We’re told that sugar is the new fat and squarely to blame for the nation’s expanding waistline. But is demonising one ingredient at best counterproductive, and at worst dangerous?
Sugar has only recently knocked fat off the “evil food” top spot, but thanks to celebrity campaigners and millions of pounds of public health money, we already cutting down on the white stuff.
The marketing machine has kicked into gear, and the sugar-free trend has seen a flood of alternatives – honey, agave syrup and coconut sugar – hit the shelves.
What we all have to remember is that all these products are still just sugar, and anyone who says they aren’t are talking: “nutribabble”.
It’s a word I have shamelessly stolen from a talk at this year’s British Science Festival during which experts explained why demonising one particular ingredient is useless in the fight against obesity.
Judy Swift, is senior lecturer in behavioural nutrition at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of The Nourishment Network. She said: “Obesity is multi-factorial. There’s no magic bullet. There’s been huge investment in obesity research and none of it has come up with a solution. We are not saying that sugar doesn’t have a role for some people, but sugar free is not a cure for the whole population.”
Blaming it for the crisis in the NHS stigmatises people: as Judy said if anything is causing the NHS to collapse, it’s aging, “but you wouldn’t put that on a poster”.
It also feeds into problematic relationships with eating, fuelling the idea that people should feel guilty about eating particular foods.
Importantly, it’s not effective and only the marketeers, who are able to tap into the healthy living zeitgeist with ease, branding and a few evidence-lacking blogs, win.
“Quite often, when someone quits sugar, it’s replaced with things like coconut sugar, agave syrup and honey. People are confused and think that these are healthy options, but sugar is just sugar.”
In terms of the so-called sugar tax on sugary drinks, she said there was no evidence that people would not simply get their sweet hit elsewhere.
“They may pick up a bottle of water instead of a fizzy drink, but they may also reach for a chocolate bar to get the energy boost they were looking for. Quitting sugar only works if those calories aren’t replaced with something else.
“There’s no good or bad food, this logic is flawed and problematic.”
Dr Duane Mellor, nutrition academic and dietitian, described this school of thought as “nutribabble” adding it would be entirely possible for everyone to give up sugar.
We don’t need to take it in our diet because our bodies make it. It has no nutritional value, it is not “nourishment”. But people don’t eat “nourishment”, he said “they eat food”.
He asked: “We could go sugar free, but why should we?” He makes a good point.
The boring truth of it is the only answer to weight loss is a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise. And if you want to eat a cake from time to time, eat a cake. Let’s face it, we all like cake and our mental health is just as important.
But I suppose that doesn’t sell £60 jars of “super honey”, does it?
Interesting side note alert:
It’s not the first time we have tried to cut out our collective sweet tooth, though last time it was for more virtuous reasons.
Sugar was seen as an exotic spice until the advent of colonisation, when slave labour made it affordable to produce and import. In protest, the Anti-Saccharrites movement saw more than 300,000 families boycott the bittersweet treat between 1791 and 1793.
I would say that was a much better reason to go sugar free.