S is for Sugar
Fat used to be considered Public Food Enemy Number One, but now sugar is being fingered instead by some health campaigners. It’s not just the sugar stirred into tea and eaten in cakes and biscuits but the large quantity in drinks and processed foods. Even savoury packaged foods have a surprising amount of sugar. Look for the words ending in ‘-ose’ on the label and beware!
‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’, a lecture on the evils of sugar by Robert Lustig, an expert on childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, has become a surprise hit on YouTube. He argues that sweet stuff may be a cornerstone of the obesity epidemic, and therefore also the related problems of diabetes, heart disease and so on. The argument is that obesity is essentially a hormonal issue. In particular, when you have a sugary drink, or sugary foods that lack fibre, your blood sugar goes up and insulin kicks in. Do this too much and a metabolic disorder occurs which means you store more energy as fat.
Others say that there is nothing intrinsically evil in sugar — you just shouldn’t eat too much of it, as with any high-calorie food. Ideally, no more than 10 per cent of your calories should be from sugar, but it is currently more like 13-15 per cent.
One of the main ways we have increased our consumption of sugar is through fizzy drinks. But now the majority of such drinks sold in the UK are low-sugar or use artificial sweeteners. Pragmatists say such products should be used more in food. But are such invented ingredients necessarily good for you? Furthermore, sugar is used by food manufacturers to increase shelf-life and add cheap bulk, not just for taste. For all sorts of reasons, our sugar craze looks set to continue and with it the debates about its possible dangers.
T is for Traditional Foods
Traditional foods, eaten for generations, nourish our sense of national identity and increase the pleasure of what’s on the plate. They matter. But do we pay enough attention to them? And what exactly is traditional?
Slow Food UK has now put 44 British foods into an ‘Ark of Taste’, from South Downs sheep to Yorkshire forced rhubarb and Shetland cabbage. This international Slow Food project seeks to protect traditional foods and its website goes into detail about each one. The aim is to keep biodiversity on the menu and eat such produce into a secure future. More UK foods are heading toward the Ark and a logo will be used to draw attention to their special status.
The initiative feeds into a debate about what a ‘true’ tradition is and how you protect them. The EU has legal categories of ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (PDO) and ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ (PGI) which seek to keep produce distinctive to its place and traditions. But critics say the definitions spread the net too wide. A PGI Cornish pasty can be mass-produced, for example, which could make it very different from a proper pasty.
An interesting case is the Stilton and Stichelton discussion. The PDO for Stilton doesn’t allow unpasteurised milk to be used. Stichelton is a delicious blue cheese made like a Stilton, but not allowed to use this name because it is made from raw milk. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste entry on traditionally made farmhouse ‘stilton’ (with a small s and inverted commas to show the difference) says the cheese was originally made from unpasteurised milk and is distinctive from creamery Stiltons. Such definitions may sound like a storm on a cheeseboard, yet they are an important part of keeping real traditions alive.