I have been making an effort to familiarize myself with popular ‘Diet Books’ and am currently reading Micheal Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I try to look at these books with a some degree of skepticism, as not all are built on good evidence (one of the worst being Wheat Belly…but that is in another post) or they tend to exaggerate the truth to generate publicity.
There is almost always a scapegoat in these diet books – most I don’t agree with, however in Salt Sugar Fat, I do agree with the scapegoat. This is the Food Industry. In this post I’m going to focus on sugar and the food industry. This is because:
- There has been an increase in recent evidence regarding sugar and health outcomes, and
- Little is being done by the food industry and appropriate others to reduce the sugar in our food supply.
Limiting Sugar Is Not New
It is not breakthrough news that sugar is not something we want to have large quantities of for optimal health. In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report that summarized the best evidence on the relationship between diet, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. After WHO issued the conclusion that we consume too much added sugars, it urged people to get less than 10% of their calories from sugars (about 12 teaspoons in a 2000 calorie diet).
However since 2003 there has been increasing evidence that reinforced this decade-old speculation that sugar increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health issues. In March of 2014, this lead the WHO to propose that people consume no more than 5% of their calories from sugars (about 6 teaspoons in a 2000 calorie diet).
What are we consuming? A lot more than that. In a recent study done by JAMA Internal Medicine, a large amount of the adult participants consumed about 25% of their calories from sugars. They nearly tripled their risk of dying from heart disease, heart attack or stroke compared with those whose diets had less than 10-per-cent sugar calories. This, is a problem.
The Food Industry Perpetuates The Issue
The Food Industry is sneaky. In his book, Ross explains the science used to identify the precise amount of sugar the industry needs to add to their products to hit our `bliss point’ (a self-explanatory concept). The bliss point (as well as marketing) has been figured into the evolution of breakfast cereals, the soda wars, and the composition of so-called fruit drinks (such as Tang, Kool-Aid, and Capri Sun)–as well as many other processed foods. In other words, our taste buds have been trained to accept and crave the amount of sugar that is used in many popular food items today. If the food industry were to take steps to reduce the sugar content of their products, they would be at risk of, well, creating a product that is not accepted by our taste buds and not hit our ‘bliss point’.
Does the food industry realize the degree to which they are impacting our health? I don’t know.
However I have witnessed, first hand, the denial of the food industry. While attending a conference at Kellog’s headquarters a few years ago, I witnessed one of Kellog’s Registered Dietitians say there is no to little scientific evidence that sugar in food is harmful to our health. I was horrified and ashamed to hear this, as were many of my colleagues. With a nutrition expert uttering these words herself, it’s no surprise that the movement towards reducing sugar in our food supply is at a standstill.
What Can be Done?
In February 2014, the USDA proposed that ‘Added Sugars’ be listed on Nutrition Facts labels. This is a great first step! See below for the proposed changes:
One issue that still needs to be addressed with these labels: no daily limit for sugar has been specified. Health Canada should set a Daily Value for added sugars, then require every Nutrition Facts label to list the grams of added sugars AND the percentage of the Daily Value per serving. These serving sizes should also reflect what people actually eat. Health Canada could also set a limit for the sugar content of pop, fruit drinks, iced teas and other sweetened beverages since the industry is unlikely to do it themselves. The industry could start to make use of safe non-caloric sweeteners along with new ingredients that accentuate the taste of sugar.
What Can You Do?
While we are waiting for things to happen on a national level, you can take your own steps to reduce your sugar intake:
- Recognize How Sugar Hides: On labels they go by names such as brown sugar, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane syrup, dextrose, high fructose, fruit-juice concentrate, glucose-fructose, honey and molasses. They’re not naturally occurring sugars like those in fruit and pure fruit juice.
- Pay Attention To Drinks: Replace soft drinks, fruit punch, iced tea, energy drinks and sports drinks with water, low-fat milk, vegetable juice or unsweetened tea or coffee.
- Reset Your Taste Buds: Try to find your new ‘bliss point’. Cut the usual amount of sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup etc. you add to foods and beverages by half. Gradually, use even less. Sweeten foods with spices (e.g. ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg) instead of sugar.
- Look to Naturally Occurring Sweets: Instead of buying flavoured yogurt, try plain yogurt and add in your own berries for sweetness.
- Read Labels: Choose breakfast cereals that have no more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. Look for cereals with no sugar added. Look for snack bars with no more than half the total carbohydrate from sugars. Buy unsweetened non-dairy milks, unflavoured instant cereals and tinned fruit in its own juice (versus syrup).