Take Big Sugar's claims with a large pinch of salt

Big Sugar has managed to get sugars into a remarkable three-quarters of all packaged foods in US supermarkets. PHOTO: ST FILE

The sugar industry and its various offshoots, like the soda industry, have spent years trying to trick you.

Big Sugar has paid researchers to conduct misleading - if not false - studies about the health effects of added sweeteners. It has come up with a dizzying array of euphemistic names for those sweeteners. And it has managed to get sugars into a remarkable three-quarters of all packaged foods in US supermarkets.

Most Americans, as a result, eat a lot of sugar. We are surrounded by it, and it's delicious. Unfortunately, sugar also encourages overeating and causes health problems. As confusing as the research on diet can often seem, it consistently points to the harms of sugar, including obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

Virtually the only way to eat a healthy amount of sugar is to make a conscious effort. You can think of it as a political act: resisting the sugar industry's attempts to profit off your body. Or you can simply think of it as taking care of yourself.

I'm one of those people with a raging sweet tooth. I consider ice cream to be a gift from the gods, and I stash small chocolates in too many drawers. A couple of years ago, I realised I needed to cut back. If the ice cream and chocolates were staying, other sweeteners had to go.

So my wife and I went cold turkey for one month: no added sweeteners. No sugar, no honey, no corn syrup, no stevia. It wasn't easy, but it worked. We discovered which sugars we missed and would go back to eating - and which had needlessly snuck into our diets.

Along the way, we also ate fewer processed foods and more vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts, meat and fish.

I highly recommend a month without sugar. But what if you want to consume less sugar without first going cold turkey.

Fair enough. The sugarless month is just a means to an end, and there are other means. Working with experts and colleagues, I've now put together an online guide to cutting back on sugar without spending more money or losing the pleasure of eating. That last part is important. Done right, a less sweet diet can be more enjoyable than a sugar-packed one.

Our overarching suggestion is to choose a couple of simple rules. Don't agonise over the sugar content of every single thing you eat.

You'll make yourself miserable and you will probably give up before too long. Instead, decide on two or three systemic changes, and stick to them. You can add changes later.

Your rules should revolve around added sweeteners, rather than the natural ones in fruit, vegetables and dairy. It's not that the added ones are so much worse (despite what you may have heard about high-fructose corn syrup).

Many researchers believe that sugar is sugar. But people don't generally overeat natural sugars. Have you ever inhaled five apples in one sitting?

The online guide has many more details, but here are a few rules to consider:

• Fix your breakfast: It's the most sugar-packed meal, and it doesn't need to be. Eggs, fruit, nuts, plain yogurt, plain oatmeal and traditional pita bread are delicious - and free of added sugars. If you're pressed for time, boil a dozen eggs, refrigerate them and grab one or two in the morning. A sign of a good breakfast plate: It has an array of natural colours.

• Redo your pantry: Steer clear of staples - like sauces, crackers and breads - with unnecessary sugars. There are plenty of unsweetened alternatives, like Victoria's pasta sauces, French's Yellow Mustard, Maille Dijon mustard and saltines. Once you spend a little time reading ingredient lists, the unsweetened staples can become your defaults.

• Eliminate soda: Just get rid of it. Soda and sports drinks are essentially liquid sugar, and are the largest source of added sweeteners in the American diet. Switch to flavoured seltzer or, if you must, diet soda. The health effects of diet soda still are not clear, but it seems considerably less bad.

• Whip portion inflation: Restaurant desserts are often family-size servings marketed as individual portions. The marble-loaf cake at Starbucks, for example, has more sugar than most adults should eat in an entire day. Your grandparents didn't eat desserts like this. When you eat out, think of every dessert as a serving for two. It's better to put some in the garbage than on your waistline.

The best news about sugar is that Americans are finally catching on. Sales of regular soda are plunging. Some food brands are starting to brag about not adding sweeteners.

For a long time, we didn't even realise what Big Sugar was trying to do to us. Now we do, and we can fight back.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline Take Big Sugar's claims with a large pinch of salt. Subscribe