The sweet smell of excess

Posted by in April's Magazine

These are tough times for sugar. Various credible studies have suggested that it, not the previously demonised fat, is the prime culprit for our obesity epidemic. The amount of sugar in convenience food and drink is making headlines, notably the revelation that one Starbucks product contains a frankly bonkers 25 teaspoons of sugar. Even George Osborne, somewhat uncharacteristically, has managed to identify an income stream that doesn’t involve prising banknotes from the hands of disabled people, in the form of a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks.

You might not shed a tear for the likes of Coca-Cola or Tate & Lyle, and nor should you. After all, cutting down on sugar must be a good thing, right? Well, yes; but if you read Swallow This, Joanna Blythman’s masterful dissection of the practices of the global food industry, you’ll have reason to temper your optimism.


Firstly, replacing sugar in drinks with alternative sweeteners is no guarantee of weight loss. Blythman cites research that indicates it might even have the opposite effect, as we end up seeking out the ‘missing’ sugar from other sources. And secondly, attempts to control the food industry often resemble efforts to address drug use in sport: crack down on one substance, be it MSG or meldonium, and the scientists simply turn their attention to another. And any ingredient-specific tax or banning order is only ever a few chemical modifications from being circumvented.

That our soft drinks and posh coffees are rammed with sugar shouldn’t really surprise us, even if the sheer scale might. These are drinks that, in unsweetened form, would variously taste bitter (coffee), sour (citrus) or of virtually nothing (cola). And don’t imagine you’d instinctively baulk at drinking something so sickly sweet. If you’ve ever demolished a bag of Haribo in a single sitting, you’ll realise our appetite for sugar is virtually insatiable.

When it comes to the sugar we eat rather than drink – which for the time being remains untaxed – the situation is a little more complex. Convenience food manufacturers will wherever possible replace expensive ingredients – basically, anything you or I might recognise as actual food – with cheaper ones that do a superficially similar job. Modified starches can mimic the physical properties of eggs, cream and much more, but at best they taste of nothing. So the taste has to be introduced, partly through chemically synthesised flavourings, and partly through a shedload of sugar, salt and/or fat. Cut back on one, and the whole thing will taste pretty bland unless you add more of another – which is why reduced fat foods are often chock full of sugar.

As consumers, we’re like Wile E. Coyote to the food industry’s Road Runner. If we pursue it with our Acme Fat Blaster 3000, it hides in a conveniently placed mound of sugar and salt while we hurtle on to our inevitable cliff-plummet doom. Take aim at the sugar, and it finds refuge in fat. Either way, the ending is entirely predictable.

The trouble is it’s virtually impossible to cut convenience food out completely, nor would we necessarily wish to. But if we can’t avoid it entirely, nor find out anything meaningful about its composition or long-term effects, we can at least reduce our exposure by eating more food that’s less processed.

An obvious way to do that is to cook more for ourselves, using primary ingredients wherever possible; though be assured that the food industry will use all its financial, lobbying and marketing clout to steer us down a different path. Read Blythman’s book and you’ll appreciate why she sees cooking as ‘a small daily act of resistance that gives us significantly more control of our lives’.

And this, on my reading at least, is where a shaft of light appears through the gloom. The effect of learning quite how much crap there is in processed food and drink is at once horrifying and strangely liberating. So my microwave meal is made with ten teaspoons of sugar? Cool: I can use nine spoonfuls in my home-cooked dinner and still emerge in credit. If my takeaway tikka masala contains 65 grams of fat, I might as well lob a quarter block of butter into my homemade curry for one.

In practice, I’ll do nothing of the sort, because I won’t need to. There’ll be no flavourless filler or ill-tasting additives in my meal, so I won’t have to disguise or offset them. Nonetheless, the instinct to be bold with flavours and seasonings is one to explore, not resist. If you’re in the habit of reaching for a ready meal because your own stir-fry or pasta sauce seems bland by comparison, that’s probably because it is.

Afraid to overdo the flavourings, we often end up erring the other way. But be confident, even liberal, with your additions – not just ‘bad’ salt, sugar and fat, but healthy aromatics (garlic, ginger, herbs and spices) as well – and watch the appeal of the microwave meal ebb away. In such circumstances, everybody wins – with the notable exception of the convenience food industry. I’d call that a result.

Twitter: @norecipeman

One response to “The sweet smell of excess”

  1. SteelPlates says:

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