Sunday, 23 September 2012

The bitter sweet truth about sugar

I’m fond of telling people I don’t have a sweet tooth – “Oh no, not me,” I say. “Give me something savoury like cheese any day...”

But when I told a nutritionist about my typical breakfast – yogurt, sweetened with honey, with a sliced banana or mixture of fresh berries on top, she raised an eyebrow. “That’s one big sugar fix!” she said.

I had to admit it – the yogurt on its own is too sour for me. And even the banana isn’t enough to stop me wincing.

I also need a sweet fix at the end of the working day – around 7.0 pm, I will start craving a glass of wine, or picking at any pastries lying around in the kitchen.

To stop these cravings I need to stabilise my blood sugar so it doesn’t dip and set me thinking about sweet things – but that’s easier said than done.

Although I can probably monitor my sugar consumption quite easily, as I tend to eat fresh home cooked foods, and rarely deliberately add sugar to anything (the big exception being the honey on my yogurt), temptations to eat processed high sugar foods are ever present.

Nutritionists say we should get no more than 10% of our daily calories from sugars of all types (from jam, honey, fruit, juices and other added sugars) – that’s around 50g (12 ½ teaspoons) of sugar a day. But the average UK citizen consumes 38 kg of sugar in a year – 26 teaspoons and 400 sugar calories a day according to the World Health Organisation. It’s in everything – start reading the labels.

Obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe says: ‘Try to buy a bread without sugar in it, or a soup, or a sauce/dressing or a ready meal. Check your vitamin tablets and even your sausages! Don’t be surprised to see some form of sugar (eg dextrose or fructose) on the list of ingredients. I can count on one hand the number of cereals without sugar. It has found its way into virtually every fake (processed) food on the market. Why? Because it's a cheap filler, it prolongs shelf life, and it appeals to the human sweet tooth. Forget that we're supposed to eat food for its nutritional content - sugar is added for any reason other than because it makes a product healthy.’

Kath Dalmeny of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, adds that ‘studies show that a processed, junk food diet is right up there with smoking and alcohol as a danger to our health.’

And Professor Robert Lustig, professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of California, and an expert in childhood obesity, says that sugar is behind the obesity epidemic and the huge rise in conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s that are together killing more than 35 million people every year.

According to Professor Lustig sugar programmes us to eat more – by switching off the satiety hormone leptin that tells us we’re full. There’s even a biological reason why it does this – because when we were hunter-gatherers we needed to binge on sweet fruit at harvest time when there was an abundance of it, and that made up for the lack of fruit through winter.

But sugar in processed food is an anti-nutrient because it takes nutrients to digest it, and gives us nothing in return, says Zoe Harcombe. ‘Whereas we need fat and would eventually die without any fat in our diet, we need only 1tsp of sugar in our blood at any time and even a large apple will give us five times as much as that.’

The problem is that it’s hard to give sugar up – and that makes it very easy for marketing people to persuade us to eat more of it, never mind what it does to our health.

‘We all have an innate love of sugar and that’s what helped us seek out fruit when we lived as primitive hunter-gatherers,’ says Kath Dalmeny. ‘But now we’re surrounded by sugary foods – with sweet “treats” popping up to tempt us in the most unexpected aisles of the supermarket.

‘Never go shopping on an empty stomach – when you’re most likely to succumb to these sweet treats,’ Kath warns.

Sugar – in particular fructose -- gets stored as fat by the body when we cannot use it all up, and most of us are eating far more than we can use in energy.

I am going to start by swapping my honey for Xylitol – which is completely sugar free  - and my banana for berries, which aren’t so sweet... I’ve tried it before and it’s great. BUT, even then, I will still be pandering to my desire for something sweet, and nutritionists say I should be giving up on all sweet additives. Only then will I start to enjoy the natural flavours and sweetness of food.