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Story Publication logo March 11, 2015

Britain: Adding Sugar Is Not So Sweet

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Half the population of the United Kingdom may be obese by 2050. What are the causes and what is...

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Image by Jamie Walsh. London, 2014.

In a city known for its fried fish and chips, finding a health food store is not an easy feat. Discovering Planet Organic, an all-organic grocery store in the Notting Hill section of London, was like finding a smoke-free café in Paris. As I explored the aisles of the store that boasts no processed foods, no hydrogenated fats and no GMO's, my heart sank when I picked up a box that among the list of ingredients read: Maltodextrin.

Maltodextrin, also known as glucose syrup, is just a fancy way to refer to added sugar. In fact, there are at least 56 other names for sugar that are often found on food labels, including brown rice syrup, sorbitol and cane juice. The average consumer, who hasn't memorized all 56 names, may not realize that these sugars are hidden away in their food.

The Foresight Report, conducted by the UK government in 2007, predicted that half the UK population could become obese by 2050 at a cost of £50 billion or $81 billion per year. The National Obesity Forum, an organization founded in 2000 to raise awareness of obesity in the UK, has since determined that due to upward trends in obesity levels these conclusions may be under-stated—and could be exceeded by 2050.

The Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University of London focuses on research into public health strategies to reduce disease and disability. Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Wolfson is specifically concerned with obesity and feels sugar plays a major role.

"Added sugar in our diet is a very recent phenomenon and only occurred when sugar, obtained from sugar cane, beet and corn, became very cheap to produce," MacGregor said. "It's a completely unnecessary part of our calorie intake, has no nutritional value, gives no feeling of fullness and is acknowledged to be a major factor in causing obesity and diabetes both in the UK and worldwide."

The World Health Organization recommends getting no more than 5 percent of daily calories from sugar. Yet the average Brit is eating close to 12 percent. And that's only the adults. British children are nearing 15 percent. It's not hard to imagine why, when a can of soda contains the equivalent to nine teaspoons of sugar.

MacGregor says soda isn't the only culprit. "While it may not be surprising that a can of Coca Cola has a staggering nine teaspoons of sugar, similar amounts can be found in the most unlikely of foods." He adds, "You might opt for 0 percent fat in your yogurt, but what if it also comes with five teaspoons of sugar? A bowl of Frosties with semi-skimmed milk only has four."

To illustrate this point, MacGregor compiled a list of common foods containing hidden sugar:


At the high end, a Frappucino from Starbucks contains 11 teaspoons of sugar, with white bread coming in at only .4 teaspoons. Not on the list are energy drinks, which MacGregor says contain up to 20 teaspoons of sugar per serving, more than three times the maximum adult daily intake of sugars per day.

"It's clear this sugar plays a part in soaring levels of obesity and diabetes. To this end, leading health experts from across the globe have united to tackle—and to unmask—hidden sugar so consumers can make informed decisions about what they eat and drink." MacGregor is referring to Action on Sugar, a spin-off to his 1996 program called Consensus Action on Salt & Health or "CASH" aimed at lowering salt intake. Today, this program has, along with the government and the food industry, reduced the salt in foods, by a targeted percentage each year.

The reduction happened gradually so no one noticed a difference in taste, which is exactly MacGregor's goal with Action on Sugar. "If you do it slowly, and people get used to it and they prefer the drink with less sugar, then you can do it again. This is how the salt thing worked. Do it slowly: incremental reductions, incremental targets."

Sugar Nutrition UK, a research group funded by the sugar industry, disputes Action on Sugar's medical claims, saying sugar consumption is not a cause of diabetes and cannot solely be blamed for obesity. In a press release the group states, "It is simply not right to say that reducing the amount of sugar in foods will always result in a reduction of calories." Sugar Nutrition UK claims, "In most cases the sugar will need to be replaced by another ingredient and the reformulated recipes can contain more calories than the original."

But despite the push-back, MacGregor is confident his program will be a success. "If we can persuade the Department of Health that this program is very likely to help considerably with the obesity epidemic, and in particular to reduce childhood obesity, while also reducing the incidence of dental disease, and the number of people developing Type 2 diabetes, it should have a good chance of success."

Back at Planet Organic, I put down the box containing Maltodextrin and looked around, deciding that the safest decision was to simply go with an apple.

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