Sugar is everywhere. And it's a problem that public health agencies and policy makers are trying to tackle around the world.
- POV: Replacing sugar can yield benefits in just days, study finds
- VIDEO: Why taxing sugar is a good idea
- q: Jamie Oliver challenges our mindless consumption of sugar
And one Victoria, B.C. family — which includes a former Canadian Olympian — are taking matters into their own hands, by virtually eliminating processed sugar from their diets.
"We're still eating carbohydrates, we're eating fruits, vegetables, any whole foods. We're just not eating any added refined sugars," said Rebecca Sterritt.
She and her husband — Adam Kreek, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing — have decided, along with their two-year-old and five-year-old children, to give up refined sugar for a year, a project they began on Nov. 1, 2015.
That means many of the grocery items most Canadians take for granted — from breakfast cereal to chicken stock —are off the table.
So are the many forms of sugar — including white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, agave syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup and evaporated cane juice.
The family has given themselves one exception. Honey or maple syrup can be used in small amounts — a teaspoon or so — in food preparation, like making a salad dressing or glaze for fish.
In other words, they're using sugar as a seasoning or spice.
When Sterritt pitched the idea to her family, she says the kids were fine with the idea. But in spite of the fact he's a former Olympian, and a leading advocate for healthy living, her husband took some more work.
"'No' was my first response," Kreek said.
But on further reflection, he realized he had good reason to try to kick sugar
"As I stepped back and I thought about it, I actually realized that there was a level of addiction to sugar in my life. Whenever I'd go through a very stressful event, I would turn to very sweet foods," he said.
"And I was scared of not having that crutch anymore in my life — of being stressed out and eating half a dozen doughnuts and then feeling better, feeling like I've numbed the pain. I think that was one of the reasons I resisted it at first."
Sterritt and Kreek are calling their sugar-free experiment, which they're chronicling online, One Year Without.
And the goal isn't so much about convincing everyone else to follow along. It's more about underlining the fundamental role that refined sugar has come to play in Canadian lives.
As Sterritt points out, refined sugar is not a particularly traditional food. It only showed up as a staple of every kitchen in the 19th century — not something most of us would know these days, when cheap, sugar-heavy products are a daily habit for many.
"It's the social implications," Sterritt said. "What do you do at birthday parties, holidays, school lunches, at rec centres? It's just we live in an environment surrounded by sugar, and it's really hard to navigate the world like that. And so the biggest learnings, I think, that we've taken away so far in the first 100 days is the social angle — how do you manage it?"
Policy makers need to treat sugar like tobacco, alcohol
The solution for Sterritt and Kreek has been a very conscious effort to pack alternative snacks for their kids anytime they're going to a social event. That takes a certain amount of commitment — even for dedicated parents.
But in the wider effort to change habits and reduce sugar consumption, they say personal commitments aren't the answer. After all, every bit of personal commitment, even for adults, can fall apart in a the supermarket candy aisle or during a workplace doughnut break.
Kreek says policy-makers need to take note — like they did with tobacco and alcohol — and make sugar harder to access.
"You go to the checkout of a grocery store and it's pushed upon you," he said.
"We've stopped doing that with cigarettes. Alcohol, we have separate stores for that. And I think we know as a society that there are certain substances that are addictive and cause more harm than pleasure. As a society, and speaking to leaders in society, we need to set up systems to nudge people towards healthier habits so that we're just encouraged to make the right choice."
Those systems are slowly coming along. Proposed new food labelling rules in Canada, for example, would list total sugar content in a product. School lunch programs and vending machines are increasingly phasing out sugary drinks.
But for now, it's still often easier to make a bad food choice than a good one.