“I have eaten far too much chocolate this Easter…. so I'm going on a carb/choc detox” said a friend as she ploughed into a low fat strawberry flavoured yoghurt that contained enough 'fructose' to give it a calorie content equivalent of an entire chocolate bar. Do we, as a nation, really need to have everything stealthily sweetened up for us?
You know what British sugar looks like - crystallised granules that you may put in your tea and coffee. It is what we use to make cakes and biscuits with. I would also argue the vast majority of the population knows that too much sugar is bad for you. And because most people know that sugar is in sweets, chocolate and juice drinks, these food items are generally perceived as treats rather than mealtime staples. But did you know sugar can also be found in cheese, yoghurts, dried fruit and sausages to name but a few everyday groceries? You probably don't because either you wouldn't think to look at the labelling or because it is not written on the label as something truthful and clear like 'sugar'. It may instead, be labelled as malt extract, dextrose or fructose. High-fructose corn syrup - HFCS - was first produced by Japanese scientists who found that the sweetener can be up to eight times sweeter than sucrose from beet sugar. It also seems to be metabolized in a different way to beet sugar in that it appears not to be broken down but goes straight to the liver and turned into fat. Many processed foods also contain vast quantities of sugar. In her book Not on the Label, Felicity Lawrence notes that upon reading the ingredients on a ready-made lamb dish she discovered at least eight mentions of different kinds of sugars and sweetening agents including dextrose, malt extract and lactose. She concluded that the '…ready meal managed to be made up of 15 per cent sugars.'
Perhaps it is a direct result of this stealth sweetening or perhaps it is a coincidence, but the nation's consumption of sugar is gradually increasing whilst the challenge of obtaining it is has rapidly decreased - something which is believed to be one of the key instigators of obesity. The juggernaut industrial food firms are right when they say that children and adults lead far more sedentary lives. As I type this I am drinking a cup of coffee and eating cold toast covered in butter and homemade marmalade. The only bit of hunting/gathering I have done today is flicking the kettle on, pushing the toast down and a bit of nonchalant spreading. I fully intend to go for a brisk walk later but I also fully intend to eat roast chicken for lunch and a boiled egg and soldiers for supper. The age of spending days searching for honey to obtain energy, as was done in Ancient Roman times, seems almost made up.
The bitter truth is we could all exist on sugars that naturally occur in fruit, vegetables and dairy foods. I, however, like many, many people adore an extra blast of pick-me-up sugar. I love to bake a cake, if I have the time, when a friend comes over. Or sweeten up my cheese and oatcakes with a dollop of locally made pickle. A friend has some marmalade with his sausages to give them an extra sugar burst and another puts a spoonful of honey in her plain yoghurt at lunchtime. Nigella Lawson in her book How To Eat describes how she makes and eats porridge every morning using oats and water. Prior to consumption she whacks on a large spoonful of golden syrup. By doing this she has doubled her calorie intake but she is fully conscious of this and intends to spend the rest of the day utilising the energy consumed. I very rarely drink sugary drinks, not because I am ensconced in smug piety but because I have made elderflower cordial and lemonade and witnessed the mountains of sugar that are involved. I would rather claim my sugar fix by relishing every mouthful of a soft chewy homemade scone smothered in Cornish clotted cream with a great big dollop of locally made strawberry jam on top, than by gulping it down in a few seconds. Consumption of sugar should be about choice. It is about making the call whether the body really needs that superflous energy boost and selecting what form that boost will take. By default, the amount of sugar consumed when one makes something from raw ingredients is often less than when buying something ready-made, purely because one is far more conscious of the quantities used.
William Leith wrote a fascinating and engaging article on sugar in the Sunday Telegraph in March. He discussed how an American doctor, Robert Lustig, is calling for laws to restrict sugar, so that it becomes a monitored substance like alcohol or tobacco. Leith comments on how he initially dismissed Lustig's preaching until he acknowledged that when he was younger he had heard of no-one who had diabetes, but now it is coming more ubiquitous with predictions that in the US 33% of the population could have the disease. Lustig believes that the global increase in sugar consumption began about 35 years ago when fat started being taken out of food. Leith writes '…since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by 31 per cent….more than 60 percent of a Slimfast drink is made up of sugar…' Sugar is the 'secret' ingredient in almost all of our every day food staples from bread, cheese, sausages, cereal, yoghurt and smoked fish. As Leith observes, even medicine like ibuprofen is sugar-coated.
Whilst the sugar industry, lobbyists, scientists and governments fret about legislating sugar consumption, maybe we, the consumer, should be undertaking our personal responsibility of becoming aware of what all these complicated words on food labelling mean. We need to educate ourselves on all the various terms that sugar can be described as. We cannot just wait for someone to tell us. Mass produced food has always shied away from transparent labelling because the necessary ingredient shortcuts needed to garner profit often don't sound remotely appealing. No matter how sophisticated the packaging is are you really going to spend money on tomato soup that is 20% sugar, 10% salt, 5% tomato and 65% water if it is spelt out like that?
Perhaps consumers, when buying food not as its raw ingredients (having checked it is British) should imagine that the producers of the item are a team on The Apprentice. They are not your friends. They are running a business. Don't be fooled by the packaging and scrutinise every ingredient.
By doing this you will discover that the vast majority of local food producers have enormous integrity and pride in their product and, though they obviously want to make a profit, they do not want to deceive their loyal customer. You will also find that you if you buy locally there tends to be more transparency in what is involved in the preparation of the produce.
By adopting this Apprentice method it is highly likely you will find yourself resisting the urge to buy ready-made scones, cakes and sweets and instead opting to go home and taking 30 minutes to bake some flapjacks that will last all week. Or you will find yourself consciously buying the slightly more expensive but good quality British chocolate so that you can savour each mouthful as opposed to a guilt-ridden scoff. Gradually you may start to feel resentful and patronised that your lump of mature cheddar is infested with sugar or that your fruit is being artificially sweetened and you may find yourself searching out the British brands that don't adopt these techniques. Perhaps we, the consumers, can take control of our own sugar consumption and reverse this insincere trend of sweetening everything up. As a nation, aren't we sweet enough already?
To read William Leith's article in full [click here]
To learn more about British sugar and how it is farmed [click here]