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Ethical Food & Drink – Sugar

Sugar, from a nutritional perspective, is pointless. Yet the whole notion of dessert is founded upon its use: where would we be without cakes, chocolate, sweets and pastries? Even savoury food such as processed meats and ready meals can be packed with sugar. But it is not just our own health we should worry about. Working conditions in the sugarcane fields have been the subject of much controversy, and child labour is widespread.

Health factors

Ordinary white sugar supplies little more than cheap calories, as any vitamins and minerals that might be found in the sugar cane are stripped away by the refining process. Eating too much of it puts the body at risk, not only of tooth decay, but of other long-term problems such as diabetes, dyspepsia and heart and liver disease.

Sugar has also been associated with a range of health issues, from anxiety to increased symptoms of pre-menstrual tension. Too much sugar can even affect our concentration. It is estimated that almost half of all children are susceptible to increased hyperactivity related to the consumption of sugar – another persuasive argument for the removal of junk food from schools.

Some scientists argue that we are abusing the evolutionary role of our sweet tooth by consuming refined sugar. Until relatively recently, sugar was a delicacy, or wasn’t eaten at all. Now, the average American consumes 115lbs of it per year. Our ancestors would have satisfied their cravings for sweetness by eating fruit and sweet vegetables, and in so doing would have obtained necessary nutrients such as vitamin C. In places where sugar cane is eaten raw, people have healthy teeth because of the vitamins and minerals that occur naturally in the juice.

‍‍‍Unrefined or raw brown sugars have been processed to some degree but they retain more nutrients than white sugar. Any superior brown sugar will have been derived from cane. Brown sugar from beet has been coloured with caramel or molasses.

    EU sugar dumping

    EU sugar subsidies have helped keep developing countries mired in poverty while rewarding massive refiners like British Sugar (who are behind the Silver Spoon brand) with huge profits. Five million tonnes of surplus sugar are dumped every year on world markets, destroying opportunities for exporters in poorer countries. As a result, in 2004 Ethiopia made losses equivalent to its total national spending on HIV/Aids programmes, and Malawi’s losses actually exceeded its national budget for primary healthcare.

    ‍‍‍In April 2005, the World Trade Organisation ruled that these subsidies were illegal, and the EU is now planning to reform its policy. This is excellent news, since changes to the EU sugar regime could boost the economies of some of the world’s poorest countries: according to Oxfam research, 30,000 jobs could be created in Mozambique and Zambia alone. But Oxfam and the WWF are concerned about the effect of these sudden reforms on developing countries, and say EU proposals are insufficient to alleviate the impact on countries in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean, which until now have had (limited) preferential access to European markets. More details on the proposals are available on the Oxfam website at

    Ethical Sugar

    The sudden growth in the UK of the organic and fair trade market is especially apparent in the ethical sugar business. All the major brands now offer an organic and Fairtrade alternative, with fairtrade pioneer Traidcraft as well as Equal Exchange and supermarkets Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer all selling fairly-traded sugar exclusively (own brands).‍‍‍‍‍‍

    Key Research

    Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

    We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Traidcraft, Equal Exchange, Suma, Tate & Lyle, The Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Whitworths, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Billington, Silverspoon, Tesco

    Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.

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