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Sugar-coating the truth

LAUREN BOWES reveals the silent killer hiding in plain sight.

Few things are as confusing as our diets. Sometimes eggs are bad for us, other times they’re a super-food. For decades, nutritionists have declared fat to be the enemy, treating high-fat foods with distrust, swapping butter for margarine and slapping ‘low-fat’ labels on everything from mayonnaise to toilet bleach. However, in GCSE Biology, we learn the benefits of ‘good’ fats, like unsaturated fats, which improve cholesterol levels, some of which contain necessary omega-3s, such as fish, flaxseed, and kale. Beyoncé definitely knows her stuff.

But the term ‘fat’ strikes fear into the cholesterol-avoiding hearts of many, conjuring up monstrous images of chip baskets dipped into vats of hot oil. This confusion has led many to equate all fat with saturated fat, and saturated fat with body fat. But now, as if we weren’t lost enough, studies are showing that saturated fats are not always bad for us.

The proof is in the pudding: over the past thirty years, Americans have been advised to reduce their intake of saturated fat, cutting calories from fat from 40 per cent to 30. Yet obesity levels in the USA have never been higher, with the number of people who are clinically or morbidly obese now outnumbering those who are merely overweight, rendering only the minority at a healthy weight. Although based on BMI – an unreliable means of measuring health – this study clearly shows that it is not fat that is making us fat.

When you cut something out of your diet, it has to be substituted. The protein from meat is replaced with dairy, tofu, or beans. So what happens when you cut out fat? Some advise eating a double portion of lean meat instead of a fattier alternative while others maximise ‘good’ fats, fibre, and protein. However, an easy solution is upping your intake of carbohydrates and sugar to spice up your plate and keep you full.

It’s not just consumers who do this, but food producers too. When you remove the fat from a product, something needs to be added to improve its taste, and that something is usually sugar. Low-fat yoghurt is the one of the biggest culprits, the most shocking example being Total 0% fat free yoghurt with honey, with 18.8g of sugar per 100g, compared to Rachel’s with 12.7g. Salad dressing is another: Waitrose’s vinaigrette has a negligible 1.6g of sugar per 100ml, whilst its low-fat version has 15.8g – ten times the amount.

Low-fat products are not the only examples of where sugar’s impact is felt. Napolina tomato and basil sauce has 5.8g of sugar per 100g, but a can of chopped tomatoes, a squirt of tomato puree, and some basil would only come to about 3.5g. Listed under ‘healthy alternatives,’ Fruit Bowl Strawberry Flakes with yoghurt coating have 62g of sugar per 100g – making over half of the product sugar. To put that into perspective, strawberries have 6.1g of sugar – ten times less.

Photo credit: Waitrose
Photo credit: Waitrose

But why should sugar worry us? As previously mentioned, obesity levels are rising and fatty foods are not the culprit. Considering our sugar consumption, it seems clear that there is a connection between sugar and weight gain, suggesting sugar is the silent killer. Yet it is this kind of thinking that led us to our previous conclusions about fat being bad for us. Luckily, someone has done the research.

In a challenge akin to 2004’s Super Size Me, the formerly health-conscious Damon Gameau decided to ignore his inhibitions in order to explore the effects of sugar. That Sugar Film takes a less sensationalist and more nuanced approach than Super Size Me. Instead of guzzling Coke and devouring Mars Bars, Gameau ate only foods which are marketed as ‘healthy’, and only consumed the amount of sugar the average Australian does: 40 teaspoons a day, around 160g. Gameau was initially shocked by this figure, asking how many processed sweets that would entail eating. Yet his first breakfast of Just Right cereal, fat free yoghurt, and juice shockingly came to twenty-two teaspoons: over half his daily allowance.

Photo credit: That Sugar Film, via The Daily Mail
Photo credit: That Sugar Film, via The Daily Mail

After just sixty days of eating a ‘normal’ amount of sugar, Gameau gained 8.5kg, and 10cm around his waist – despite eating fewer calories on average in comparison with his previous diet. His former diet contained 50% calories from fat and 24% from carbohydrates as opposed to his new diet of 22% calories worth of fat and 60% from carbohydrates. Gameau’s experiment has clearly shown that there is a strong connection between sugar and obesity. Yet it also reveals a side to sugar that is even darker than mere aesthetics. Post-experiment, Gameau developed fatty liver disease, pre type 2 diabetes, appeared depressed, and lacked concentration.

This research has worried many health-conscious public figures, including Jamie Oliver, famous for revolutionising school meals and now challenging the way we see sugar. Oliver’s current goal is to introduce a sugar tax and display the amount of sugar in teaspoons. The latter may sound simple, but it could make all the difference. I remember drinking Ribena as a child; would a parent be so ready to offer the drink if they saw ’13 teaspoons of sugar’?

Photo credit: Jamie Oliver
Photo credit: Jamie Oliver

Cameron swiftly rejected Oliver’s proposals, with a spokesperson claiming ‘there are more effective ways of tackling obesity’, supposedly before even reading the report. One source has suggested he is averse to taxing families unnecessarily: a rather ludicrous objection given his history of bedroom taxes and of slashing child tax credits.

As the NHS struggles to cope with the numbers of obesity-related illnesses, why is our government so reluctant to intervene? Gameau hints at a reason in That Sugar Film: like the tobacco industry before it, food industries have an influence on how things are run. During the documentary, Gameau interviews a scientist who denies the link between fructose and cardiometabolic diseases, and whose thoughts mirror advice from the Australian government. When probed, the scientist revealed their funding came from Coca Cola. A few weeks ago, it came to light that Cameron has met with Coca Cola, Mars, and Nestle in the past year. He has unsurprisingly been silent on the issue since.

Hopefully Jamie Oliver will manage to talk some sense into our PM, but until then, it’s up to us to think about what we consume. You wouldn’t consciously eat spoonful after spoonful of sugar as a snack, so think about what’s actually in your food. Learning to understand labels and portioning is key. Counting calories is moot, but checking sugar consumption is fundamental (no more than 50g a day). A balanced diet consists of 45-55g of protein, 70-90g of fats (20-30g of which can be saturated) and 13-15g of fibre. The best way to keep healthy, however, is to make your own meals from scratch. Home-cooking is the only surefire way to avoid the trickery of food corporations.

CategoriesLauren Bowes