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Sweeter tooth set to trigger changes

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-11-05 09:39

The East has quickly developed a sweet tooth. The World Health Organization has stated that the average daily consumption of sugar per Chinese citizen has now risen to well over double the recommended daily allowance.

China is following a Western trend, as diets across the board have become increasingly sweet, leading to public health being affected in new and unexpected ways.

As China moves to overtake large Western economies, spending on fast food and refined sugars is only increasing. Many Americans are surprised to hear that there are more physical branches of KFC and Pizza Hut in China than their cultural birthplace.

Domestic players have also become household names, while the advent of smartphone delivery apps only enhances their accessibility. In a 2018 Statista survey, 40 percent of Chinese said they consume fast food between one and three times a week.

New research suggests that refined sugar may play a factor in contributing toward conditions such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and may even make people more aggressive.

The recognition of the behavioral effects of sugar is cutting-edge research, and commands attention from developed countries around the world. In a report published in the Evolution and Human Behavior journal last month, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, suggested that a component of sugar called fructose plays a role in behavioral disorders.

"We present evidence that fructose, by lowering energy in cells, triggers a foraging response similar to what occurs in starvation," said lead author Richard Johnson, MD, to Scitech Daily.

Some research suggests that this type of psychological effect is also apparent in intermittent fasting techniques too, where strong behavioral changes have been noted in some human studies and animal models. Johnson suggests that this effect of fructose to stimulate a starving response increases risk-taking, impulsive and aggressive behaviors.

This survival response may have benefitted ancient hunter gatherers 10,000 years ago as they made their way up the Yellow River or Fertile Crescent. But in the modern day, such behavior could cause public health difficulties in a society.

Overactivation of such novelty seeking and rapid decision making behavior can range from conditions such as ADHD, to bipolar disorder and even potentially incidents of aggression.

Researchers hypothesize that the overstimulation of natural pathways, initially designed to keep us well fed during times of paleolithic frugality, disrupts the hedonic reward system pathways that influence our behavior. It has been suggested that this process results in a correlation where high fructose intake can also lead to depression too.

Paradoxically, the rapid growth of China's economy may hold the key to reversing this tide. An increase in disposable income for Chinese citizens has come toe-to-toe with a growing awareness of healthy foods and organically sourced produce.

In the last five years especially, this has had an impact on purchasing behaviors. A total 86 percent of Chinese consumers state that food safety is influential to them in decision making with food purchases, while half consider it a major priority.

Improvements in education, along with a young and internet-savvy population, further drives the emerging healthy foods market.

As well as holding a strong incentive of profit for investors, this market could also bring a cultural shift in how we view and consume the food that we eat.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily

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