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Cutting down on sugar and sweeteners

Judith Wills / 07 November 2019

A spoonful of sugar... or maybe fourteen? Diet expert Judith Wills looks at how sugar consumption has been rising, and how sweeteners are not the solution.

Glass full of sugar to represent sugary drinks
Sugar consumption has increased despite calls to reduce our intake, and new research finds that sweeteners aren't any better

When I gave up drinking alcohol (wine) two years ago because of a health condition that it exacerbated, I found I had more of a sweet tooth than I had ever had in my life – a disconcerting side effect but one I’ve been attempting to deal with since.

Why? Well, over the last thirty years very many studies across the world have concluded that high sugar intake is closely linked with obesity and diabetes – two of the western world’s greatest health issues - as well as raised blood pressure and tooth decay.

In the light of this, more than three years ago Public Health England produced a ‘challenge’ to food manufacturers, retailers and public eating establishments to cut levels of sugar in products such as breakfast cereals, chocolate, confectionary, yogurts and ice cream, sweet spreads and sauces, cakes, biscuits, puddings and buns by 20%.

Sadly, this challenge appears to have more or less failed, with the actual drop in the amounts of sugar in these products overall being 2.9% according to September’s update from PHE - and ironically the UK’s sugar intake since the challenge was devised has actually increased by 2.6% - with the sugar content of some popular products increasing too.

Recent research by the UK’s Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine has found that since the ‘90s, the sugar content of the most popular chocolate bars has increased considerably (eg the amount in a Cadbury’s fruit and nut bar has almost doubled!) and this may be because the price of cocoa has soared while sugar is a cheap ingredient.

In order to meet their pledges to reduce the sugar content of their products per portion, many chocolate manufacturers in the UK have simply reduced the portion/bar sizes with more set to shrink next year (but rarely the prices…).

All this means that our average sugar intake each day, at a sizeable fourteen teaspoons, is double the DoH recommended amount.

But in a blow to those of us trying to cut back on the demon crystals, new research carried out by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, also in September, has found that swopping to non-sugar, low-calorie sweeteners instead may not be such a good idea.

They found, after studying nearly half a million adults, that daily consumption of non-sugar sweetened soft drinks is linked with increased risk of early death. People who drank more than 500ml of diet drinks a day increased their overall risk by 26% and of dying from cardiovascular disease by a staggering 52%. Ironic, considering that after the government announced a ‘sugar tax’ for manufacturers of sugar-rich soft drinks in 2016, producers turned to artificial sweeteners as the answer.

But few sweeteners are suitable to use in items such as cakes, pastries, biscuits, breads and so on as they don’t provide the bulk and texture needed.

So – for you and me, what is the answer? I have managed to get my middle back in check, but it hasn’t been easy.

Five ways to cut down on sugar and sweeteners

So, for what it is worth, here are my own strategies and tips for keeping your sugar and sweeteners intake down.

1. Natural sugars – those present in foods as part of their cellular structure, ‘intrinsic’ sugars such as those in fruits – are not classed with the ‘free’ added sugars above and so if you fancy something sweet, a piece of fruit is always one of the best ideas. You’ll also be getting a good hit of invaluable plant compounds and vitamin C as well as fibre.

2. Drink water, or unsweetened tea or coffee, rather than soft drinks (whether or not they contain sugar or artificial sweeteners). It takes only a short while to appreciate water above sugary-tasting drinks, especially if it is nice and cold.

3. If possible, don’t buy items you know you will binge on. Biscuits, ice-cream, chocolate bars, cake – if it’s in the cupboard and you feel a small twinge of hunger (or false hunger when you see it there!) you will open the pack. I know.

4. Think of food ‘treats’ other than sugar that you love – one of my favourites is a delicious small slice of sourdough bread, toasted and topped with crunchy peanut butter (the no-added sugar kind, of course!). And I adore hummus crisps – do try!

5. Remember you don’t have to avoid free sugars altogether – the UK limit for is set at 5% of your daily calorie intake, which is about 100 calories or 25-28g. That said – the main way I ‘cured’ my recent sweet tooth was to avoid free sugars as much as possible, and also to avoid artificial sweeteners. If, for example, I get a box of chocolates as a gift, and of course eat them, my sweet tooth returns for some time afterwards.

There are so many gorgeous foods to enjoy which also happen to be great for us and our waistlines and for which we should feel grateful. Yes, it is hard to avoid added sugars when products containing them are shoved in our faces, more or less every time we go near shops. But it can be done. If the manufacturers won’t lead – let us.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.