Taiwan’s Incorrigible Sweet Tooth

Photo: Matthew Fulco

Is overconsumption of refined sugar causing health problems in Taiwan? 

The refrigerators in Taiwan’s 24-hour convenience stores are brimming with sugary drinks, and not just the sodas and energy drinks sold globally. There are also dozens of Taiwan’s own brands of sucrose-laden fruit juice, tea, coffee, dairy, and soy beverages.

Nearly every one of these drinks contains 30-45 grams of added sugar. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men consume a maximum of 37.5 grams of sugar daily. For women, the sugar allowance is less: just 25 grams.

Overconsumption of sugar is associated with a slew of health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and periodontal disease.

Foods containing carbohydrates – grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables – all have sugar that occurs naturally. The body digests these foods gradually, fueling cells with a steady supply of energy.

Added sugar affects the body differently, especially in beverages. Liquid calories are less satisfying than those from solid foods, so someone can drink a large bottle of soda or sweetened tea and still feel unsated. Nor do sweet drinks hydrate the body as well as water.

Since the sugary beverages are also high in calories, they contribute to weight gain. For instance, a venti (20 oz.) Starbucks Caffe Mocha drink has 45 grams of sugar, 12 grams of saturated fat, and 450 calories. To put that into perspective, a McDonald’s double cheeseburger has 430 calories, the same amount of saturated fat, and just seven grams of sugar. The burger isn’t the healthiest choice, but at least it’s filling and protein-packed.

Sweet desserts have become common-place in Taiwan in recent years, and are contributing to a slew of health prob-lems, including diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Over time, excess consumption of sugar may raise blood pressure and aggravate inflammation in the body, leading to heart disease, observes Lin Jiunn-Lee, a cardiologist at National Taiwan University Hospital and president of the Taiwan Society of Cardiology. Excess sugar in the diet may also cause the liver to emit toxic fats into the bloodstream, which raises the risk of coronary disease, he adds.

Many Taiwanese seem unfazed by sugar’s toxic effect on the body. At a 7-Eleven near Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, sweetened teas consistently sell better than unsweetened ones, says the proprietor, who gave his name as George.

With the Taiwanese penchant for Japanese products in mind, George has tried selling premium sugar-free teas from Japan, especially oolong and Darjeeling. They have not sold well.

It’s not an issue of price either. The Japanese imported sweetened lemon tea made by Kirin is a top seller, he says, even though it’s twice as expensive as local variants. That 500 ml (about 17 fluid oz.) drink has 30 grams of sugar.

A 2015 study by Euromonitor found that Taiwanese consumed about 22 grams of sugar per day, far below the 126.4 grams per day for Americans (the world’s top sucrose consumers). Yet given Taiwan’s prevalence of sweet drinks and sweet restaurant food – especially in the South – it’s possible that the true number is higher.

Meanwhile, high sugar consumption may also be contributing to poor oral hygiene in Taiwan. As many as 80% of Taiwanese have periodontal disease, according to a study published in January by the Taiwan Dental Association. Nearly half are unaware that their periodontal disease is severe, researchers found. The study included more than 10,000 participants over two years.

Our mouths contain a multitude of bacteria, some of which are beneficial to oral hygiene. But harmful bacteria consume the sugars we eat, a process that increases acid production in the mouth. Those acids erode enamel, the protective outer layer of the teeth, eventually leading to tooth decay.