The big sugar trap: how sweet is too sweet?

Till about five years ago, the great nutritional fad was to say no to carbohydrates. Today, sugar has become the new villain. It isn't poison but treat sugar like a treat rather than an everyday necessity, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON MAR 08, 2014 08:02 PM IST

It isn't poison but treat sugar like a treat rather than an everyday necessity

You've probably seen the scary stories in the newspapers too. Don't drink fruit juice, they warn, on the mistaken assumption that it is healthy. The truth is that fruit juice can contain more calories than colas and bottled drinks. And what's more, it may even have more sugar than a glass of Coke or Pepsi or 7-up.

I was intrigued, though not particularly worried (I don't drink much fruit juice), so I looked up the figures. It turned out that the scare had its origins in an article in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet, authored by two researchers of Indian origin. Their research demonstrated that while commercial fruit-based drinks obviously contained added sugar, even fruit juices that had not been tampered with were packed with sugar.

Let's take the and sugar content of Coca-Cola as a standard. We know that Coke, Pepsi and other commercial bottled drinks are full of sugar. A few months ago on the BBC's Newsnight programme, Jeremy Paxman destroyed Coke's UK boss by putting out one of those giant cups which they fill with Coke at cinemas. Then, Paxman proceeded to put 27 sachets of sugar into the cup. That was how much sugar a large Coke of the sort we order at the movies (and at fast food outlets) contains. How, asked Paxman, could Coca-Cola justify that? The poor Coke executive hummed and hawed but Paxman had made his point.

Except that the Coke guy should have pointed out that fruit juice, touted by the medical establishment (and UK health authorities) as the healthy alternative was not really much better. A glass of Coke (250ml) contains around 105 calories and 25.5gm of sugar. A glass of apple juice of exactly the same size, on the other hand, contains 110 calories and 26gm of sugar.

So there really is not much to choose. In fact, a scientific study has showed that volunteers who drank grape juice for three months not only put on fat around their bellies but also had lower insulin resistance. So many doctors are now saying that you should not drink more than 150ml of fruit juice a day. Yes, you can have whole fruit, which has fibre and other natural constituents. But you should rid yourself of the belief that fruit juice is good for you in a way that colas are not. Both are as good or as bad, depending on your perspective.

The concern over sugar in fruit juice plays into larger fears about sugar. Till about five years ago, the great nutritional fad was to say no to carbohydrates. These days, the emphasis on no-carbs has reduced. And sugar has become the new villain. Supermarkets offer sugar-free products, all of us try and drink sugar-free soft drinks and chefs turn out sugar-free desserts. There's even a whole school of nutritional writers who argue that sugar is poison and demonise Big Sugar, or the sugar companies, as malevolent forces (not unlike drug cartels) who have made society sick by feeding us their toxic product.

In fact, the medical establishment roundly rejects the sugar-is-poison position. (Ah, but they would, say conspiracy-minded nutritionists, wouldn't they? Big Sugar has bought them off.) In the UK, health authorities reckon that it is okay for an adult to consume up to 90gm of sugar a day. That is, actually, quite a lot. (Assuming you don't have jalebis with every meal.) It comes to 13 teaspoons of sugar a day, or two cans of regular Coke or Pepsi or eight chocolate biscuits. If you don't take your tea or coffee with sugar (and more and more people use sweeteners these days) and don't eat lots of dessert, then it should not be difficult to remain within those guidelines.

The problem is that the world is not measured out in chocolate biscuits or cans of Coke. We can control the sugar we consume consciously. But all too often we eat sugar without even realising it. Fruit juice is one recently exposed culprit. But all processed food contains sugar in one form or the other. So does much of the food at restaurant chains. And it is never the things that you think are certain to be filled with sugar that cause the most damage.

One survey showed that a Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (the kind that made the chain famous), which you would expect to be packed with sugar, only contained 10gm of sugar. This is nearly half the sugar content of a chocolate chip cookie (19gm). And it is much less than a glass (8oz) of Tropicana orange juice, which has 25gm of sugar.

Even when you think you are going to indulge in a sugary treat, you may end up consuming less sugar than you realise. A serving of high quality ice-cream (say Ben & Jerry's vanilla) has only 16gm of sugar. (Less than a single cookie or a glass of orange juice!)

The real sugar kick came from things like fancy coffee. A Grande café latté has a little more sugar (17gm) than a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and a 16oz glass of a vanilla Frappuccino Grande has a whopping 58gm. (That's as much sugar as six glazed doughnuts or three-and-a-half scoops of vanilla ice-cream.)

And even savoury foods can be sugar-filled. Baked beans usually contain vast amounts of sugar. So do salads (the so-called healthy options) at many chain restaurants. One survey I found had tested the sugar-content of a Thai chicken salad at a California Pizza Kitchen outlet. The result was terrifying. The salad contained 45gm of sugar.

So even if you think that 13 teaspoons full of sugar is a generous allowance, do not be fooled. You are probably consuming more sugar than that already if you go to chain coffee bars or fast food outlets or if you don't make your food at home fresh and depend on canned, processed or packaged foods.

The prevailing orthodoxy among is that sugar is now one of the primary causes of the obesity epidemic in America. And this is not the sugar that Americans knowingly consume but a consequence of a diet that is rich in processed and restaurant food.

The problem with trying to find a way out of this sugar trap is complicated by the loathing with which many Internet nutritionists regard sweeteners. Google any of those currently on the market and you'll find that they attract even more scorn and derision than sugar. To some extent, the scepticism is understandable. For much of the 20th century, artificial sweeteners went through a predictable cycle. They were first hailed as breakthroughs by the pharmaceutical industry, then attacked by lay people, roundly defended by the drug business and then slowly withdrawn from sale as fears about carcinogenic and other effects mounted. That's why you hardly hear of saccharin or cyclamates these days.

Currently, the attack is focused on aspartame, the best-known artificial sweetener (you may know it as NutraSweet or Equal) which has been found safe for human consumption by regulators all over the world but remains the target of assaults based on anecdotal evidence. The makers of aspartame have waged their own battle against Splenda, a newer sweetener that is derived from sugar and therefore claims to be natural, a claim the aspartame people object to.

For most lay people, the debate over sweeteners reaches its height when the Diet Coke-Pepsi issue is discussed. I've lost count of the number of people who have told me that my brain will rot or my memory will go because I drink too much Diet Coke. Others have recommended Coke Zero which, they say, is aspartame-free and therefore healthier.

The truth is that the strongest argument that the anti-Diet Cola lobby has been able to come up with is that diet drinks may make you put on weight because they fool the brain into expecting sugar and then, don't deliver on that promise leading to hormonal spikes and fatty deposits. (Don't ask me. I can't follow the argument either.)
A glass of Coke (250ml) contains around 105 calories and 25.5gm of sugar

And as for the difference between the sweetener in Diet Coke and Coke Zero, this is rubbish. Both use exactly the same sweetener. The difference is that Coke Zero is supposed to mimic the taste of real (i.e. sugar-filled) Coke better because they've changed the flavour profile. What is indisputable though is that Coke Zero has as much caffeine as regular Coke (around 9.6 per cent) while Diet Coke has much more (12.8 per cent). So Diet Coke in the morning and Coke Zero at night may make more sense.

The natural-foods-only lobby has long pushed honey as a sugar substitute arguing that it is excreted undigested from the body and so, does not result in weight gain. This is nonsense. Honey has many beneficial effects. But lots of honey has lots of calories. Another natural sugar substitute, Agave syrup will make you as fat as sugar does.

At present, the holy grail of sugar substitutes is stevia, which comes from a South American plant. The Japanese love stevia so much that diet drinks in Japan use stevia rather than aspartame. So far no one has found anything bad to say about stevia. But give them time…

So what should you do? I don't hold with the sugar-is-poison lobby. But I see the logic in cutting down. Treat sugar like a treat rather than an everyday necessity. Be very suspicious of processed food. Try and drink your tea and coffee without sugar. And as long as there is no hard evidence that they are harmful, use artificial sweeteners in moderation.

Whatever you do, remember that our ancestors ate sugar. So did the entire human race. And we survived, didn't we? So sugar cannot be poison. But too much of anything is never good for you.

From HT Brunch, March 9

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