simple carbohydrate) has no nutritional value beyond it’s high calorie content;
  2.  The modern western diet is high in calories;
  3. Consumption of refined sugar causes increased blood sugar content and subsequent release of insulin;
  4. Excess carbohydrates are converted to fat and stored in adipose tissue in a process called lipogenesis; and
  5. There has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity and diabetes worldwide.

Boswell may be right that there is insufficient evidence as to whether sugar is ‘toxic’ but the list of five facts presented above should at the least make one wonder: if decreasing carbohydrate intake, and especially sugars, could help to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes then isn’t it wise to try it?

If the popular writers who condemn sugar as toxic really do believe that it is behind many of society’s ills are they not then obliged to speak out for the public good? Even if they do entertain doubts, keeping silent simply to protect the sugar industry is neither appropriate nor responsible.

The final argument in Boswell’s speech is that in moderation sugar is fine and as evidence he cites Nutrition Australia spokesperson Aloysa Hourigan, who apparently stated (but I can’t find the original source) that ‘It is not the fact we are eating sugar; it is the amount of sugar and the amount of food we consume in total,’ Ms Hourigan said. ‘It is our total energy intake that’s the biggest problem. We need to cut our portions down.’ I completely agree that everything should be taken in moderation. Personally I avoid sugar but I think it’s best to be balanced and moderate in everything.

Importantly, given the uncertain role of sugar consumption in the promotion of obesity and diabetes and the fact that sugar is a nutritionally empty food item it makes sense to at least entertain the notion that individuals, and society, can only benefit by reducing or eliminating refined sugar altogether, particularly when there are so many alternatives ranging from honey and dried fruit to stevia and erythritol.

This recipe, for example, was promoted at my kid’s school by the Red Cross. These apricot balls are easy to make (to the point that apart from operating the food processor the kids can do it all themselves) and doesn’t require any added (refined) sugar … the apricots and sultanas have more than enough. Not only do they freeze well and make great lunch-box treats but with the addition of some cocoa and maybe Cointreau they make nice treats for adults too…

Apricot Coconut Balls


1 cup dried apricots (other dried fruits work well here)
1/2 cup desiccated coconut
1/2 cup milk powder
1/4 cup oat bran
2 tbsp water
1/2 cup sultana (optional, other dried fruits also work well here)


  1. Process ingredients in a food processor.
  2. Get the kids to make them into balls without eating them all at once.

More info here:


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