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The Environmental Impact of “Too Much Sugar”

| Friday December 9th, 2011 | 2 Comments

Today I read an excellent article by Tom Laksawy in Grist about the amount of sugar in kids’ cereal. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report that highlighted the worst offenders. Some of these cereals contain more than half their weight in sugar and millions of children eat them for breakfast everyday. Read Tom’s article to get the specifics, I’m interested in the ‘impact of too much.’

Sugar, just like everything else, has a carbon footprint. Sugar is widely produced in 121 countries world-wide and has a global production of over 120 million tons. Sugar cane accounts for 70% of sugar produced and 30 percent of sugar is produced from sugar beet.

A couple of years back British Sugar calculated that 0.6g of CO2 is produced for every gram of sugar. The carbon footprint of sugar not only takes into account the extraction process but also cultivation of the crop, fertilizers and, transportation.

More recently, researchers in Brazil released a report highlighting the carbon footprint of sugar. They said that 241 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent was released to the atmosphere for every ton of sugar produced. According to them, 44 percent of the emissions resulted from residues burning; about 20 percent from synthetic fertilizers and 18 percent from fossil fuel combustion.  All this means that adding more sugar to a food product not only affects the consumer’s health but also affects the environment. So why do food companies do it?

One reason is to keep the food tasting good. The second is that sugary foods make you crave more sugary foods, thereby keeping you in the loop of constant eating which is profitable for them. You’ll notice that when most food companies talk about CSR activities, they focus on sourcing Organic or Fairtrade, or they discuss operational improvements to reduce their carbon footprint. Rarely do they discuss reducing the amount of sugar in their products all together. The lack of attention to sugar content affects the carbon footprint of the product in addition to the health of their customers.

Choosing a food product that has ‘more’ of something also affects something else down the line – either your waistline or the planet. One serving of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks contains about 20g of sugar which is equivalent to almost five teaspoons. The FDA recommends only about 10 teaspoons of sugar for adults in their daily diet. Choosing products with just the adequate amount of extraneous nutrients like sugar, salt and fat could go a long way towards making the planet healthier.

Image Credit: Zanastardust. Wikimedia Commons.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gina-Marie-Cheeseman/549880965 Gina-Marie Cheeseman

    Good article! Sugar is highly addictive, and there needs to be national outrage about the insidious hold that the sugar industry has over us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Philip-Meagher/100003149194167 Philip Meagher

    There was an interesting article a while back at the Health Journal Club that took the position that you just should avoid anything that wasn’t actually a food one hundred years ago, see
    http://healthjournalclub.com/the-100-year-diet/
    reading this, it makes a lot more sense