Why Fifty Shades of Sugar?
Because of the many different lights in which sugar is portrayed in both science and the media.
Because of sugar’s shady reputation in relation to our health and obesity crisis.
And because of the fifty plus different names for sugar sprinkled liberally throughout our food supply.
How many of them would you recognise? Does this mean you or your clients might be consuming more sugar than you realise?
And what exactly do we mean when we say sugar?
Sugar is a general term for sweet, short chain, soluble carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates, known as saccharides in biochemistry, are molecules composed of carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O), usually with a hydrogen-oxygen ration of 2:1. Carbohydrates consist of four chemical groups, depending on their size (number of chains):
- Monosaccharides, also known as simple sugars, consist of a single chain. Examples are glucose, fructose and galactose.
- Disaccharides are composed of two monosaccharide chains e.g. sucrose, maltose and lactose. Sucrose, also known as table sugar or granulated sugar, is hydrolysed into fructose and glucose in the body.
- Oligosaccharides contain three to nine chains and often occur as components of glycoproteins or glycolipids on the surface of cells. They have many different functions in the body including modulation of immune responses and determining blood type.
- Polysaccharides consist of 10 or more monosaccharide units and they have two roles:
- Storage of energy in the form of starch in plants and glycogen in animals
- Physical structure in the form of chitin and cellulose
Humans are not able to digest chitin and cellulose hence they serve as fibre in our diet.
Many people refer to all carbohydrates as sugars but technically speaking, it is only the monosaccharides and disaccharides that constitute sugars. In keeping with the correct use of the term, when I talk about sugar in this presentation I am referring to mono and disaccharides, not oligo and polysaccharides.
Most sugars have the chemical formula CnH2nOn where n represents a number between 3 and 7. For example, glucose has the formula C6H12O6.
So why are scientists calling sugar the new booze and soft drinks the new cigarettes?
Why has the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Heart Foundation stipulated an upper limit to our daily sugar consumption?
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Michael Moss, wrote “There is no single product—among the 60 000 items sold in the grocery store—that is considered more directly responsible for the obesity crisis than soda (soft drinks).” When Moss interviewed Jeffrey Dunn, one of Coca-Cola’s former presidents in North and South America, Dunn admitted, “… you can look at obesity rates and you can look at per capita consumption of sugary soft drinks and overlay those on a map, and I promise you: they correlate about 0.99999 percent. As they say, you can run but you can’t hide.” Dunn resigned from CocaCola after a trip to Brazil where he saw kids “so unfairly lured, so helpless in the face of the company’s tactics, so utterly vulnerable to the addictive powers of Coke, that he decided his company had gone too far.”
Coca-Cola executives don’t speak in terms of customers, they use the parlance of addiction. People with ‘a habit’ of two or more cans a day are referred to as ‘heavy users’. Are you, your children or your clients ‘heavy users’?
It is unfathomable that the soft-drink industry continues to claim that soft drinks are harmless when they have been linked to visceral fat deposition, Type 2 diabetes, pancreatic cancer, reduced bone mineral density, nutritional deficiencies, tooth decay, ADHD, lethargy, mood swings, foggy thinking and poor concentration in both children and adults. Research conducted in 2003 demonstrated that drinks and sugary snacks for breakfast performed at the level of a 70-year-old in tests of memory and attention at midmorning. Sweet fizzy drinks cause slow fuzzy brains.
A high level of soft-drink consumption is also associated with lower intake of Vitamins A and C, folate, calcium and magnesium. The best use of soft drinks is for cleaning mould off wooden surfaces. Spill some onto the surface you want to clean for about 30 seconds then rinse it off. If you leave it for too long, it will start to erode the wood.
The reason that soft drinks are the new cigarettes is because there is a direct comparison between the two. Soft drinks are damaging, addictive and the subject of cover-ups by the industry producing them. There is no safe level of cigarette smoking. Every cigarette you smoke causes harm. Soft drinks are the same. There is no safe level of soda intake.
Research published in 2013 in the European journal Diabetologia revealed that consuming one 340-mL can of soft drink a day increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 22 percent compared to drinking less than one can a month. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2003 that a can of soft drink a day can lead to an annual increase of 6.75 kilograms (15 pounds) in body fat. And just as passive smoking has adverse effects, so does consuming soft drinks in the presence of others. Children watch adults and unconsciously imitate them. The message they receive is that drinking soft drinks is okay. The more people who drink soft drinks, the greater the sense of false security it gives everyone. If all those around you are doing it, then it can’t be that bad, right? Very wrong.
The fitness industry needs to be at the forefront of a shift in attitudes towards soft drinks. When we do something, positive or negative, we give other people permission to do the same. When you and your clients stop drinking sugary beverages, other people may notice and ask why. Even if they don’t immediately do the same, you’ll have started a conversation and planted a seed.
What about artificially sweetened soft drinks? Are they better for health? No. A US study of over 9500 adults found that consumption of diet soft drinks was also associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. After the nine-year research period, almost 40 percent of participants had developed three or more indicators of metabolic syndrome.
In April 2009, a study in Diabetes Care showed a 67 percent higher risk of Type 2 diabetes in people who consumed diet soft drinks on a daily basis.
More recently, research published in March 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society revealed a striking dose-response relationship between diet soda intake and abdominal obesity. Seven hundred and forty-nine Mexican- and European-Americans aged 65 years and older were followed for over nine years. In that time, the diet soda drinkers gained almost triple the abdominal fat as the non-diet soda drinkers. Non-drinkers had an increase in waist circumference of 0.8 inches (2 centimetres), occasional users an increase of 1.83 inches (4.7 centimetres) and daily users an increase of 3.16 inches (8 centimetres).
Artificial sweeteners provide no calories because the body is not able to digest them. So how can they lead to weight gain and diabetes? In 2013, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel set out to answer this question. They added saccharin, aspartame or sucralose to the drinking water of mice. Sucralose is also known under the E number E955 and is about 320 to 1000 times sweeter than sucrose, twice as sweet as saccharin, and three times as sweet as aspartame. After 11 weeks the mice showed evidence of glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. The mechanism was a change in gut bacteria. Artificial sweeteners caused an increase in several different types of bacteria that had already been linked to obesity in previous human studies. When the scientists transplanted gut bacteria from saccharin-consuming mice into healthy mice, the healthy mice also developed glucose intolerance. Giving the mice antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria cured their glucose intolerance! Gut bacteria make up more than 90 percent of the cells in the human body—they need to be respected.
The journal Behavioural Neuroscience February 2008 published another revealing study on saccharin and rats done at Purdue University in Indiana. Rats were fed either yoghurt sweetened with glucose or yoghurt sweetened with saccharin. They were then given their usual food. Those given the yoghurt laced with saccharin ate more overall and gained fat! They also had a blunted thermogenic response to eating—in other words they expended fewer calories in the process of digestion.
In addition, diet soft drinks have been implicated in tooth decay (especially with low levels of saliva in the mouth as is the case when we’re thirsty), gingivitis, osteoporosis and premenstrual syndrome. Research from Britain’s University of Sheffield has also raised concerns about the safety of sodium benzoate (E211), a commonly used preservative in drinks such as Fanta, Sprite and Pepsi Max. Professor of molecular biology and biotechnology, Peter W Piper, found that sodium benzoate was damaging to mitochondrial DNA and could eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
There are many more alarming studies on artificial sweeteners and countless more to come. The bottom line is: do you really want to be drinking a strange mixture of phosphorous, phosphoric acid, caffeine, sodium, artificial colouring, flavouring, preservatives and nutrient-depleting additives? The good news is that people who stop consuming super-sweet soft drinks report that after a time they don’t miss them. In fact, they soon find them far too sweet and sickly.
So how do we start to wean an entire world off sugar and artificial sweeteners?
Firstly by asking the question: “Is sugar a trick or treat?” The way we label things profoundly influences our behaviour. As long as people continue to label sugar-laden foods as a ‘treat’, they will feel deprived if they don’t have them. They will feel that they are ‘missing out’ or ‘resisting’ rather than choosing not to rot their teeth, brain and liver. Suddenly it doesn’t sound like such a treat.
What about indulging in a cool, luscious strawberry instead of a thick shake? If we were bombarded with billboards featuring bikini-clad women sucking sensuously on strawberries, we would soon find ourselves from work!
We only see junk food as a ‘treat’ because it has been marketed as such. Our consciousness is saturated with emotive advertising that tells us ‘Have a break. Have Chocolate Bar X.’ There is no intrinsic link between having a break and having Chocolate Bar X—or any other chocolate. We have been brainwashed into believing we ‘deserve’ a sugary, fatty sensation in our mouth when we’ve had a hard day. On the other hand, having ‘Chocolate Bar Y every day helps you work, rest and play.’ Really? High blood sugar levels have been linked to poorer memory and a smaller hippocampus, the learning and memory warehouse of the brain (published in the journal Neurology, October 2013). Eating Chocolate Bar Y every day will blast your brain cells away. And don’t let Chocolate Bar Z trick you into thinking you’ll be satisfied. You won’t be. Food manufacturers deliberately manipulate the sugar, fat and salt content of edible substances to make them addictive. Yes, chemically addictive like cocaine and heroin.
This is not to advocate never eating chocolate. There is nothing wrong, bad or unhealthy about enjoying a piece of chocolate. Sometimes it’s delectable to finish a meal with a sweet taste. Or sometimes you might simply feel like the gustatory experience of chocolate, cake, ice cream or dessert. Problems arise when these things are consumed in excess on a regular basis and we stop appreciating rich, exquisite tastes for what they are: an occasional sensory pleasure or something to commemorate a special event. Rich foods are for savouring and appreciating with all our senses. The more you taste, the less you need to feel satisfied. Problems arise when we use these foods to self-medicate or anaesthetise ourselves from pain. Problems arise when junk food becomes a surrogate for life fulfilment. Problems arise when we become addicted to processed foods that have been manipulated to disrupt our brain chemistry.
Neuroscientist Dr Paul Kenny has done extensive research demonstrating how junk food can hijack the brain’s reward centres so that eating becomes a compulsion rather than a response to hunger. In one of Dr Kenny’s studies at Florida’s Scripps Research Institute, rats that were fed as much junk food as they wanted (cheap commercial cakes, fatty meat products and chocolate) soon started binging and became very fat. When their brains were examined they were found to need much higher levels of stimulation to register pleasure than rats fed healthier diets. The pleasure centres in their brains had been overstimulated by eating junk food. The result was constant craving for more junk food accompanied by diminished pleasure from other sources.
In another experiment, rats stopped eating at a certain point when given either sugar or fat on its own. But when sugar and fat were combined in a ratio of 50–50, for example glazed donuts or commercial cheesecakes, rats were no longer able to regulate their intake and vastly over-consumed the sugar–fat combination. Once again, their brain chemistry had been corrupted, driving them to continue eating.
There is no food in nature that contains addictive formulations of sugar and fat. The processed food industry (which includes junk food, fast food, soft drinks and juices) methodically and mathematically calculates the optimal levels of sugar and fat to keep people coming back for more. The ideal sugar content in a product is referred to as the ‘bliss point’. The goal with fats is to create the perfect ‘mouth feel’. A recent fast food advertising campaign made a Freudian slip: ‘Crafted for your craving’.
Sugar by itself can also be addictive if consumed often enough in large enough quantities. People differ in their susceptibility to become addicted to both sugar and alcohol, and too much of either substance causes fatty liver disease. The major difference between sugar and alcohol is sugar’s furtive ubiquity. With 80 percent of products on our supermarket shelves containing added sugar, it is very easy to consume a lot of sugar on a daily basis without even realising it. Everything, including tomato sauce, flavoured yoghurt, breakfast cereals and baked beans, is loaded with added sugar. The list is endless and I don’t mean to single out any particular product. Anything labelled ‘low fat’ should also set off alarm bells for lots of added sugar. If fat is removed, more sugar needs to be added to retain an
alluring taste and texture.
How is sugar addictive? Sugar causes the pleasure centre of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, to receive a dopamine signal that we experience as immediate gratification. We think to ourselves, “That was pleasant and now I’ve had enough”. But if the dopamine signal is continually activated by everything we eat, it gradually weakens and we need a higher dose to receive the same level of pleasure. Then if we stop eating sugar, we feel awful and experience withdrawal. So we consume more sugar to lift us back up and so it goes on. We forget that after a sugar hit, we don’t crash back down to ‘reality’. We crash below our baseline mood and need another dose just to get back to ‘normal’ functioning. Addiction.
Most people don’t like to be told what to do and they strongly rebel against having their personal freedom taken away from them. Yet this is exactly what the food industry has done.
One of the reasons people reach for ‘naughty’ treats is that they feel like being rebellious. When one of my clients told me: “I’m going to do what I want and no one is going to make me eat celery.” I respond by saying: “Guess what? No one is trying to make you eat celery. Only you are. Have you ever seen an advertisement for celery? Or for any other vegetable that is not in a tin?”
The irony is that by eating so-called treats we are being the opposite of rebellious. We have passively allowed the food industry to tell us what to do.
By spending more money on marketing than ingredients, the food industry has conditioned us to see their products as treats and indispensable staples. At the same time, they have manipulated their products so that once we start eating them it is difficult to stop. And in the process we are eroding our health on every level: physical, psychological and emotional. By eating a packet of biscuits, we are not being rebellious at all. We have fallen into a trap. The food industry is full of tricks not treats.
Sugar is not designed to be a daily snack but an energy-rich substance for when we need a lot of energy quickly. Sugar is an emergency food, not a staple.
A 2012 report titled Sugar Consumption in Australia: A statistical update disclosed that the average Australian eats 27 teaspoons of sugar per day. The WHO and the American Heart Foundation advise that the safe upper limit for sugar consumption is 9 added teaspoons a day for men, 6 teaspoons a day for women and 4 teaspoons a day for children.
So I invite you, your family and your clients to play hide-and-seek-the-sugar. The food industry hides sugar; the game is for you to find it.
One teaspoon of sugar is approximately four grams. To calculate the number of teaspoons of sugar in a packaged food, follow the system below:
- Look at how many grams of sugar are on the label. The label usually has two columns. The first column lists sugar ‘per serving’ and the second column lists sugar per 100 grams or 100 millilitres.
- Look at how many servings of the product are in the packet or container (usually at the top of the label). For instance, ‘Servings per container’ might be listed as two.
- Calculate the amount of sugar in the whole packet. For example, if there are 20 grams of sugar per serving and the number of servings is two, there are 40 grams of sugar in the whole packet. This equates to 10 teaspoons of sugar.
- How much of the product do you think you will eat in one sitting? Often the serving size on the packet is very small and it is easy to consume twice the designated serving at a time. A 200-gram tub of yoghurt is a good example. Most people eat the entire tub in one sitting but this is nominated as two servings by the manufacturers.
- When you have estimated how much you will eat, calculate the corresponding amount of sugar.
- Add up the sugar in all the different foods you eat in a day. What is your daily average number of teaspoons?
Beware that ‘No added sugar’ does not mean no sugar in it. It usually means there is plenty of sugar in the other ingredients so no sugar needs to be added. Do not rely on descriptions of foods on the packaging. Look at the numbers. The best example of this is fruit juice. There are approximately 20 grams or five teaspoons of sugar in 250 millilitres (one cup) of orange juice. Never mind the fact that it is ‘rich in vitamin C’. You can get your vitamin C without the high sugar dose if you eat fresh whole fruit and vegetables.
Milk contains the disaccharide, lactose, which is broken down by the enzyme, lactase, into glucose and galactose. Lactose constitutes two to eight percent of milk by weight, and is also included under ‘sugars’ in the label. However, lactose in milk, yoghurt and cheese does not count towards your daily sugar intake. As a rough estimate, you can subtract four grams or one teaspoon of sugar for every 100 millilitres of milk or yoghurt. This means unflavoured milk and yoghurt do not contribute any sugar to your daily allowance. However, flavoured or sweetened yoghurts of all types can contain large amounts of added sugar depending on the brand. You will find out as soon as you start playing hide-and-seek.