Book Review: Sugar: The Silent Killer by Damyanti Datta

‘Sugar: The Silent Killer’ unravels the unsavoury side of India’s favourite carbohydrate

It may be a birthday or a festival or a joyous occasion, but Indian households can’t have enough of sugar. We live in a country where sugar is considered to be an auspicious part of our lives rather than just a grocery on your kitchen shelf. Sample this: India’s packaged sweets market crossed Rs 5,230 crore in 2022. These numbers don’t lie but there’s a truth about sugar that most of us either don’t know or conveniently ignore. Sugar and its various forms – especially refined sugar – can lead to metabolic and healthcare challenges

No sugar coating, just the hard truth 

In her new book ‘Sugar: The Silent Killer’, Damyanti Datta doesn’t sugar-coat the truth and presents the unsavoury side of sugar with the desired impact. That being said, what’s different about the book is that it isn’t a multi-pronged attack on sugar where self-proclaimed health experts dole out unsolicited and unverified advice. The book is a deep dive into consumption patterns, agricultural systems, and economic factors that have been instrumental in shaping the sugar industry. For instance, Datta highlights how technological adoption, the use of high-yielding seeds, and chemical fertilizers played a role in reducing the consumption of coarse grains, millets, and pulses – which for long were the mainstays of the traditional Indian diet. With industrialization and globalization, the shift in the agricultural system pushed carbohydrate consumption as refined sugar became an easy and convenient choice for a sweetener rather than a traditional option like jaggery.

The book has been published by Rupa Publications and marks Datta’s maiden attempt as an author. She has extensive experience as a journalist and has worked with several leading publications in the past.

One of the reasons why the book turns out to be an interesting read is because of the extensive research that backs claims and instances. One of the initial chapters of the book stresses on what triggers sugar consumption. The reasons are as diverse as the yearning for comfort food, which surged during the pandemic years, to just plain hospitality. As Datta quotes a popular columnist, sweets are an “emblem of hospitality’ for every stratum of society. It might be something as simple as the humble ‘batasa’ or as decadent as the gulab jamun; sweets form an integral part of the hospitality that most Indian homes are known for.

Picture Credit: Rupa

How history and culture shaped sugar consumption

Datta’s experience as a journalist comes to the fore as she unpeels layers of history to show how sugar reached the status it enjoys today. She quotes the likes of noted US anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz who have described it as a sizable “demographic force” in history. While there is ample research available to link sugar with medical conditions like diabetes, there are also studies that have pointed at the change in nutrition across the globe and the role sugar played in it. Here’s an example: today’s researchers are looking into how back in the 1960s, the sugar lobby bribed scientists to play down the relationship between cardiovascular diseases and the consumption of sugar. All in all, the book’s structure is a well-balanced take on the subject.

Coming to the million-dollar question, should you be afraid of sugar? Yes and no. Our bodies need the energy to go through the day. Carbohydrates are among the key macronutrients our body needs to keep going and are broken down into sugar and then absorbed in the bloodstream. In fact, carbs are the preferred source of energy for most cells. But like anything else, an excess of carbs can hamper your health. 

The final word

The last chapter titled ‘A virus that loves sugar’ was an apt conclusion to what was an engaging tale of one of the most misunderstood ingredients in Indian kitchens. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, none of us are unfamiliar with the word ‘comorbidities’. When combined with aging and obesity, comorbidities were one of the biggest challenges that healthcare workers faced while dealing with the pandemic two years ago. The lack of research also didn’t help. As the author points out, a high blood sugar level not only indicates the severity of a disease but also explains why some people were more vulnerable to Covid-19 than others. The higher the sugar level, the more the chances that the virus could bypass your immunity system. Datta also cites some interesting figures. According to studies based on people living in north India, during the first 45 days of the Covid-induced lockdown, consumption of carbohydrates and frequent snacking shot up by 20%, and the duration of exercise sessions meanwhile reduced by 42%.

Datta deserves credit for simplifying the science of sugars for the layman and not unnecessarily vilifying sugar. To the author’s credit, she also talks about how the narrative around sugar is shifting from the ‘obesity-diabetes’ space and new ideas are shaping scientists’ understanding of these medical conditions.

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