An uncontrolled experiment on our health
I was interested to read recently about a price comparison of Chelsea branded sugar with the supermarket’s home brand - which was half the price.
Supermarkets are reducing the number of brands they carry and with this, I am sure we will see more promotion of home brands – increasing our dependence on supermarkets and making it harder for local food companies to thrive. My concerns are bigger than that though, I have become somewhat obsessed with the tale of sugar, or sweeteners in our food.
In processed food, the sweetener of choice for “Big Food Co” is high fructose corn syrup, derived from corn starch - because it’s cheap. When corn starch is broken down, the end-product is corn syrup - mostly glucose. Enzymes are then added to the corn syrup to convert some of the glucose to a simple sugar called fructose. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit, but when we eat fruit, we also eat fibres and polyphenols which have nutritive value and lessen the amount we eat in one hit. It’s easy to drink a glass of apple juice, it’s much harder to eat several apples in one sitting.
The amount of fructose we are consuming has escalated dramatically. In the United States high fructose corn syrup is the most widely used sweetener, added to more than 60% of their supermarket foods. Note that fructose also makes up 50% of “table sugar” or sucrose (sucrose is a disaccharide consisting of one glucose and one fructose molecule).
We understand the danger of soft drinks, because we understand how much sugar (or fructose) has been added – but check out your canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, muesli bars and breakfast cereals to truly understand sugar’s ubiquity and note that product labelling does not require the separation of sucrose and fructose, or the origin of the added sugar to be identified.
Health data are increasingly showing that processed fructose is the worst form of sweetener we can consume. The metabolism of fructose leads to the production of uric acid. Elevated uric acid levels are commonly associated with gout and scientists are beginning to understand that, even at lower levels than seen with gout initiation, excess uric acid production compromises the delivery of insulin to muscle cells, elevating blood sugar - leading to increased glucose production and fat accumulation, both of which threaten insulin’s ability to do its work. All of this underpins the significant rise in systemic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, and obesity we are seeing globally - it’s not a great story.
How does all this connect with the price of sugar? It connects because the more power we place with our supermarkets (and their home brands) and large food processing companies – the more we will see ingredient cost-cutting for profit, with minimal transparency.
On top of that, access to local food company products made from whole foods and better-quality ingredients become the domain of the well-off. Processed food from global food chains, made with poor quality ingredients, are what many families can afford.
What can we do? We can support local food companies, even when we have to pay a little more – that’s a hard ask right now with inflation sky-rocketing, so what else can we do? Is it time for greater intervention? In the form of better labelling so we at least know the sources of “sugar” additives in our food? What about a sugar and fructose tax? What about greater regulation of supermarkets to ensure their own-brands are better quality and not used as loss-leaders, undercutting local food innovators?
I would love to see a local baked-bean company with high-quality ingredients take on Big Food Co. We have seen this in the peanut butter category with “Fix and Fog” taking on and succeeding in the biggest global peanut butter market – the United States. In our house, we buy Dunedin company “Bay Road” peanut butter – we know and trust their ingredients – but we pay more for that. How can the government support these innovative companies?
Education also becomes part of the equation – and not just in schools. As a society, we underestimate the value of learning for life and providing more learning opportunities for adults. How do we re-create and share simple “hacks” for healthy meal and snack making and how do we make those hacks available to people on all incomes?
My Grandmother lived into her nineties, she had a sweet tooth and enjoyed a slice of home-made cake. I doubt she ever consumed high-fructose-corn syrup. In today’s society we are allowing Big Food Co to undertake an enormous dietary experiment with no controls – it’s time to intervene.
First published in the Otago Daily Times in Anna's "Fence Lines" column, 25/5/22