Sweetness and light
I listened to a programme on Radio 4 today, by the very balanced Jim Al-Khalili. The premise was: how should we cut sugar consumption?
Sugar is in part responsible for the obesity crisis, which is estimated to cost the NHS over £5 million per year. Three alternative methods were put forward for achieving a reduction in sugar consumption: a tax on soft drinks, reduced portion and plate sizes, and a food technology solution. If you want to hear the story for yourself, follow this link (may only be available in the UK). For those of you who are still with me, here's the "too long; didn't listen":
Sugar tax: why put it on sugary drinks, and not sugar in general? Because of predicted behavioural responses. In response to a 20% tax, the predicted behaviour would be for people to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks by 15% . There would be some substitution of drinks - to water, diet drinks, milk and fruit juice. If you taxed sugary foods, the consequences are less predictable, and people might switch from biscuits (say) to crisps, with no net health benefit. It is expected that legislation would be hard to pass due to pressure from parts of the food industry, so would require a concerted effort and public awareness.
Portion size: reducing plate, cup and even cutlery size has been shown to decrease calorie intake by around 16% without people particularly noticing. There is a well-established phenomenon that we eat more when there is more food available (regardless of our hunger levels). This doesn't appear until we reach the age of three, so it is thought to be a learned behaviour - a response to being expected to ignore our fullness cues and finish the food on our dinner plates. Implementation of this one is tricky - people don't want to be told how big a plate they can have, they want to be responsible for their own decisions. This is owing to the delusion that we all suffer from - believing that our choices are our own, whereas in reality many of our decisions are strongly affected by the environment that we are in. The government, of course, couldn't realistically dictate plate sizes, but schools, hospitals and workplace canteens could take the initiative to provide smaller portions and plate sizes, and 'normalise' healthy portions in people's minds.
Technology: I love a bit of tech, so I pricked my ears up at this one. Sugar is the number one, Gold-Standard yummy thing, as far as our taste buds are concerned. Other forms of sweetness taste sweet, but don't hit the reward receptors in quite the same way. But, when we taste sugar, we don't taste all of it - we tend to taste the outside of the granule, then swallow. So what if we reshape the sugar crystals to make them hollow, like Christmas tree baubles? All the taste of real sugar (Bing! Gimme some o' that loverly sugar) but simply less of it. A challenge here is that sugar has other functions - crunchiness, and as a bulking agent, for example - that would need to be replaced. It's also really cheap. This is a technology in its infancy, so you won't see it on the shelves yet. In fact, you may never know when you are eating it, because it would be best implemented covertly - so consumers don't use 'half the sugar' as a licence to eat twice as much!
The programme outlined three possible ways to influence our sugar consumption, as a top-down approach from the Government or industries. But what can we learn from this as individuals? I don't believe that we need to ban all sugar from our diets - but most of us would benefit from significantly reducing it. Firstly, we can quit the sugary drinks - there are plenty of alternatives out there, and pretty much all of them are better than sugary drinks (though the jury's out on diet drinks - so watch out with those). We can become aware of the effect of plate size and cup size on our appetite - and make conscious decisions to eat from 9" plates (which were standard only 20 years ago) rather than 12" plates, or control portion size at the time of cooking. Lastly, although 'hollow sugar' isn't available yet, we can look into whether all of the sweetness in our diets needs to come from sugar, and where to add the sugar - sugar on the outside makes food taste sweeter than if evenly distributed. Also, consider (carefully) whether to use alternatives, such as Stevia or xylitol. I use a small amount of xylitol in my diet - it is a sugar alcohol that naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables, and even in our own bodies (it is also very good for your teeth). It is easy to have self control over xylitol because over-consumption can have laxative effects, so while I might add a spoonful to hot chocolate, I wouldn't bake a cake with only xylitol.
One last thing - if you do eat sugar - enjoy it!
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Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.