Sweet and sour: sugar and our nanny state…

09 +00002014-03-10T15:34:46+00:0031 2012 § 9 Comments

From 'The Times', Saturday March 8th 2014

From ‘The Times’, Saturday March 8th 2014

It’s a beautiful spring day and I’m luxuriating in the winter’s departure – though still with a wary eye on the sky, as I’m mindful that this time last year there were hedge-high snowdrifts in the lanes near my house. When I arrived in Brighton in March 2013 for the conference at which I annually organise the speaker programme (and for which I am departing again tomorrow), the promenade was deep in snow and Brighton, that gaudy seaside princess accustomed only to balmy springs and mild winters, had stamped her foot and gone on strike: nothing was operating; not trains, buses or cafés, and the lone taxi driver who had ventured out deposited me at my hotel with all the air of a Himalayan Sherpa supporting a winter expedition. But tomorrow, I’m told, the sun will be shining, the temperatures unusually warm for the time of year.
It’s perhaps a little unseasonal of me, therefore, to embark upon a rant. Rants are normally reserved for foggy November days and chill winter evenings, when the humours are out of sorts and venting one’s chagrin upon the world is, if not de rigeur, then at least condoned. However, I haven’t had a rant for ages, so perhaps may be allowed a little leeway now. It is also unusual for me to comment on political issues, but I’m going to do that, too.
If you read the newspapers regularly, you will have noticed that the government’s latest frenzied preoccupation is with sugar. Yes, sugar. Not tobacco or marijuana or alcohol or ‘hard’ drugs or even prescription drugs, all of which we know to be major killers in the UK, but sugar. The government is considering the imposition of an extra tax on foods and drinks that contain high sugar content – whatever that means (the cynic in me whispers that this might – incidentally, of course – turn out to be a nice little earner). Meantime, the World Health Organisation (THE WHO?!) has suggested that sugar should form no more than 5% of our diet.
Now, I am not a scientist: in fact, if you were to line up twenty random people and assess their ignorance-of-science credentials, I reckon I would get the top slot, or certainly the runner-up’s. Because I needed a science subject in order to get into university, I studied Biology – that traditional ‘soft option’ for arts and languages students – and, after much labour, succeeded in obtaining a moderately respectable grade which was, incidentally, the worst of all my examination results, ever. However, I do remember quite a lot of the information from my ‘O’ Level Biology course, having managed to din it into myself by rote, and since then I have taken more than a passing interest in nutrition – particularly when I was a new mother – and food generally, as I like cooking. I can therefore state with some confidence that there are simple and complex carbohydrates and that both are absorbed into the digestive system as sugar. Yes, sugar. The difference is that simple carbohydrates don’t take any breaking down – they can more or less be absorbed in the form in which they are ingested, meaning that the person eating them feels satisfied for less time than if he or she is eating complex carbohydrates – which take longer to break down. Therefore, if you eat lots of simple carbohydrates – such as sweets, biscuits and soft drinks – you are more likely to feel hungry again sooner and therefore to get fat, especially if the next lot of food that you eat also consists of simple carbohydrates. Simple, isn’t it? (If I haven’t got this right, I invite those of you with a firmer grounding than mine in science to correct me.)
So far, so good. I have no quarrel with any of that, except to point out that simple carbohydrates are not always ‘bad’ – they can be very useful if, for example, you are out on a hike and need an extra boost. Think Kendal Mint Cake or Dextrosol tablets. And not all simple carbohydrates contain only ‘empty’ calories: some have vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that aid recovery from strenuous activity or illness – Lucozade, for example (though I accept that the same benefits can also be acquired through the consumption of more natural products, such as milk).
What I really want to contest is that the current witch-hunt to track down and vilify sugar seems to me to have confused simple with complex carbohydrates to such an extent that natural foods as well as manufactured ones are now being targeted. And, as I’ve indicated at the beginning of this post, the newspapers, which can often be relied on to counterbalance the government’s more ludicrous excesses with a little cod-wisdom of their own, have on this occasion jumped on to the same bandwagon. Take last Saturday’s edition of The Times, which contained a full-page illustrated feature called ‘The Good Sugar Guide’. At the top of the page, it says that the WHO recommends that we don’t eat more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. If you look down the chart, you will see that one of the biggest sugar ‘culprits’ is the banana. A banana contains, on average, seven teaspoons of sugar.
Exactly what kind of advice is being offered here? Are we being exhorted to give up bananas, that mainstay of just-weaned babies, children’s teas, lunch-boxes and commuters’ breakfasts on the hoof? Bananas, which have in some regions been a foodstuff since the dawn of mankind, and which are known to have a wide range of nutritional and medicinal benefits? (If you’re interested, some of these are listed at http://www.botanical-online.com/platanos1angles.htm.) Or are we supposed to eat six-sevenths of a banana today and save the rest of it for tomorrow, not minding that the remaining seventh is now brown and sludgy and possibly contaminated with bacteria? Or perhaps eat six-sevenths of the banana today and throw the rest away? Nothing else with sugar to be eaten, mind!
The chart proclaims, conversely, that a large glass of red or white wine contains only one quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. Now, I like a glass of wine as much as anybody – I’d say I am definitely in the top quartile of oenophiles. But even I baulk at the prospect of drinking twenty-four glasses of wine to meet my daily sugar requirement.
I’m exaggerating the case to the point of absurdity here, of course – but only so that I can point out that so is the government. I’d like to suggest that there can be no more futile a waste of time, and no more dangerous an exercise, than to confuse and worry people with a chart that lists a heterogeneous collection of foods of widely varying nutritional value with the sole purpose of isolating the sugar content and, on top of that, to fail to distinguish between added sugar and sugar that occurs naturally. We don’t need a nanny state to poke its nose in in this very unhelpful way. And we certainly don’t want to start paying tax on bananas. May I also suggest (if you’ll forgive the pun!) that bananas are low-hanging fruit as far as the government is concerned? Almost everyone eats them: all the major supermarkets rank them in their top five bestsellers. What the government needs to concentrate on instead are the thornier and more serious challenges: tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, ‘hard’ drugs, abuse of prescription drugs, and the rest, and leave us to take care of the sugar, in its various forms.
I feel an urgent need to wolf down a banana. I might have a glass of wine (gosh, alcohol), too. Excuse me.

And then… there’s cake…

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§ 9 Responses to Sweet and sour: sugar and our nanny state…

  • The issue of sugars or carbohydrates is a complex one (no pun intended) and I would need a sizeable essay to do it justice. Bananas do have a high simple carbohydrate content, but also contain complex carbohydrates in the form of the structural component that give a banana its shape, so it is not all bad news.
    I think the main issue for simple carbohydrates is the degree to which they create a rapid peak in insulin after eating, which then results in a huge drop off as the sugar is processed. Do this on a continual basis and you begin to experience problems handling sugar.
    More complex carbohydrates found in things like pulses, vegetables and oats (porridge) create a much slower rise in insulin.
    Highly complex carbohydrates that are very large are usually referred to as fibre and are indigestible unless you are a ruminant, like a cow, that has several stomach full of bacteria able to break down the fibre.
    There are soluble fibres (found in foods like porridge) where their construction is not as complex, and they can be broken down to a certain extent.
    Foods with more complex carbohydrates are useful food source for gut bacteria in the colon. The products created by these bacteria, if properly fed by the right complex carbohydrates, will help to keep the colon healthy and reduce bowel cancer, as well as assist healthy insulin production.
    Alcohol does contain carbohydrates in the form of ethanol, that can be converted to some rather unpleasant chemicals in the body and damage the liver. Excessive alcohol consumption will result in the production of fat if the ethanol is not used (because like all carbohydrates it is a pretty immediate energy source), hence a ‘fatty liver’ with someone who is an alcoholic.
    Also simple carbohydrates may affect you at a genetic level, switching on all sort of genes that may be counter-productive for health. So indeed ‘you are what you eat’.

    • Aieeeee! Having just bought a Cadbury’s egg for each of us, I now expect to be shaped like one! Mr. J advocates the ‘golden mean’ approach of a modest amount of anything and everything and, I must admit, he doesn’t look much like the Mars Bars he’s eaten fairly regularly (though never in excess) all his life! I am impressed by the quality of your science, Elaine, and you have clarified the complexity rather well! The fact remains that I disapprove on principle of dietary intervention by government; I was under the impression that education is the main means of influencing what people choose to eat, but many social network friends and acquaintances seem remarkably keen on chocolate and cake, even though they are clearly well-educated and rational people.
      Joking aside, you went to a lot of trouble here and I’m sure that readers of the blog will be as grateful as I am for your contribution. Very many thanks! 🙂

      • My pleasure. My first degree was biochemistry and I’ve taught nutritional science. So my lecturer’s instinct kicked in when I saw the post.
        As a biochemist I know exactly how bad simple sugars can be for you and understand the types of chemicals stirring in my cerebral cortex that keep me addicted to cake (the food of the Gods where writer’s are concerned).
        Must go now and mix the rest of the ingredients into my poppy seed cake.
        I can feel my opiate receptors straining at the leash.

      • The human instinct for self-gratification! I could enjoy a piece of that cake… Happy baking…. and eating! 😉

  • j welling says:

    As I image the release party for a magnum opus, I can only offer that my strategy of attracting friends to come revolves around…cake. It’s a much better opening than “I’ve a lovely book in which I kill a half dozen people. Yes,yes – my first. Why don’t you stop by and I’ll read just a little bit of the place where we find the first body?”

    So much the better to say: “I’m having a book release party. Oh, they’ll be cake. Can you come?”

    I am opposed to any sort of political impairment of my ability to enjoy a delightful pound cake, or a chocolate sheet cake, a carrot cake, or most especially a wedding cake. If I have to got to the wedding, there damn well better be cake.

    The only restraint shown in the consumption of cake should be the price of altering a pair of trousers.

    In fact, I’d join the Cake Party. Slogan? Quite simple: “I Vote Cake.”

    Even a politician can figure that out.

    • I rather hoped you’d home in on this one, Jack. You haven’t disappointed, either, with this ebullient rejection of political nonsense and the raising of a personal standard emblazoned with cake. I’m not sure that politicians can figure much out, but if you keep the message simple and select the sugar with a sweet smile, I’m sure you’ll win out. I’ll vote for you! :)))))))

  • vallypee says:

    I see I’m late here, Christina. I’m not going to enter into any intellectual discussion on this issue. All I can say is well done you! This is a lovely piece of writing that underscores a total absurdity. What a load of twaddle – the government’s premise, not your writing! Besides that, I love bananas and often use them as snacks to fill the gap between lessons. I also like a glass of wine – hic. But I won’t be forgoing either, and will try and keep both in proper proportion…Please keep ranting! I enjoyed this 🙂

    • Not at all late, Valerie, and much appreciated for your ringing endorsement of the message. ‘Twaddle’ is exactly right for the nonsense we are expected to be awed by. I’m afraid I have no intention of giving up making jam or baking cakes or eating them and bananas. Thanks, as always! 🙂

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