News and events

The bittersweet tale of sugar

Posted on Monday 28 May 2018

By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor

Sugar Public Health EnglandIn April of this year, the UK followed many of our European neighbours with the introduction of a tax on soft drinks sweetened with high levels of sugar. This came after much debate over whether it would help stem the rising tide of type 2 diabetes and obesity, with industry on the one side and public health campaigners on the other. They argue that taxing sugary drinks is a start, but far more needs to be done.  

Public Health England has recommended that retailers cut the sugar content of their most sweetened products such as chocolate bars, biscuits and cereals by 20% by 2020. A year after the campaign was launched, some products have seen a slight reduction, but not the 5% reduction that was the target after the first year.  They say that the industry must take their responsibilities more seriously, or further legislation will follow.

Photo courtesty of Public Health England


Why all the concern about sugar?

It has long been known that sugar contributes to tooth decay and is nothing more than a source of empty calories (i.e. it contributes no nutrients to the diet apart from pure carbohydrate), but it is only in the last few years that public health guidelines have emphasised that we all need to cut down on the amount of free sugars we consume. 

John Yudkin WikipediaBritish scientist John Yudkin was raising concerns about the metabolic effect of refined Ancel Keys Wikipediasugars since the 1950's, but at the same time American scientist Ancel Keys was issuing a similar message about dietary fat. There was a fierce rivalry between the two men, but the charismatic Ancel Keys won the debate. The obsession with cutting our intake of dietary fat began, reaching a peak during the 1980's and 90's. To compensate for the lack of flavour and texture of processed products being made with as little fat as possible, these foods began to be loaded with refined sugars and along with the increasing popularity of fizzy drinks, our per capita consumption soared. 

Refined sugar is a disaccharide, made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Fructose tastes sweet and is naturally found in fruit and vegetables, and glucose is found in all carbohydrate foods. When bound up with dietary fibre, the body has no problem with breaking down both of these chemicals as the fibre slows absorption. However, consuming large amounts of fructose without fibre seriously taxes the liver where it is metabolised, contributing to diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Glucose rapidly entering the bloodstream is equally a problem, as the pancreas has to pump out large amounts of insulin to enable the liver and muscles to store the glucose in a way that is safe for the body (as glycogen), due to the toxic effects of high amounts of glucose in the blood. This then exhausts the pancreas to the point where it can no longer function as it should, leading to type 2 diabetes.

Epidemiologists have identified the link between the rise in per capita refined sugar consumption, and the upward trajectory of obesity, type 2 diabetes, NAFLD, and other metabolic disorders. Public health bodies have now recognised that we need to take urgent action to slash our intake of refined sugars to stop the problem getting worse.

Photos John Yudkin (Left) and Ancel Keys (Right) courtesty of Wikipedia


How did we get to this point?


Photo courtesy of

It is an open secret in the food industry that when formulating new products, the aim is to be able to hit what is known as our "bliss point" in taste and texture - the ideal combination of sugar, salt and fat that we are driven to seek out due to our evolutionary make-up. There is a substantial body of research using functional MRI brain scans that has shown how products high in this optimal level of sugar, salt and fat release our natural "feel-good" neurotransmitters, and in some cases have a similar effect on the brain to the high achieved through illegal drugs such as cocaine - a powerful enough force to encourage us to consume more.

Unfortunately, while once a rare treat, these foods now make up a substantial proportion of our national diet and the consequences of being surrounded by hyper-palatable foods have become clear. Ingredients in these foods are cheap, competition to sell them is fierce, and consequently many of these processed foods have hefty marketing and advertising campaigns behind them to keep producers ahead of the game.

Of particular concern is the way that food is marketed to children, especially through television. Although there are restrictions on what can be advertised during specific child-oriented programmes, 70% of children's viewing is of programmes aimed at the whole family. While adults are usually able to distinguish between fact and marketing hype, young children do not have the maturity to make that distinction and they are exposed to advertisements for child-targeted products such as sugary yoghurt-based desserts and breakfast cereals numerous times. These advertisements rarely focus on taste, but portray the image that consuming their product will lead to a fun-filled family life, or give status amongst peers. Also, even though these products are often loaded with refined sugar, by focussing on one or two aspects of the product seen as desirable (such as being low in fat or high in fibre), these advertisements try to persuade parents that these products are healthy, which understandably influences their choices when buying foods they hope their children will be willing to eat. 


What is being done to protect our children?

Diabetes UK

Photo courtesy of

The Government has traditionally been extremely reluctant to interfere with the food industry's marketing techniques. Instead they have tried to encourage the industry to develop their own voluntary codes of practice when it comes to responsible marketing, especially towards children. The sugar tax is partly a recognition that this approach hasn't worked: with a third of children now leaving primary school either overweight or obese, it is clear that children are consuming more junk food than ever. The estimated £520 million per year raised by the sugar tax will be spent on developing sport initiatives and encouraging physical activity in schools, but this amount is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the marketing budgets of the corporate giants who make the foods that are the other side of the obesity equation.


Is it all down to advertising?

Pester PowerRestrictions on how unhealthy products are marketed to children is clearly a significant issue in combating the obesity epidemic. However, all it takes is promotion from the supermarkets to ensure that these low-nutrient, high-profit items end up in their customers' shopping trolleys. Walk into any supermarket, and these highly processed foods take up the bulk of the shelf space, with natural foods, such as fruits and vegetables or minimally processed dairy products or basic ingredients only making up a small proportion of overall stock. As well as having been promoted on television, many of the unhealthy products targeted at children are packaged in a way designed to appeal to children, with exciting images and bright colours. Even if parents aren't persuaded that these products are particularly healthy, pester-power can make it easy for such foods to end up in the trolley as parents succumb to avoid having a war with their child in the supermarket.

Photo courtesy of Steve Preston

Up-selling, where supermarkets seem to offer a better deal by encouraging us to buy bigger packs, "meal deal" offers, and multi-buy offers are well-known strategies to encourage shoppers to buy more than they need. For the euphemistically named "added value" (i.e. heavily processed) items where the basic ingredient cost is low, this is an easy way for supermarkets to increase profit margins. Unfortunately, these foods are often low in nutrients while high in calories (e.g. white flour, sugar, refined vegetable oils). It is known that up-selling techniques encourage consumers to eat and drink more than they otherwise would have done, which does nothing to help the obesity epidemic.

Outside of the supermarket, retail outlets are masters of this up-selling technique, which has become a large part of what is known as the obesogenic environment in which we now live. Newsagents and chemists display sweet processed snacks around the till, encouraging us to buy food along with our other purchases. Coffee shops have prominent displays of snacks such as cakes and giant cookies which often contain the same number of calories as a small meal, although the evidence shows that most people do not compensate for these snacks by eating less during the rest of the day. By up-selling, "meal deals" in fast food restaurants contain between 1000-1500 calories, mean consumers can easily end up eating double or triple what they would have eaten in a home-cooked meal. By pushing food at us constantly, these retail outlets have also been at least partly responsible for the change in our eating culture to one of eating outside of traditional mealtimes and in public places - something that was once considered taboo.


How is True Food different?

True Food shopTrue Food's ethos does much to make our shopping choices easier and healthier. As well as being organic, much of True Food's stock is of natural fresh foods, and those products with a longer shelf life are minimally processed and mostly in their unrefined form. Aside from a small selection of treat foods such as biscuits and cakes, sweet foods are nearly all foods which have natural sweetness such as fresh and dried fruits or fruit spreads. "Convenience" foods such as soups or pasta sauces use quality ingredients that would be found in a home-made equivalent, free from high fructose corn syrup, binders and fillers that compensate for the lack of more costly ingredients in many well-known branded versions. 

True Food doesn't stock big brands that have been heavily promoted to try to persuade us to buy them. Foods such as breakfast cereals are mostly sold loose (with no expensive marketing hiking the price up) and are basic commodities that True Food kids - Trolleydon't need a label to list all the added ingredients. We can make our choices at True Food free from the influences of advertising and special promotion.

Shopping at True Food is much easier for parents too. Children are not surrounded with products that they have seen advertised. They can see basic foodstuffs in their natural form - loose food such as cereal grains, dried fruit, nuts and pulses - without any packaging at all that attempts to persuade them that this is a desirable or undesirable product. The mini shopping trolleys can involve younger children in the food buying process, and the children's toys at the front of the shop offer a non-edible focus for their attention. The few treat items designed for children are kept away from the tills, so it is easy for parents to steer their kids away from those foods if they prefer not to buy them. 

While customers are encouraged to stop for a cup of tea or coffee, it is just that - with no cakes and snacks laid out around the drinks area to entice us. True Food also does not do special deals to encourage us to buy more. With loose foods, customers can buy as much as they need, and the only special deals are price reductions to cut down on food waste, rather than as a push to increase profits. As well as cutting food waste, it is better for our waist-lines too.

All more good reasons to shop at True Food!

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