The sticky subject of Sugar!
by Sara Keel, Founder of Babycup Ltd
I’m not alone in worrying about what my children eat.
Are they eating enough? Too much? Is it healthy? What can I cook today? Will they eat it? How much does it cost? Can I afford it? How long will it take to make? Will they eat it???!! Is it good for them? Have I run out of ideas??!! IS IT HEALTHY??? WILL THEY EAT IT??!!
But do you buy food for taste or for nutrition?
I’d like to think I’m choosing food that covers both. Taste and nutrition. Wanting to enjoy eating and for it to be good for you seems a pretty reasonable wish.
So it was dismaying to hear in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, a Dietician, representing the ‘Breakfast Cereal information Service’ (part of the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers), being very clear in her message, “Taste is the main reason why people buy foods, not nutrition.”
For me, central to the perpetual meal anxiety is sugar. So I was doubly dismayed when she commented on sugar, “The reason it gets put in is to increase palatability.”
Brought to my attention a few years back by my husband, a healthcare professional, and further highlighted when one of our children had to avoid sugar altogether for health reasons for almost two years, sugar is never far from my mind when it comes to food. That’s not to say I never have any – I enjoy wine, I like chocolate, I am not a no-sugar zealot. But I do have a concern about how present it has become and how much sugar we are consuming.
Sugar is everywhere we turn. Where it used to be the preserve (no pun intended!) of the biscuit tin that came out on special occasions or a sweet something at grandma’s house at the weekend, it is now in food where you wouldn’t even expect it.
Sausages, burgers, ham, soup, yogurt, cereal, bread - just a few examples of savoury foods that have sneakily become sugar fixes.
The bad news is that this means much of the time when you are making a healthy choice it is likely to be the exact opposite.
The World Health Organization is recommending limiting sugar to 5% of total calories--about 25 grams/day for an adult. For many children it means by the time they’ve had their first meal of the day they are already over their ‘sugar limit’.
But why is it bad? Surely an ingredient used so prevalently must be OK? Why would the food industry put it in so many foods if they know it is damaging our health?
For starters, sugar is a cheap preservative that extends food’s shelf life and keeps prices low. So industry profits play a major role in what we end up with on our plates.
And secondly, it’s addictive. So we buy more. Our palates become accustomed to the sweet taste and we want more of it.
The non-sugar versions begin to have less appeal. The healthy option isn’t quite as palatable. And so we are led down a sugary path and it’s hard to escape. This means we are happy eating the varieties that have cost the manufacturers less to make and which health experts say do us and our children damage.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, of which I am a member, has as it’s purpose the development of practical policies to support childhood health, including reducing the scale of childhood obesity. Unsurprisingly, sugar is often part of the debate. Our Chair is the inspirational campaigner for children’s causes, Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, who believes the epidemic of childhood obesity should be treated as a national emergency. Baroness Benjamin says we need a minister at Cabinet level to coordinate strategy at all government levels and urges that, if you agree, write a letter to your MP to get change and make a difference.
A quick look at a popular online UK supermarket’s website showed children’s yogurts with sugar as the second highest ingredient, second only to milk, and containing a staggering 23.6g of sugar per pot. That’s almost the adult daily limit in just one children’s yogurt pot. Add to that a bowl of cereal and a child’s system is seriously over the recommended sugar intake. I feel the pain of those who have to make packed lunches for their children every day. So many of the foods dressed up as healthy, by way of messages such as ‘full of Vitamin C’ or ‘for healthy bones’, are drip-feeding children a sugar-laden diet.
The yogurt aisle: How easily can you distinguish the sugar-laden options versus the truly healthy children's yogurts?
Paediatric Endocrinologist, Dr Robert Lustig, is a campaigner for children’s health and a prominent figure in the no-sugar debate. Lustig says “A calorie is not a calorie” and goes on to explain the most dangerous risk posed by sugar is that it becomes liver and belly fat, drivers of serious health issues including diabetes and heart disease. Lustig says consuming just one sugary drink per day increases your risk of type 2 diabetes by 29% and that fructose is the primary cause of chronic metabolic disease, which kills, slowly. These aren’t the only health issues sugar is being linked to. The list is growing long.
In the past few years I’ve become a label reader, an ingredient list addict. But lives are busy, there are multiple demands on our time, small children who don’t want to spend hours trawling the aisles and this requirement to scrutinise terminology isn’t fair on us as consumers. Yes, we have to take responsibility for what we eat, but being a detective to ensure what we buy isn’t going to cause major health problems, is unacceptable. Especially when there are more than 50 different descriptions to look out for. "...there are 56 names for sugar, and the food industry uses all of them. What they'll often do is use different kinds of sugar specifically to lower the amount of any given one so that it goes further down the ingredient list," says Dr. Robert Lustig
I am beginning to think that in years to come our children’s children will look back in disbelief at the times when ‘people used to eat all that sugar!’ and wonder why it took us so long to take notice when all around us were stories of ‘diabetes rates on the up’, ‘childhood obesity a growing epidemic’, ‘cancer cases rising’.
Like those now unbelievable cigarette and tobacco advertisements from not all that long ago which claimed ‘not one single case of throat irritation’  or drug-use in the mid-19th Century when it was possible to walk into a chemist and buy opium, cocaine and even arsenic. And what about ‘soothing medicines’ for teething babies? Withdrawn from sale in the UK less than 100 years ago, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was reportedly a morphine-based formula. Now we fight a war on drugs and the idea that morphine should be used at home for mild ailments is unthinkable.
Prof Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, says sugar is added everywhere but he doesn’t believe we need to accept the claim that “Sugar is there to increase palatability.”1 Just because we’ve been led down that path by food companies adding sugar, it doesn’t mean we need to accept it. Taking as an example the successful UK campaign to reduce salt in food, Prof Lang argues that sugar can be reduced without people noticing or minding, as long as we do it gradually. And we can cook our own food and reduce the need for label deciphering by avoiding processed sugar anyway.
It all sounds like sensible advice to me. We’re not suckers who can be fooled by the notion that 'unless it’s got sugar in, it’s not edible'. We just might need a little retraining. But it’s surely a step worth taking?
I want my children, my whole family, me included, to enjoy eating and to be well from it. I don’t want eating to be a negative experience, tasteless, or worse, unpalatable tastes, but nor do I want to give my kids a misguided idea of what food is.
A new Change4Life government initiative called Sugar Swaps to help families to cut down on their sugar intake through making simple food and drink changes, or swaps, throughout the day, might just be the guidance to help engender this shift in habits: http://campaigns.dh.gov.uk/category/change-4-life/
Prof Lang advises against artificially sweetening foods as that perpetuates the sweetening of our tastebuds. Advice worth keeping in mind when looking at ‘swaps’.
To help us when we’re faced with those 56 names for the sickly stuff, there’s a new and already award-winning App. FoodSwitch allows you to scan the barcodes of your food and drinks products and instantly see whether they are high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturates, sugars and salt per 100g. It also searches the database for similar but healthier alternative products, making it easier than ever to switch to healthier food choices: http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/foodswitch/
I’ve often heard the saying “Would you put the wrong kind of oil in your car and expect it to run?” You wouldn’t would you? So why do that to your body? Or a child’s body?
Reduce the sugar, change for life, change your life, change your children’s life.
I can’t see an argument against it. Not one that I want for my children anyway. Or any of my family for that matter.
So, whilst I’m sure it will be at least a few years before I’ll walk the supermarket dairy aisle without cursing that children’s yogurts should either have their sugar removed or else be moved to a clearly marked ‘desserts’ section, or cereals might no longer be the sugary start to many a child’s day, I’m going to stick to my beliefs that taste and nutrition can, should and do go hand in hand.
When it comes to feeding my family, taste and nutrition are still my ingredients of choice.
Director and Founder - Babycup Ltd
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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtchs 5 Jan 2015: “0845h - A new Change4Life campaign launched today by Public Health England encourages parents to cut down the amount of sugar their children consume by making one or more simple swaps: sugary cereal to plain, ice cream to yoghurt, sweet drinks to plain. Dr Carrie Ruxton is dietician at the Breakfast Cereal Information Service. Tim Lang is professor of Food Policy at City University.”
 WHO public consultation on draft sugars guideline 2014: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2014/consultation-sugar-guideline/en/