The war on sugar

The sweetness of ice cream can be overwhelming.

The sweetness of ice-cream can be overwhelming.

The sweet tooth seems to require a treat now and then. But why are most food manufacturers overdoing the sweetness thingy. You have an ice-cream treat and although it initially tastes nice, after half is consumed you feel the sugar molecules crawling in your mouth with the sugar taste lingering for several hours. The same with a blueberry cheesecake. The sweetness is just overwhelming.

I could go on and on. I am not after sugar replacements, I just want the sweetness to be toned down.

Trend to reduce sugar intake

Actually, reducing sugar intake has become a key concern amongst many consumers. In a recent 2,500-strong European consumer survey, a quarter of those asked preferred low sugar food products, findings that seem to confirm the continuing shift in consumer efforts to reduce sugar intake. They also found that more than 60% of those surveyed actively monitored their dietary sugar intake. This might be influenced by the World Health Organisation recommendation to reduce sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy intake, or the more extreme aim to get down to less than 5% for improved health.

Excessive sugar consumption continues to be criticised by the media and health professionals alike, resulting in today’s sugar backlash. This has led to sugar replacing fat and salt as the new dietary pariah in many countries. There is thus a key opportunity for companies to address consumer preferences and adapt their products to carry a low or reduced sugar level. But food manufacturers aren’t listening. Of course, taste differences that consumers are not used to can make or break a popular product – something manufacturers are hesitant to risk. However, why not give us some alternatives?

But still a persistent problem

In reality we seem to go backwards in many respects and the USA is a horror example not to follow. In the last 40 years, fructose, a simple sugar derived from fruit and vegetables, has been on the increase in American diets. Because of the addition of high-fructose corn syrup to many soft drinks and processed baked goods, fructose alone now accounts for 10% of caloric intake for US citizens. But note that this is the average with peaks much beyond this especially in adolescents.

Fructose in soft drinks a culprit.

Fructose in soft drinks a culprit.

And then you should know that a recent study found that, matched calorie for calorie with the simple sugar glucose, fructose causes significant weight gain, physical inactivity, and body fat deposition. The link between increases in sugar intake, particularly fructose, and the rising obesity epidemic has been debated for many years with no clear conclusions as people are not only consuming more fructose through their diets, but also consuming more calories in general.

Thus researchers studied two groups of mice, one group was fed a diet in which 18% of the calories came from fructose, mimicking the intake of adolescents in the USA, and the other was fed 18% from glucose, while both groups had exactly the same amount of calories derived from sugar. The only difference was the type of sugar, either fructose or glucose. The results showed conclusively that the fructose-fed mice displayed significantly increased body weight, liver mass, and fat mass in comparison to the glucose-fed mice.

Given the dramatic increase in obesity among young people and the severe negative effects that this can have on health throughout life, it is important to consider what foods are providing our calories.

More ill effects from too much sugar

A new study highlights one more reason to avoid sugary beverages, processed foods and other energy-dense carbohydrate-containing foods. Regular consumption of sugary beverages was shown to be associated with a 3 times greater risk of prostate cancer. By contrast, healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like legumes, non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains were collectively associated with a 67% lower risk for breast cancer.

A common warning though for these type of studies, the results point only to associations, not necessarily to cause-and-effect, but at least the findings are in line with previous studies. Malignant cancer cells seem to feed on sugar, and diets high in refined carbohydrates may lead to a range of adverse health effects primarily due to their impacts on body fatness and on the dysregulation of insulin and glucose, both of which are factors that may increase cancer risk.

Better control of your brain

So what to do about the sweet tooth. Well, actually it has nothing to do with our teeth per se but rather brain chemistry. Excess sugar consumption has been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.

Go for a pill or healthy food? (Photo: Chris de Rham)

Go for a pill or healthy food, your choice (Photo: Chris de Rham).

An Australian research team even went further in showing that if sugar is consumed at current levels in the modern western diet, it can induce structural changes in the brain that impact behaviour by influencing how neurons communicate.

Now you could try medication as the Australian research team observed that the smoking cessation drug varenicline, which is FDA approved, had a similar effect in reducing sugar consumption. Or you could go the more natural way.

Some hope in the war on sugar

There are some tentative steps in industry product reformulation through the development of new sugar-reduced products that you could go for. Or you could just reduce the portion size.

There are also potential government action that might provide future help. A few governments have taken the bold move to introduce a sugar tax as recent years have brought more attention to the role of carbohydrates in our diets and the differences between healthy and unhealthy carbs.

As usual it is your choice.

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