Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The sugar saga: is the food industry really to blame?

By Rebecca Almond

The issue seems deceptively simple: sugar is calorific, harmful to teeth and has no nutritional value, so manufacturers should remove it from their products – case closed. Well hang on just a minute Mr Prosecutor, this is far from a cut and shut case…

You see, while sugar isn’t essential in the diet, it does serve other key functions in the production of foods and drinks beyond adding sweetness – such as providing texture, bulk and extending shelf life – so removing sugar completely isn’t always a feasible solution. 

Encouragingly, though, members of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have pledged to help improve public health by reducing the amount of sugar in products where this will result in an overall calorie reduction. But to extract some of the sugar from a product requires something else to take its place, and looking at the options it’s slim pickings: 1g sugar contains 4kcal, 1g protein contains 4kcal and 1g fat contains 9kcal. So is it time to stop wagging the finger at the food industry? Well, not quite…

This year sees the rolling out of mandatory on-pack labelling as part of a new European Regulation – great news for those of us who are keen to make healthier food choices. But there’s a big gap between manufacturers providing labelling information and consumers understanding what it truly means. If I’m honest, a front-of-pack label that tells me there are 9.5g sugar in a pot of fat-free yogurt isn’t all that helpful. What does 9.5g sugar look like? Aside from whipping up the occasional weekend bake, I’m not in the habit of weighing out sugar. Teaspoons, sugar cubes… that sort of measurement I can relate to.

Then there’s the ingredients list. ‘Where sugars are included in products, the different sources are clearly labelled in the ingredients list and the amount of total sugars is provided in the nutrition table,’ says Barbara Gallani, FDF Director of Regulation, Science and Health. Clear, yes, comprehensible, no. Sugar comes in many guises: sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, treacle… Sometimes these sugars occur naturally in foods (milk, yogurt and fruit) and other times they're added (biscuits, cakes and chocolate). The reality is, unless you know the lingo, even detailed food labels won’t always be that useful. So what’s the solution?

‘While there’s certainly room for the food industry to reduce the amount of added sugar in products, without them having to add more fat or salt, it’s crucial that we help consumers understand the often complicated information provided on pack,’ says HFG nutrition consultant and registered dietitian Juliette Kellow. ‘As a rule, foods that contain no more than 5g sugar per 100g are ‘low sugar’ products.’ Websites such as nhs.uk/Change4Life translate the sugar jargon and provide useful sugar swap suggestions, and of course there’s the expert advice in your Healthy Food Guide magazine. But perhaps the easiest way to cut back on added sugar is for us to eat homemade meals: ‘Cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients means you’ll know exactly what’s in them and you won’t need to worry about hidden sugars,’ says Juliette.

What changes, if any, would you like to see the food industry make to their on-pack sugar labelling?


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