On the same day that Chancellor George Osborne announced in his budget that a ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks would be introduced by 2018, Public Health England published a new Eatwell Guide. This reduced the recommended amount of sugar for anyone over 11 to 30 grams, the equivalent of seven sugar cubes, while the new recommendation on fibre is that everyone should eat at least 30g, 50 per cent more than we currently manage, on average.
PHE do not mince their words. On the subject of foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar — like chocolate, cakes and biscuits — they say bluntly: ‘They’re not needed in the diet.’ Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, says the new guidelines will help to ‘reduce obesity and the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease and some cancers’. She also noted a specific change reflecting consumer trends: ‘A smoothie, together with fruit juice, now only counts as one of your five a day and should be drunk with a meal, as it’s high in sugar.’
For a long time it seemed like the powers that be were mainly intent on reducing our consumption of harmful fats to reduce our cholesterol levels. But now sugar is seen as the arch-enemy of a heathy diet, fuelled in part by the soaring levels of diabetes diagnoses.
So it’s surprising to reflect that most of the popular fad diets of recent years haven’t targeted sugar per se. They’ve been far more convoluted in their aims: the paleo diet suggests we should eat like our primitive ancestors and the blood-type diet claims your blood group indicates what you should eat. It’s only recently that the diet industry has caught on to a growing interest in ‘clean’ eating (where all processed food are avoided) and sugar-free eating.
Of course many popular diets of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, such as Atkins and Scarsdale (which emphasised high-protein, low-carb and low-sugar programmes) and the F-Plan (which made you eat so much fibre there wasn’t room for anything else) effectively cut out a lot of sugar, but this was not their primary selling point.
People have worried about being too heavy for centuries, but the ideas behind historical weight-loss diets didn’t focus on sugar either. William Banting, whose diet became so popular that his name became a Victorian synonym for dieting, recommended avoiding carbohydrates — eating the filling but not the pie —while Fletcherism, or the ‘chew chew’ diet it was sometimes known, allowed you to eat whatever you liked as long as you chewed each mouthful at least 100 times.
Even when the idea of calorie counting became popular in the 1920s, the emphasis was on simply restricting the number of calories rather than looking at the balance of food consumed.
Now celebrities such as Davina McCall and Bear Grylls are selling sugar-free cookbooks and bestsellers have very definite titles: I Quit Sugar For Life, Clean Cakes, Sugar Detox. This is not being marketed as a short-term diet, but as a permanent health and lifestyle choice.
Not everyone may be willing to make such a commitment, but in general we are becoming more aware of sugar in all its forms and names. In 2015, sugar consumption was a concern for more than half of adults, although fat remained their top dietary concern.
Recent surveys suggest that the older we are, the more concerned we become about our health — perhaps not a great surprise — and the richer and more upwardly mobile, we are the more diet-conscious we become.
Rich people have always used what they eat to mark out their special status in society, and we have now come full circle from the reaction when refined sugar started to appear in Europe during the 11th century. This was thanks to the Crusades; the area around Jerusalem was notable for its sugar cane production. Initially, sugar was treated like a spice and used primarily for medical purposes. The whiter it was, the purer and more beneficial it was considered — unlike honey, which soon came to be seen as inferior, less nutritious and less civilised. Sugar began to be recommended for consumption by invalids, but it soon spread to the tables of the wealthy. By the 15th century almost half the recipes recorded in England, sweet or savoury, contained sugar.
Elizabethan banquets featured decorative showpieces made from marzipan, often gilded and moulded into elaborate shapes and patterns, known as ‘subtleties’, which were designed to show off the status of the person throwing the party. People would even blacken their teeth to make it look as if they had ruined them with sugar, in the way that only the rich could.
For many centuries all food was supposed to have an effect on the body, healthy or otherwise, according to the theory of the ‘humours’. We were all thought to be made up of wet, dry, hot, and cold elements and the body could be kept in balance by consuming the right foods for your body type. Sugar was characterised as hot and wet, which meant it was soothing for the chest, lungs, and stomach, and useful for curing colds — honey and lemon is still a popular cold comforter and many treatments still come in the form of syrups. But it was bad for bilious people, and as early as the 16th century it was noted that it ‘makes the teeth blunt and makes them decay’.
Sugar was held in such high regard that eating sweets was condoned during a fast for religious reasons because the sugar content was considered a medicine to ease digestion, not a source of nourishment. So for hundreds of years, sugar was considered bad for you only if you didn’t have the right balance of humours.
During the 17th century a few doctors began to note that some people were consuming sugar to excess and suspected it might be having an undesirable effect on their general health. A Dr Willis blamed scurvy on eating too much sugar, which provoked a lively debate among the physicians of the day. One theory in circulation held that as you got older, sugar became poisonous to your system. Treatises were published attacking and defending the stuff. The use of sugar in cooking also began to change. The French upper classes started to consider highly spiced food as vulgar, valuing instead ‘good taste’ and reserve in cooking, a fashion that soon spread to Britain.
By the start of the 19th century ‘sweetmeats’ and puddings were served to appeal to women. Men gave their names to savoury dishes, like omelette Arnold Bennett, while extravagant desserts were created for women, such as peach melba, named after the celebrated opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. As late as the 1970s, cookbooks for the eager hostess would advise providing something light and sweet for the ladies, noting that men would want nothing to do with such fripperies.
Halfway through the 19th century, lower-class people in Britain consumed more sugar per capita than the rich for the first time. This went hand-in-hand with the availability of affordable tea, another commodity which once signified gentility. Consumption of tea and sugar almost doubled in the second half of the 19th century, and sweet foods made up a significant portion of the average person’s daily calories, although bread remained the staple food of the poor.
Eating sweet things is enjoyable at a cellular level — when the sugar hits our taste buds, neurotransmitters are released which send messages to the pleasure centres in our brain. From infancy, when we suckle milk full of lactose calories, we are programmed to want sugar. And in a harsh world, is it surprising that so many turn to it for a little pleasure? As standards of living rose, so did the average Briton’s access to sugar, save for two notable exceptions: the world wars.
Even though Britain produced some sugar from home-grown beet, this was never enough to satisfy national demand. Sugar was in scarce supply during world war one, especially after 1917 when German submarines began sinking supply vessels bringing food to Britain.
The very first items to be rationed were fats, meat and sugar. And although official rations for soldiers might include 4oz of jam every day, supplies were by no means reliable. In emergencies the soldiers could turn to their personal reserve ration, a tin containing one day’s food that they could eat no matter where they found themselves. The contents, based on nutritional theories of the day which presumed that a lot of meat was needed to keep up strength, consisted of a pound of meat plus quantities of bread, sugar, coffee and salt.
Rationing was even more strict in world war two, when sugar was again one of the first foods to be restricted. Official cookbooks advised using carrots as the sweetener in cakes and puddings and suggested that diced beetroot made a very good substitute for sultanas in buns.
As has often been noted since, the wartime population was generally healthier thanks to a diet high in fibre and carbohydrates, low in sugar and fat, and lots of exercise due to petrol rationing and increased workload. Luxuries such as sugar and cigarettes were saved for the frontline troops.
Our attitude to sugar continues to change. In the 20th century, while sex for pleasure became increasingly acceptable, eating for pleasure began to be frowned upon: sweets were for women and children, and overindulgence was a sign of being weak-willed and childish.
Sugar rationing didn’t end until 1953, at which point people could be forgiven for kicking up their heels in sugary indulgence after more than a decade of beetroot buns and Christmas puds concocted from grated carrot, breadcrumbs and orange squash. Post-rationing, sugar consumption rose heavily, peaking in the 1970s.
But when people finally began to reduce the amount of sugar they added to their food, the new ranges of canned and frozen food and ready meals meant that they were consuming sugar that was hidden from view. The problem only got worse when consumers began to demand low-fat options, because manufacturers used extra sugar to keep their products tasty. Dr Robert Lustig, who in 2012 famously said sugar was as addictive as cocaine, remarked: ‘Take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard. And the food industry knew that. So they replaced it with sugar.’
For a long time we had no idea what was in the packets, jars and tins that filled up our shopping trolleys. Until an EU directive was introduced in 1979, food labelling was capricious. The rules remained full of loopholes and difficult for the average consumer to understand. In the past decade people have become much more concerned about these hidden sugars, but despite government attempts to simplify labelling, the latest studies suggest that 50 per cent of us are still confused.
Sugar’s fall from grace sped up in the 1980s when we were conspicuously consuming and trying to look sophisticated at the same time. Overt enjoyment of something as ‘common’ as a chocolate bar or sticky pudding was definitely not on.
Claude Fischler’s 1986 study on attitudes to sugar in the western world found that ‘attitudes in the general public also often reflect concern, or even anxiety, about the safety of sugar and, possibly, the moral legitimacy of experiencing pleasure from sweetness. In fact, market research and other surveys indicate that consumers are often wary, sometimes markedly hostile.’
Since then such attitudes have hardened to the point where sugar is now presented as the great evil threatening our health service and our lives. But there is always something. Too much fat. Not enough fibre. The truth is, we have access to too much of everything. Is cutting sugar out of our diets the answer? Or is the old saw, ‘moderation in all things’, a better long-term solution?
Sweeter than you think
Once we just worried about the fat in takeaways – those cheesy pizzas, deep-fried spring rolls and creamy curries. But now we need to take sugar into consideration as well. You may be surprised to learn which popular takeaway dishes get the worst scores in the sugar stakes
Italian: Domino’s Pepperoni Passion (11.5”) – 22.4g
Who’d have thought a savoury pizza could have so much sugar? But if you switch brands you can cut it right down. Every slice of that Domino’s Pepperoni Passion contains 2.8g of sugar. Rival Pizza Hut’s 12in Italian Base Pepperoni Feast has 60 per cent less sugar for a similar-sized pie.
Chinese: Sweet and sour chicken — 80.9g
Of all the unhealthy takeaways, sweet and sour chicken is certainly among the worst in terms of sugar. With so much sugar per portion (before you’ve added anything else to your plate) it really is a poor choice. Unfortunately, many oriental cuisines use sugar to balance savoury, sour and umami flavours in the recipes, so there is often hidden sugar. For a healthy, low-fat and low-sugar choice go for crab and sweetcorn soup, followed by a steamed or stewed vegetable dish with plain boiled rice.
Indian: Chicken kormaand peshwari naan — 21.3g
Although Indian food generally contains quite a lot of fat, there are several dishes that also have more sugar than you might expect. Many takeaway portions of creamy favourites such as chicken korma, served with a peshwari naan, contains two thirds of your recommended daily sugar intake. If you want a healthier alternative, opt for chicken dhansak with plain rice. It’s full of flavour, has only 2g of sugar per 350g portion, and is full of vitamin B-rich lentils. Or go for something from the tandoor oven, such as tandoori chicken or chicken tikka — still juicy but low in fat and sugar — and wrap it up in a wholemeal chapati, which is smaller than a naan and full of fibre.
American: McDonald’s classic beefburger and strawberry milkshake — 67g
Seeing McDonald’s on the list will come as no surprise to most, but what may surprise is the difference between competing brands of burger. McDonald’s classic burger clocks up 10g of sugar, whereas Burger King’s hamburger only has 4g. Milkshakes and McFlurries are bad, bad news — stick to the diet fizzy drinks, or better still, water.
Thai: Green Thai chicken curry — 92g
Most people think of Thai food as full of fresh flavours, cooked quickly to keep in the nutrients. But many favourite dishes contain added sugar and coconut milk, which is high in both sugar and fat. Some green Thai curries contain three times your entire recommended sugar intake for the day in a single portion. Look out instead for kai yang — pieces of marinaded grilled chicken which have little to no added sugar — without compromising on flavour.
Best takeaway options
Hit the kebab shop for a chicken kebab with pitta and plenty of salad; hold the chips and sauces, which are where a lot of extra salt and sugar lurk.
Or go to the chippy and choose fish and mushy peas; if you must have chips, which seem to come in humongous portions these days, share with your friends. Mushy peas do have some added sugar (about 2g per portion), but are low in fat