The truth about sugar: Should we be doing more to give it up?

Sep 19, 2018

outline of cutlery using sugar

It’s excellent that consumers are wising up to the potentially harmful effects of sugar. For some years, fat was considered the biggest evil. Now, we’re aware that saturated fat is unhealthy, and that we ought to keep an eye on how much we’re eating. Sugar, however, can be tricky to spot, and is often hidden in our favourite soft drinks and even ‘healthy’ snacks. But as a nation we’re waking up to the dangers of sugar.

In spring 2018, TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall graced our screens with a fascinating series called Britain’s Fat Fight. The programme followed Hugh’s journey to educate the nation and take on food corporations, challenging them over their overuse of sugar in products like soft drinks and cereal, and lobbying WHSmith to remove sweets from their checkouts.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy

The serious global discussion about the harmful effects of sugar even culminated in a sugar tax here in the UK. According to a report by Beverage Daily, 326 businesses have registered for the sugar tax or Soft Drinks Industry Levy since its introduction in April 2018. The tax means manufacturers using 5g sugar per 100ml must pay 18p per litre, and 24p per litre for drinks made with more than 8g sugar. However industry professionals state that while it’s a positive sign that companies are paying the new levy, it’s debatable that the scheme will be profitable for the government, or change attitudes towards sugar.

In another article for Beverage Daily, Mark James, group managing director at Global Brands stated why his company’s sales haven’t been affected by the tax: “The obvious question at this point seems to be; have sales remained unaffected because we’ve absorbed the sugar tax and it’s not been passed on to customers? The answer is no.

“We don’t sell direct to customers, but like many of our off and on-trade customers who sell our drinks, we run a lean operation.

“The reality is, sales remained unaffected by the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) for a key reason; consumers are able to make decisions for themselves. They don’t like being dictated to in terms of choice and also don’t want to be priced-out of being able to make their own decisions.

“Our research showed us that between 40-50% of drinkers are willing to pay more for premium quality and natural flavours. We knew that taking a price-first approach to the SDIL wouldn’t benefit us or our customers.”

Mark went on to explain that replacing natural sugar with artificial sweeteners wasn’t something that the company or its customers wanted. So Global Brands focused on natural ingredients which “seems to have worked for customers”.

Although we’re becoming more aware of the dangers sugar poses to our health and general wellbeing, should we be doing more to give it up? There are a few questions we need to answer first.

Are natural sugar substitutes better?

hand in stevia leaves

In a bid to reduce sugar content in their products, manufacturers are turning to natural alternatives, such as stevia. The raw leaves of the stevia plant are around 40 times sweeter than sugar, so just a small amount of stevia is needed to sweeten up products. And while refined sugar is largely to blame for the world’s obesity problems, stevia sweetener has no calories. However it is important to remember that just because stevia is a better option, it should still be consumed in moderation.

Another popular alternative to sugar is agave, the sweetener in our Kolibri drops. Made from the sap of the agave plant (a type of cactus native to Mexico), agave nectar is a sweet brown liquid, not dissimilar in appearance to molasses, and is commonly used as an alternative to sugar. Its sweetness is not quite as potent as stevia, though agave nectar is around 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, meaning you can achieve the same level of sweetness using less. As agave contains less glucose and in turn, a lower glycaemic index, it absorbs into the bloodstream more slowly and doesn’t cause a rapid spike in insulin (which is responsible for putting your body into ‘fat storage mode’). It’s worth remembering, however, that agave contains more fructose than sucrose (table sugar), and that fructose is primarily metabolised by the liver. Too much fructose is considered to be detrimental to the liver, so in order to use agave as a healthier substitute to sugar, remember to use only small quantities of organic, raw agave. For health-conscious consumers looking to cut down on sugar, agave nectar is a viable and tasty alternative.

What happens if I cut out sugar completely?

It goes without saying that cutting out sugar from your diet completely is very difficult. Sugar is in pretty much everything, including your favourite condiments, pasta sauces, tinned soup, cereal bars, smoothies and granola. So, if you’re going to drastically cut down on sugar, it’s important to try and stick to raw ingredients. Although whole fruit does contain sugar it also contains fibre, essential vitamins and minerals and antioxidants so don’t bin those bananas! Using fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, and more. Planning is key! But remember that having the occasional sugary treat such as a hot chocolate or a helping of barbecue sauce with your meal isn’t the end of the world. It’s all about balance and control.

Should I trust ‘healthy’ snacks and drinks?

 

When it comes to choosing healthy low-sugar alternatives, be cautious. While many brands tout their products as healthy and ‘low in fat’, they can be full of so-called ‘free sugars’, which can in turn lead to weight gain and other health problems. Wise up to what is in your food by reading food labels and taking note of the sugar content.

Naturally-occurring sugars like those found in agave and fruits are much better than processed sugars, but you should still only enjoy them in moderation. Some companies are creating low or no-sugar treats made from raw or natural ingredients, such as Nakd bars. These healthy alternatives to sugary cereal bars or chocolates are made with ingredients like dates, cashews, dried fruits and cocoa. Deliciously Ella has also created a range of energy balls that are packed full of flavour with no added sugar. Alcoholic drinks like wine and cocktails are also laden with sugar, which is why our distinctive botanical drinks give you the opportunity to add golden agave, caramel and lemon Kolibri drops to add as much or as little sweetness as you like.

It is wonderful that consumers are wising up to the dangers of sugar. Education is key when it comes to leading a healthier life, so check your labels, try healthier alternatives and don’t be afraid to experiment with homemade snacks. It’s hoped that with the low-sugar movement, manufacturers will wise up to the fact that people want genuinely healthy, tasty alternatives. There is a real opportunity here for both businesses and consumers.

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