Sugar the master of disguise
Posted on 9th November 2016 at 07:45
Sugar – particularly the sugar “hidden” within so many foods we never give a second thought to – is a subject which has received much press coverage in recent years. It’s one we discuss regularly with clients and have mentioned many times before in this blog. And yet, despite it being linked to many long term health problems, the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through.
So why is this? The simple answer is that sugar fuels one of our most basic instincts. Sweetness equating to food being good – and safe – to eat. It’s been used by humans as a basic survival tool for thousands of years. Just think of the sweetness of any fruit, telling us when it’s ripe and ready to eat. And how unpalatable the same fruit is, if picked too early.
Unfortunately this association has now become our undoing, with our diets having changed out of all recognition in the past few decades. Let alone centuries.
No longer do local, unprocessed foods in season form the mainstay of our diets. Nor do we need to lay down reserves each summer against leaner times ahead, over the following winter.
These days food is plentiful all year round. And much of it is processed into the ready meals and convenience foods that form the mainstay of many people’s diets. Even food prepared at home is very different to that eaten by our ancestors.
However, despite these changes, our taste buds react in exactly the same way as they always have. And that’s to crave more and more of these sweet foods, to lay down reserves in preparation for leaner times ahead. But what if leaner times never come? It’s all too easy to see how problems begin.
Alongside this, eating sweet foods triggers the release of so called “feel good” chemicals in our brains – such as dopamines – so adding to the pleasure of eating them. While the effects of these chemicals may only be short lived, it’s all too easy for people to become hooked on seeking the next “feel good” sugar laden high.
It’s these simple preferences that processed and convenience foods are designed to exploit. While it’s easy to recognise cakes, biscuits, sweets and fizzy drinks as being sugar laden; what about sauces, dressings, yoghurts and fruit juices?
Here’s one quick example you may never have thought about. Tomato ketchup and similar sauces. Did you know that they can contain up to three teaspoons of sugar in just two tablespoons of the finished product?
Even if you took the time to read the ingredients on the label, you probably wouldn’t be much the wiser. As concern about the amount of sugar many foods contain has grown, manufacturers have found novel ways to conceal the amount of sugar they contain.
A favourite one is to use alternative forms of sugar – fructose, dextrose, dextrin and lactose – so it’s not immediately obvious how much sugar a food contains. Or sugar from a variety of sources. Corn syrups, barley malt, molasses. And don’t they sound so much better for you than sugar?
If we go back to the example of tomato ketchup, here is the ingredients list:
“Tomato Concentrate, Distilled Vinegar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Salt, Spice, Onion Powder, Natural Flavouring.”
There’s no mention of sugar, but what about high fructose syrup and corn syrup? It’s little wonder that the sugar content of the humble ketchup is so high.
Having done a quick internet search we were able to easily find over fifty different names for sugar commonly found on food labels. These include:
Sugar, Sucrose, Sugar syrup, Raw sugar, Fruit juice, High fructose corn syrup, Corn syrup, Invert sugar, Maltose Malt syrup, Maple syrup, Fructose, Fruit juice concentrate, Cane crystals, Cane sugar, Crystalline fructose, Evaporated cane juice, Corn syrup solids, Malt Syrup, Blackstrap molasses, Caramel Buttered syrup, Honey Brown rice syrup, Golden syrup, Treacle, Turbinado, Barley malt, Dextrin, Glucose solids, Diastatic malt, Ethyl maltol, Galactose, Maltodextrin, Rice syrup, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Dextrose, Refiners syrup, Castor sugar.
While it may be fairly obvious that the first few are sugar, the rest are less so.
And just to make matters even more confusing are the claims found on many products. “Contains no added sugar” or “Contains no refined sugar” are favourite ones. While it sounds as though they contain no sugar, all these claims mean is that the product contains no white sugar. They still contain sugar, it’s just in a less obvious form.
Equally misleading are so called “healthier products” which, again, have replaced white sugar with a more natural, “healthier” form. Fructose, honey, fruit juice. Or, even worse, artificial sweeteners. No wonder people are so easily confused about their true sugar intake each day.
Here in the UK it’s estimated that the average person now consumes around 14 teaspoons of added sugar a day PLUS that naturally occurring in any fruit, vegetables and other wholefoods they may also eat during the day. This brings the grand total to around 23 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is well above that deemed “acceptable” by the Food Standards Agency. Let alone the much lower figure many cardiologists are now recommending.
For a more graphic illustration, we only need to look across the pond to America. Here it’s estimated that back in 1812 each person consumed about 45g of sugar every five days. That’s about the amount of sugar found in a single can of fizzy drink. A hundred years later this figures has risen to 765g every five days. Or seventeen cans of fizzy drink.
So what’s the answer?
Once again it emphasises the importance of a wholefood diet cooked at home from scratch. This way you know exactly what you’re eating. If this sounds too much like hard work, it really isn’t; with many meals being quicker to prepare and cook than the ubiquitous ready meal. And, at this time of year, a slow cooker is a real boon. It only takes a few minutes to prepare the ingredients for a simple casserole before you leave home in the morning, which is then ready when you get home at night.
However there’s one other habit we would like to encourage you to start today. And that’s to read the label of ANY product BEFORE you decide whether to buy it. Get to know which words are just another way of saying “sugar”.
And don’t fall into the trap of assuming that just because a product is found on the shelves of your local supermarket, it’s a good thing for you to eat. It’s amazing how often we hear clients say this.
While we would love this to be true, the sad fact is that any product is only available in the shops for one reason only. And this is because people buy it and it makes a profit for the shop. While it may sound harsh, the shop is only concerned about this simple economic fact. Not whether it’s good for the person buying it. Processed foods laden with sugar, which play on our body’s most basic survival instincts, are guaranteed to bestsellers. Again and again and again. It really is that simple.
As we briefly mentioned at the start of this blog, high sugar diets are associated with an increasing number of long term health problems. While some of these may be obvious – such as obesity – many others are not. We’ll be looking at why this is the case in a couple of weeks’ time.
As always, the choice is yours.
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