Monday, January 25, 2010

Unsweetened truth

This is my column today.

As someone who firmly believes that dessert is the whole point of any meal—I am one of those who see the main course as just a prelude to dessert—I am concerned that the price of sugar has spiraled seemingly out of control since Christmas. As of last week, a kilo of white sugar was retailing between 50 to 60 pesos in certain public markets, quite a big leap from where it was during the holiday season, which was at 40 pesos.

We are told the runaway price of sugar is temporary, caused by an artificial shortage. Someone actually said on public television that the shortage was caused by the supposedly high demand for sugar during the last holiday season. Yeah, blame the people for pigging out on leche flan and brazo de Mercedes.

Government, as can be expected, has tried to diffuse adverse reaction to the situation by insisting that there is no shortage. Yet in the same vein, Agriculture Secretary Yap has announced that the government is importing tons of sugar and that the shipment is expected to arrive in May. Talk about mixed messages!

The reality, however, is that the sugar shortage is a phenomenon that is not unique to the Philippines. Major corporations in the United States sounded the alarm August last year, even going to the extent of threatening mass layoffs if government didn’t address the impending shortage more effectively. In countries such as Pakistan, the sugar shortage has reached alarming levels —an article I read in an international magazine reported that a kilo of sugar could only be bought in the black market at a cost equivalent to a full day’s wage.

The global shortage of sugar is caused by many factors. Climate change affected sugarcane plantations in many countries. Also, most sugarcane harvests in major sugar producing countries such as Brazil have been diverted to the production of the bio-fuel known as ethanol. Most experts believe that the global shortage will last until end of 2010. Around that time, I suppose authorities would have learned to manage the global supply, people would have been weaned from their sugar addiction or would have gotten used to artificial sweeteners.

All these are distressing to sugar addicts like me. Of course it is possible that I represent a minority. Perhaps there are very few people like me who suffer from severe withdrawal syndrome if they don’t get to visit a pastry shop or who goes into panic mode upon discovery that they have just wolfed down the last chocolate candy bar in their refrigerator. Perhaps most Filipinos don’t really care if the price of sugar hits 100 pesos per kilo. We’re certainly not seeing people protesting in the streets despite the fact that prices have almost doubled in barely a month’s time. We are not seeing politicians scrambling all over themselves to register their opinions in the public’s consciousness.

The seeming apathy is understandable. Sugar does not rank high up there in the list of commodities because we don’t consume a proportionate amount of it compared to, say, rice or pork or chicken. But then again, sugar is actually an indispensable part of our lives—I actually know quite a number of people who can’t function normally unless they have had their coffee and sugar fix. Most of our merienda fare is actually sugar-based and most Filipino kids are actually fueled by sugar. I am sure things will get dicey if the price of sugar continues to rise and the shortage begins to impact on the cost of certain staple food such as banana cue and ice candy.

Of the many reactions to the impending sugar crisis, the one I liked the most was that of Vice President Noli de Castro. Responding to a question posed by a television reporter who obviously was angling for a provocative statement by the way she asked the question, the Vice President retorted nonchalantly “People should use less sugar then.” The advantage of someone who is not running for an elective post is that he can speak with candor and sincerity, as he does not have to pander to populist notions or try to please as many stakeholders as possible.

Of course, the government should make sure that there is healthy balance between supply and demand of most commodities. That’s its job. We should ensure that there is ample supply of sugar for those who are dependent on the stuff.

But perhaps the shortage can also be used as a great opportunity to strongly remind people (like me, I must add) of the harmful effects of sugar. I know. Sugar consumption has become a social issue such that some people actually think their ability to turn up their noses on the stuff is a reflection of how virtuous they are. But there is no denying the fact that excessive indulgence in sugar accounts for many of the major health problems plaguing the world today. There’s obesity, diabetes, hypertension, even hyperactivity among children.

I don’t recall the actual statistics now but most experts have predicted that a certain percentage of our kids today will be diabetic by the time they reach a certain age. When we consider the enormous amount of sugar we feed them everyday—from candies to softdrinks and juices, even to sweet spaghetti, the prediction makes sense.

I am aware that are there studies now that point out that sugar is actually the healthier alternative compared to synthetic sweeteners; that the negative consequences of ingesting the real thing made from sugarcane is actually less toxic. For a while there, rumors about how certain artificial sweeteners were carcinogenic persisted. Companies have since come up with better, supposedly healthier sweeteners as options although there’s a whole group of consumers out there who insist that the supposed safety of these sweeteners are not 100 percent guaranteed—nobody really knows the long-term harmful effects of these artificial products.

So when we come to think about it, it’s ironic that our choices have been narrowed down to which one is the lesser evil. A friend told me that this is the sad fact about life in this millennium—most of our choices boil down to which evil we can live with. It’s a choice between a lifestyle devoid of sweet things or longer life. Between diabetes and crankiness. For people like me who are desperately trying to get weaned from a sugar addiction, this is a dilemma that we face every minute of our existence.

1 comment:

Contents under pressue said...

As a man who comes from a family with a history of diabetes, I couldn't agree more with Noli.

It's quite simple - just cut down on our consumption on foods heavy on sugars, such as soft drinks, juices (I never drink unless it's freshly squeezed), and pastry.

I've begun swapping out my sugar for coffee with either brown sugar or honey as well. Taking it black is also good.