From fresh fruit to ready meals, from baby formula to sausages, the food we eat is getting sweeter. Why? And should we be worried? Felicity Lawrence examines the sugaring of the British palate
Once, sugar was all delight: from the land of milk and honey to Shakespearean innocence - "white-handed mistress, one sweet word with thee ... honey, milk and sugar, there is three". But now it's the devil incarnate; or, at least, the new nicotine.
"Sugar is as dangerous as tobacco [and] should be classified as a hard drug, for it is harmful and addictive," according to a recent article in the British Medical Journal. Sugars in all forms are seen by many as dangerous to health and our food is packed full of them: not just sucrose (plain sugar as we know it) but other forms of refined sugars from cane, beet and corn.
Eat too much of them and you may become fat, sick and miserable. Sugars rot your teeth and encourage a calorie-rich but nutrient-low diet that contributes to obesity - and obesity is a high-risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
The rhetoric from the government's food standards agency is more muted but the aim is the same: having waged a successful war against excess salt, next on the watchdog's agenda is shifting the balance of our diets away from processed sugars and fats to less energy-dense and more nutritious foods. It has begun the drawn-out process of consulting industry and health groups on what should be done and is expected to ratchet up the campaign over the next few months.
The watchdog is focusing on both sugar and fat because they are closely linked in food manufacturing: reduce one and the other has a tendency to go up. The health-conscious have been reducing their fat consumption for a while, but if they've been doing it by eating more reduced-fat products, such as low-fat yoghurts, or "lite" mayonnaise, or reduced-fat biscuits, then they will be eating more sugars instead.
But how have we become so devoted to sugar? And what has the sweetening of our diets done to our palates along the way?
At East Malling research station in Kent, Vicky Knight is a raspberry plant breeder, Dave Simpson a strawberry expert and Ken Tobutt an apple, cherry and rootstock man. I took them a bag of supermarket fruit and they used a Brix refractometer, an instrument used by industry to measure sweetness, to test the sugar content of my purchases.
Foods are definitely getting sweeter and our palates altering, say the East Malling plant breeders, but when it comes to fresh produce the change is more subtle than just upping the sugar content. "Our perception of fruit varieties and their taste is affected by acid levels. People tend to talk about things being sweeter but sometimes what's actually happened is they've become blander. You can eat blander fruit in larger quantities, you come back for more of it than of the richer varieties, and that can increase sales," Tobutt explains.
Apples and strawberries, for example, have been bred to taste sweeter by greatly reducing their acid levels. The problem is that if acidity is too low, the fruit is left with little flavour at all - just sweetness.
Source - Guardian