The Environmental Impact of “Too Much Sugar”

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.

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also

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