26 Feb 2013

Are we hooked on sugar?

Michael Moss, a journalist with the New York Times, says that it’s no accident that junk food is often people’s first choice for a meal.

In fact, he says, scientists for food giants work out a “bliss point” – the amount of sugar, fat or salt needed to “send consumers over the moon”. So for all their hard work, is it working? Are we eating more sugar, fat or salt?

Are we eating more sugar than ever before?

Depends on how far back you want to go.

By 1800, British sugar consumption had increased 2,500 per cent since 1650, according to the historian Sidney Mintz. Per head, the average person was consuming around 8 kilos of sugar per year by 1809, up from 1.8 kilos per head in 1700-09.

Part of that was because the British government at the time removed import tariffs on sugar, and prices came down so that what was once an upper class luxury was now affordable to middle classes as well. The poor, Mintz said, “learned to love it”.

The slave trade also played a large part in the expansion of sugar – the historian, Richard Robbins, said that the growing demand for, and production of sugar, created the plantation economy “and was largely responsible for the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1701 to 1810, almost one million slaves were brought to Barbados and Jamaica to work the sugar plantations”.

Around the same sort of time, people began eating more honey and fruit, suggesting that tastes generally grew sweeter.

Despite the numbers of people who have had their teeth pulled out for eating too much sugar in years gone by, it was really only late in the 20th century that doctors began to seriously worry about how much sugar we were eating.

In the last 30 years or so, sugar consumption crept back down. During that period, it was highest in 1982, when Britons were eating around 42 kilos of refined sugar per head per year, but it fell by 10 per cent, or around 4 kilos, during 1980 to 2000.

Yet, though we are taking less sugar in our tea or coffee, and sprinkle less over our cereals, we are consuming more sugar because people are eating more processed foods. So many people do not actually know how much sugar they are eating.

We still eat around 0.56 kilos of sugar a week – around 30 kilos a year. Meanwhile the amount of sugar we eat has gone down in children, but less so in adults.

Does eating sugar make us obese?

For several years doctors, dentists and public health campaigners have been drumming into us the negative associations of the sticky beet, so this may seem like an obvious question.

But it is not quite as clear cut as that, and it is these grey areas which food manufacturers have been keen to capitalise on.

Take the following from the website of Associated British Foods. The group says that it is one of Europe’s largest food companies, which produces groceries such as Twinings, Ryvita and Mazola, as well as owning a retail textile business, Primark.

The sole processor of UK sugar beet crop, supplying half the UK’s requirement for sugar, it says: “Recent scientific reviews have failed to find a positive association uniquely linking sugar consumption and obesity.”

It then goes on to cite its sources, saying that “we gain weight when we take in more caolries than we expend. A healthy lifestyle keeps a proper balance between calorific intake and exercise”.

Michael Moss, a journalist with the New York Times, says that it's no accident that junk food is often people's first choice for a meal (Getty)

The industry-funded body, Sugar Nutrition, goes further, saying: “Sugar may help people stick to slimming diets.” A bit of sugar, their theory goes, on a careful diet “reduces feelings of deprivation and may improve slimmers’ quality of life”.

But a word of caution with all of the above.

Technically, it’s true – a healthy lifestyle does depend on more than just diet. But when they say scientific reviews have failed to find a positive association between sugar and obesity, they don’t mean that it doesn’t exist. They just mean that the evidence has been flawed.

That’s the premise which researchers writing in the BMJ set out to pin down. In a report published last month, researchers wrote: “The suggestion that sugar might have adverse health effects has been a recurring theme for decades, with claims that high intake may be associated with an increased risk of conditions as diverse as dental caries, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes…however, inadequate study design, differences in assessing dietary intake, inconsistent findings and varying definitions of ‘sugars’ have precluded definitive conclusions regarding these associations.”

You can make dog poop taste good with enough sugar. Robert Lustig, University of California

When they took into account the various factors – varying definitions of sugar, research methods, statistical differences, and so on – they said that a reduction of sugar led to a decrease in body weight of around 0.8kg, and increasing sugars was associated with a weight gain of around 0.75kg.

What it said is that “among free living people involving ad libitim diets [diets without any strict controls], intake of free sugars or sugar sweetened beverages is a determinant of body weight.

“The change in body fatness that occurs with modifying intakes seems to be mediated via changes in energy intakes.”

In other words, consuming more energy – for example through exercise – can mean that weight doesn’t increase, but if all else remains the same, a sweet tooth is likely to lead to an expanding waistline.

There are also historical comparisons which can be made. Mintz, the historian, described sugar as a “drug food” – like alcohol or tobacco, an “opiate of the masses” which has little nutritional value but has consoling effects, particularly for the working poor.

More recently, Robert Lustig, a professor of paediatrics at the University of California, has said that sugar is an addictive substance which “covers up” the other four tastes on our tongue – salty, sour, bitter and umami. “You can make dog poop taste good with enough sugar,” he said.

What about salt?

In a study comparing China, Japan, the UK and Britain, salt consumption was shown to be highest in China.

But in Asian countries, the major sources of salt eaten in diets comes from that which is added to cooking, and is present in sauces and seasonings, compared with industrialised countries, where about three quarters of our salt comes from processed foods and food eaten away from home.

Last year, a study by the department of health suggested that the mean estimated salt intake for adults aged 16 to 64 was 8.1g a day – nearly 3 kilos a year.

Again, although that is a decline over the last ten years or so, from 9.5g a day in 2000/1, 70 per cent of participants in a stody had a daily intake of salt higher than the recommendation of no more than 6g a day.

And fat?

Again, above recommended levels, for most of us.

Saturated fats made up 12.8 per cent of our food energy, exceeding the daily recommended amount of 11 per cent.

But again, advice is often conflicting, depending on who you ask, as to how bad saturated fats are for a person.

While heart organisations say that saturated fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood, which increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, others argue that in an effort to cut down on saturated fats, dieters, or even food manufacturers, can replace them with carbohydrates, which then break down into sugar.