…would smell as sweet.
So said that Shakespeare fellow. In a similar vein, sugar by any other name would taste as sweet. Or, in the case of advantame, a sugar-substitute, it would taste 37,000 times sweeter (Swallow This, Joanna Blythman). Pretty sweet, eh?
Why would we need sugar substitutes? The reason, it would seem, is that sugar is not always the easiest ingredient to work with, especially in factory conditions, where a liquid sugar substitute can have an advantage (see, for example, Nordzucker – they also have a handy leaflet explaining how sugar is extracted and processed, in case you’re interested). Not only that, sugar substitutes can be cheaper than sugar (for example, high-fructose corn syrup is popular in the US because it is “cheaper than white sugar”, How Stuff Works).
When considering these sugar substitutes, the hypothesis that I am working to is that all of these sugar-like substances are as bad as sugar when it comes to the impacts they can have on us. Some may be more harmful than sugar – yes, I’m looking at you glucose-fructose syrup – but the science and arguments around that particular assertion are perilous to keep track of and were giving me a headache. So let’s leave that to one side for now and just stick to the principle that sugar and its substitutes are all equally bad for us when we eat and drink too much of them. It is important to highlight that last part.
When, in 2011, the European Food Safety Authority looked at whether sugar alone caused us to become overweight, they concluded that “a cause and effect relationship has not been established between total sugar intake and body weight gain”, meaning that it cannot be said that sugar on its own is causing us to get fatter. At the same time, neither did they find that replacing sugar with sugar substitutes contributed “to the maintenance or achievement of a normal body weight”. So, sugar replacements are not any better than sugar when it comes to maintaining a normal body weight. And as the NHS confirms, “most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar”.
Just to drive the point home, they can all be bad for us – when we eat too much of them – because they can mess up our energy flux: the calories-in versus the calories-out. Along with all of the other calories we consume, they weigh heavily on the calories-in side of the scale. Sugar is not the sole bad guy, but it is the one I am concentrating on for now. Partly, this is because it turns up in some most unexpected places…
Sugar’s band of brothers
There are loads of sugar substitutes so, in honour of today’s title, I have used the free tools at tagxedo.com to create a word cloud of a rose, made up of all of the names for sugar and sugar-like substances listed on the Fed Up website.
Yes, sometimes I have too much time on my hands.
Watch out, sugar’s about!
If I want to eat one of these…
…then I know that it will have sugar in it. I know this because Mrs Running Buffet baked them herself. Similarly, if I want to eat one of these…
…then I also know that it will have sugar – or a sugar-substitute – in it. Because it’s a biscuit and common sense tells me that it will have sugar in it. (Plus, they have to put it on the label.)
What about if I want to eat these?
These all contain added sugar. Common sense isn’t quite so helpful this time. If I cannot trust my – clearly inadequate – common sense then I have to rely on the labels. Remembering, of course, the numerous names for sugar-like stuff.
Luckily, the labels also have to tell us how much sugar is in a product. These levels are compared with the Recommended Intake (RI) for sugar, which is currently set at 90g for an adult (NHS). That 90g guideline is for all sugars, including those that occur naturally, in milk and fruit for example. The NHS website goes on to explain that, within that guideline, “added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. This is about 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over.”
And this is the problem that we all face. Because it is not possible to tell from the label how much added sugar there is in a product, only the total of all of the sugar that it contains: naturally-occurring and added. In order to work out when you are going to exceed the 30g maximum, you need to know this information. And it is not easy to come by.
The Sunday Times recently highlighted the true levels of added sugar in foods. For example, their article reported that a “330ml can of Coca-Cola contains 35g of sugar, almost nine teaspoons. The label says this represents 39% of an adult’s RI of total sugar but does not state that it contains 117% of an adult’s RI of added sugar — because all the sugar in the drink is added.” In another example, a yoghurt jumps from 22% of the overall RI to 67% of the added sugar RI. It seems that it may not take too long for you to fill up your recommended intake of added sugar.
Please remember, this is my bid to work out what’s the Right Thing for me to do. I’m sharing my thoughts as I go, in case it helps others to start thinking about what is right for them. I’m not an expert, I’m just inquisitive and have access to the internet. Please bear that in mind when making your own choices.