Necia Wilden in today’s “Epicure” gives a timely reminder about the ways sugar has made a come back in our diet. Keep an eye out for ‘natural’ yoghurts, chardonnays with ludicrously high residual sugar and supposedly savoury Asian dishes.
Check out the show on “Breaking the sugar cycle” for help in over coming this insidious habit.
The white stuff
December 4, 2007
So you don’t think you eat that much sugar? Take a closer look, urges Necia Wilden.
FOOD fashions are a funny thing. A while back I was at the Slow Food farmers’ market in Abbotsford with hundreds of other ethicurean shoppers in pursuit of the best and purest produce.
At a stall offering plain yoghurt and other artisanal dairy foods, I stopped for a taste. Nice. And curiously sweet. Is this what the fresh milk of a non-industrial cow tastes like, I wondered aloud. The woman serving me looks abashed. “We add a little honey,” she says.
At the other end of the food chain, a similar experience. I bought a tub of manufactured yoghurt, branded Yoghurt Stop, at a shop.
“Ninety-eight per cent fat free” boasts the label. “No sugar added.” The first taste is a shock. It is sweet. A check of the fine print reveals it contains an artificial sweetener called sucralose.
Another Yoghurt Stop product is a Greek version containing honey and sucrose. There is added sugar, too, in a seemingly angelic brand of biodynamic Greek yoghurt at my local organic store; Et tu Brute, I think. Why would I want sugar in the tzatziki I was planning to make?
Perhaps my quivering sugar radar is the result of a doctor’s directive to lay off the stuff for a couple of weeks. It’s like having a sore thumb and realising when you can’t even do up your jacket how much you take your thumb for granted. You start seeing hidden sugar everywhere.
At my local 7-Eleven, which sells every flavour of mineral water and soda except plain unsweetened; at Asian restaurants making empty promises about hot and sour flavours; in a press release from a meal solutions company advertising a dish of honey-glazed chicken breast with candied prosciutto, hazelnuts, honeyed sweet potato, basil and spinach leaves, drizzled with balsamic reduction; in a “high-fibre, natural, no artificial colours” health bar at the supermarket that has the same proportion of sugar as a Tim Tam; at upmarket restaurants offering between-course sorbet “palate-cleansers” made from up to 50% sugar; and in countless newspaper, magazine and cookbook recipes.
A couple of these warrant mention: a recipe for son-in-law eggs contains three tablespoons of light brown sugar (to serve two); and a lamb and bean cassoulet is made with 55 grams of brown sugar (to serve four). I’ve eaten desserts less sweet than that.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks most sugar belongs in sweet foods such as cakes and biscuits, and who is increasingly concerned by the everyday deceptions of the food industry and its insidious effect on our collective palates.
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton believes modern tastebuds are being ruined by the push towards greater sweetness. The problem is not only that we are eating American-sized muffins for morning tea, but that over the past few years sugar has started creeping into the rest of our diet.
“It’s the adulteration of savoury foods that’s new,” she says. “We are being influenced to enjoy sweetness in everything we eat.”
This is not a class issue. Stanton says affluent, educated, busy people are as vulnerable to sugar’s easy seductions as lower socioeconomic groups.
“The new baddies are these trendy (manufactured) marinades and sauces,” she says. “It’s the cheap and bastardised Asian food products in supermarkets, the salad dressings, the curry pastes, even the pasta sauces are loaded with sugar.
“It’s part of a general dumbing-down of food – along with high salt and fat levels – that reflects our increasing dependence on convenience.”
Up-to-date statistics on sugar consumption are elusive. Results of the most recent Federal Government-funded National Nutrition Survey, published in the Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics in 1995, show that 22% of an adult’s energy comes from sugar, of which half is natural sugars (for example, from fruits or milk) and half is added (for example, soft drinks and confectionery). Critics of the study point to its failure to consider the sugar hidden in products such as sauces.
Results of the latest survey, a joint funding initiative of the Government and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (which represents most of the big processed food companies), will not be released until next year. It has copped criticism from public health professionals for its perceived lack of independence.
“We find it objectionable that the food industry should be involved in what should be a government task,” says Stanton.
More interesting information can be found in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Apparent Consumption data. In 1938-39, the per capita consumption of cane sugar in the form of refined sugar was 32 kilograms; in the form of manufactured foods (that is, hidden sugar) it was 16.3 kilograms.
By 1988-89 (the most recent study) the total was the same, but the consumption pattern had reversed – we were eating only 8.8 kilograms of sugar as refined sugar but 33.9 kilograms in manufactured foods. With the addition of honey and other sweeteners, the total per capita consumption of sugar in 1988-89 was 48.3 kilograms – which is double the National Nutrition Survey’s 1995 estimate of 24 kilograms.
Sugar’s meteoric rise as a weasel ingredient has been made easier by the power of food fads. In the modern person’s diet, public enemy number one is not sugar, but fat.
You see it in the diet cookbooks; in food advertisements bombarding us with “fat-free” or “low-fat” promises; you see it in upmarket restaurants, where sauces using butter or cream are universally reviled – partly because diners believe they’re unhealthy – while Asian dishes using liberal amounts of sugar are widely believed to be healthy; you see it in the dominance of skim milk and other pseudo-milk products on supermarket shelves.
Yet most health professionals would contend that excess sugar is no less a cause of serious health problems than excess fat: some argue it’s worse.
This is not the place for a detailed examination of the health hazards of the pure, white and deadly stuff.
Yet in any current discussion of the subject, it’s impossible to ignore the widely acknowledged link between our growing appetite for sugar and our worsening obesity and diabetes epidemics. And it’s not only health campaigners who are concerned. Chefs and restaurateurs are noticing – and in some cases, resisting – the trend towards greater sweetness.
“It’s ridiculous that people are worried about the fat content (of foods) but they don’t check the sugar and salt content,” says Rockpool’s Neil Perry.
“People go on every diet except the one that’s about moderation and balance.” Some dishes, he points out, are meant to be sweet, such as caramelised pork hock.
“But they’re also meant to be eaten in balance with other dishes with contrasting flavours. I want my diners to look for hot, sour and salty flavours before they look for sweet.”
Ronnie di Stasio – whose eponymous cafe is one of the few places in Melbourne where I’ve enjoyed a plate of the nicely bitter Italian greens known as cime di rapa – says sugar is the easy way to appeal to an unsophisticated palate.
“I find a lot of the food at Asian restaurants in Melbourne too sweet to eat,” he says.
Why is a lot of Asian food here so often loaded with sugar?
Food authority Tony Tan believes the reason many Asian restaurants – Thai and Japanese in particular – overuse sugar is out of a desire to please the “sweeter” Western palate.
Television chef and author Kylie Kwong agrees, adding that while authentic, homestyle Chinese food employs very little sugar, she was astounded on her trips through China to find that “90% of the food, at all levels of dining”, contained large quantities of the sweet-salty flavour booster MSG.
“So it is not just an issue peculiar to Australia,” she says.
Fact is, sugar sells. What explains the success of new restaurant Nobu’s famous main course of black cod with miso, a dish that sells 60 to 90 portions a day at Nobu Melbourne and 120 to 150 a day at Nobu London?
I say sugar (look up the recipe on the web: search “Nobu, black cod and miso). Nobu Melbourne chef Scott Hallsworth says the dish is based on a traditional Japanese recipe and that the only added sugar on the rest of the menu comes from some of the sauces.
What explains the popularity of Yellowtail, the most successful Australian wine launch in history (1.5 million cases of chardonnay were sold to the US in the past year)? I say – as do many in the wine industry – sugar. Yellowtail chardonnay has residual sugar of 9 grams a litre.
According to Melbourne wine wholesaler Alan Nelson, a well-made Australian chardonnay would normally contain residual sugar of between 0.3 and 1 gram a litre.
In its bid to maintain control of our tastebuds, the food industry is starting to introduce smarter, less obvious methods of keeping us hooked on sweet things.
Already, as author Gina Mallet points out in her book Last Chance to Eat (Random House, 2005), apples and other fresh foods are being developed for higher sugar levels, leading to the obliteration of other varieties that don’t measure up.
The big new frontier, though, is chemicals that mimic the sweet (or salty) flavour, enabling manufacturers to greatly reduce actual sugar (or salt) levels in processed foods without sacrificing “flavour”.
Earlier this year, Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, joined forces with biotechnology company Senomyx in launching a range of products containing a “savoury-enhancing” chemical. A sucrose-enhancer is under development.
Food safety experts have already expressed concerns about the new chemicals, saying that more testing needs to be done before they are sold in foods.
Which begs the question, why would we want to eat anything with added chemicals in the first place? Why don’t we – radical suggestion – just start cutting down on the amount of sugar and salt we consume by eating more fresh, unprocessed, unadulterated foods?
It seems an idealistic notion. The last word goes to Rosemary Stanton. “We are eating all these (processed) products,” she says, “because the food industry wants us to.”
NOT AS SWEET AS IT SEEMS: THE HEALTH PROBLEMS OF SUGAR
What the experts say
Tim Crowe, Deakin University lecturer in nutrition
Lots of sugar means an energy-dense diet – you can eat a lot of calories in a very short time. The most obvious problem associated with this is obesity – and obesity is linked to diabetes, among other problems.
One of the biggest problems is tooth decay, which is getting a lot worse.
Women who consume excess sugar commonly show deficiencies in iron and magnesium.
Mychelle Whitewood, doctor in Chinese medicine
Sugar weakens the digestive system. Chinese medicine teaches that excess sugar creates dampness in the body, leading to numerous health problems and diseases: from immune dysfunctions such as sinusitis to candida (yeast) infections, bowel disorders, polycystic ovaries, gout and urinary tract infections.
There’s nothing wrong with having small amounts of sugar because it can stimulate digestion – it’s OK to have one or two pieces of chocolate, for instance, but if you eat the whole bar it overwhelms your digestive system.
It’s ironic that modern society is obsessed with eating low-fat foods because excess sugar is generally worse for your health than excess fat. The Chinese teach that the digestive system is the centre of the body; it’s the place of transformation and transportation.
And synthetic sugars (e.g. saccharine) are even worse.
Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (North Atlantic Books, 2002)
Excess sweet foods retard calcium metabolism and initiate skeletal problems including bone loss and arthritis. Refined sugar acidifies the blood, destroys B and other vitamins and depletes the body of minerals. It is addictive and contributes greatly to disease.
Rosemary Stanton, nutritionist:
Sugar adds calories without increasing our sense of satiety; it’s ultimately not satisfying.
Even worse than sugar, apparently, is high-fructose corn syrup. The US eats more of this than we do, though it is present here in some processed foods (it’s an ingredient in Coca-Cola, for example).
It’s worse than cane sugar because it seems to increase the amount of fat in the liver.
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/12/03/1196530529290.html