Sugar Rush: Leeds university Professor's book explores how and why sugar is 'demonised'

It is difficult to discuss sugar without judgements being made. Karen Throsby knows this, and with her latest work wants to move beyond such arguments. Her book is, though, “designed as a kind of provocation, to challenge us to think differently about something that we treat as self-evident,” she says.

The Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Leeds has been researching issues of gender, technology, bodies and health for more than 20 years.

Her new book, Sugar Rush, explores the “social life of sugar in its rise to infamy,” looking at how it is seen as a “problem” used in demonisation of fatness.

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Sugar, says Prof Throsby, has been transformed into an enemy in a revived ‘war on obesity’ levelled at so-called “unhealthy” foods and people who enjoy them.

Sugar cubes in a bowl. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire.Sugar cubes in a bowl. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire.
Sugar cubes in a bowl. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire.

Drawing on journalism, government policy, public health campaigns, self-help books, autobiographies and documentaries, the book argues that the rush to blame sugar is a phenomenon of its time, finding fertile ground in the era of austerity.

Prof Throsby says: “What I'm trying to do is move the conversation not to say that sugar is good or bad. I'm not interested in categorising - I would never say that sugar is a bad thing, or that sugar is a good thing, because I think the categorisation of food in that binary way, in relation to health, is very unhelpful.

"And what we lose when we do that is the wider social context of how we eat, why we eat ,what kind of socio-economic and other social factors contribute to food choice.

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"I think that by focusing on a single nutrient - on sugar, in this case – what you do is you narrow the field of vision to the point where the only solution can be to stop eating sugar, which leaves everything else intact. So for example, inequalities (are left) completely intact as something that's almost too complex to manage – we'll just focus on sugar.

"So what I'm raising in the book is the way that the focus on sugar creates a kind of lowest common denominator consensus, that actually forecloses a whole series of really important discussions about the challenges that people face.”

Prof Throsby says that sugar being seen as a problem – previously, dietary fat has been the focus – in around 2012 to 2013, with a spike in newspaper coverage leading up to the so-called ‘sugar tax’ being announced in the 2016 budget, then dropping off after it was actually implemented as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in 2018.

Concerns over ‘ultra-processed food’, she says, could be taking its place, but she believes that is “another way of talking about sugar”.

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Skipton-based Prof Throsby says: “If we think about the war on obesity, if we want to use that term, what it does is it kind of constantly reinvents itself with a new enemy because it fails fairly consistently to achieve its own goals. And so there's a kind of constant search for a new answer and sugar, in a way, is just the next one, or was the next one.”

Sugar Rush, published by Manchester University Press, is out now.