Sugary coating

Saccharose sugar crystals
Saccharose sugar crystals (image: Lauri Andler/Phantom – GFDL)

Industrial lobby group The Sugar Bureau has recently undergone a makeover, with a website re-launch, and the inclusion of a Science Centre in which the organisation discusses the role of sugar in nutrition and health. Images on the website are mostly of fit, attractive young people engaged in healthy outdoor activity.

While no-one in their right mind would condemn the lobbyists for attempting to present their members’ products in the best possible light (after all, they’re not selling cluster munitions or similar), some of the statements must be challenged.

[Diabetes] is certainly not caused by eating too much sugar.”

The root cause of insulin imbalance associated with diabetes is still not fully understood. Sugar abuse, for want of a better term, could well be a contributory factor in some cases.

“People rarely eat sugar on its own.”

Adding sugar to food can improve its palatability, but this is subjective, and a sweet tooth is an addiction than can be cured. Ditto salt craving.

“Surveys have shown that vitamin and mineral intakes are rarely lower – in fact, they are often higher – in people who eat the most sugar.”

Nutrition experts are not alleging that people who heap spoonfuls of sucrose on their corn flakes are ingesting insufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals. They are eating more sugar than is good for them. Also, in any distribution there is a spread of values around an average, so The Sugar Bureau’s statement is essentially meaningless.

“There are many different types of sugar, including glucose (dextrose), fructose, sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and maltose. All these sugars occur naturally, and all are added to certain foods during manufacture.”

True, but the sugar industry’s principal output is sucrose, and the high intake of sucrose in developed societies troubles nutrition experts.

“Many people still mistakenly believe that sugar is fattening. Sugar is a carbohydrate. Eating plenty of carbohydrates and taking part in regular physical activity is the healthiest way to maintain a desirable body weight.”

Carbohydrates are metabolised by the body mainly into glucose, which becomes a source of energy for cells. Excess carbohydrate is converted into glycogen and fatty acids, which can then convert into body fat. Sugar is fattening, especially when consumed to excess by individuals who for whatever reason do not burn off the energy it provides.

Carbohydrates should make up at least half of one’s diet, but the form in which they come is important. Some carbohydrates are simple: e.g., glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose. Others are complex – e.g. those contained in grains, nuts, rice and pasta – and these can reduce the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and various gastrointestinal disorders.

“It has been shown that it is more difficult to overeat on a high carbohydrate diet, because carbohydrate-rich foods fill you up so you are likely to stop eating when you have had enough.”

No it hasn’t. It can be difficult to overeat starchy foods, but that doesn’t stop some from shovelling chips into their mouths until they have trouble rising from the sofa. Overeating lighter, more easily digestible foods with a high sugar content is for some very easy indeed.

“It is also worth remembering that 1 gram of carbohydrate provides only 4 Calories whereas 1 gram of fat provides 9.”

No it isn’t. In fact it’s quite irrelevant, given the relative amounts of carbohydrates and fats contained in a typical balanced diet.

“High sugar consumers tend to be low fat consumers and low fat consumers tend to be slimmer. Conversely, low sugar consumers tend to eat more fat and are therefore more likely to be overweight. This observation has been described as the “sugar-fat seesaw”.”

This is getting silly. The “sugar-fat seesaw”, if it exists, is simply the self-aware individual’s response to his or her bodily needs and feelings. But things start to go wrong when people don’t pay close enough attention to their body, or instead listen only to food industry advertisers and lobbyists, or faddy food gurus whose advice changes on a weekly basis.

“People who regularly consumer sugar-containing soft drinks are no more likely to be overweight that people who choose low-calorie versions. If, as is thought likely, weight gain is encouraged by diets that are high in energy but low in bulk (ie high energy density) then soft drinks would not be expected to be important, since they are substantially lower in energy density than many foods.”

No they are not. Soft drinks can be moreish, and I’ve known people who without thinking can drink on a daily basis two or more half litre bottles on non-diet cola or other fizzy gloop while sitting for hours in front of their computer screens surfing the web or bashing out blog posts.