Can Britain end its love affair with sugar?


Where is sugar found in the diet and what does it do to your body?

Ask someone how much sugar they consume and the chances are they would vastly underestimate the amount.

Research has shown that the average Briton packs away 238 teaspoons a week - that is nearly 1kg.

The reason? So much is hidden, says Dr Gail Rees, a nutrition expert from Plymouth University.

"It's not just in the obvious culprits, such as fizzy drinks and confectionery.

"Sugar is lurking in any number of seemingly innocuous everyday foodstuffs, such as canned tomatoes, salad dressings, peanut butter, breakfast cereals, bread, pasta - the list goes on."

A drawing of black slaves harvesting sugar cane, watched over by a white man holding a whip Slaves from West Africa were forced to work on sugar plantations

Of course, it wasn't always like this.

Prior to the 1600s, it was the preserve of the rich.

Instead, honey was the main way of sweetening food.

That began to change in the 1600s when settlers on Barbados discovered sugar cane thrived in the island's stony soil.

And so began the "sugar rush" as slaves were transported form West Africa to work on the plantations.

Bete noire

By the early 1800s Britons were consuming over 5kg per year on average.

But after the Gladstone government decided to lift the tax on sugar in the 1870s, consumption jumped again topping 20kg by the time Queen Victoria's reign came to an end.

How to cut sugar intake

  • Swap fizzy drinks for water or unsweetened fruit juice.
  • Swap cakes or biscuits for a currant bun, scone or some malt loaf with low-fat spread.
  • Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use in hot drinks and cereal until you can cut it out altogether.
  • Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup, treacle or honey on your toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese.
  • Check nutrition labels to help you pick the foods with less added sugar or go for the low-sugar version.
  • Try halving the sugar you use in your recipes - it works for most things except jam, meringues and ice cream.
  • Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey.

Now experts want us to curb the amount we eat amid suggestions it is addictive and a major cause of obesity.

This week the World Health Organization has called for sugar consumption to be halved, while England's chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has suggested a sugar tax should be reinstated.

No doubt cutting back will prove difficult for many - Britain is known as a nation with a sweet-tooth.

But it begs the question: why such a flurry of activity now after 400 years of enjoying the white stuff?

It is partly a response to research which has started to suggest sugar is both addictive and a more potent harm to health than other sources of calories.

But it is also related to the fact that the argument to reduce salt consumption - the other bete noire of nutritionists - has been won. Intake is estimated to have fallen by 15% over the last 10 years.

A leading voice in that movement was Professor Graham MacGregor, an expert in cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.

He has just set up a new campaign, Action on Sugar, with the aim of reducing "hidden sugars" by 20% to 30% over the next three to five years.

"It's time we took added sugar out of foods and soft drinks," he says.

The war on sugar has begun.

Nick Triggle Article written by Nick Triggle Nick Triggle Health correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    @TonyL99 - You can get fast acting dried yeast that you don't have to prepare, and cooking/kneading by hand is faster than a bread machine.

    A single teaspoon of sugar does help yeast to become more active, but a teaspoon is hardly excessive for a full sized loaf, considering how many slices you'll get out of it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    351 Paul "Breadmakers normally require some form of sugar to give the yeast a boost...12 hours+ for the yeast to rise"

    Wrong, I've made bread for years like so:

    Start dried yeast with 1/2 tsp sugar + 100ml warm water.
    Frothy/active, 10 minutes.
    Add 500g of flour + 1 tsp salt + 30 ml of oil.
    Machine knead, 20 min.
    Bread rise, 2-3 hrs.
    Cook, 35 mins.
    Inside 4 hrs and 1/2 tsp sugar per loaf.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    354. HilaryJ "When you digest sucrose it is split into glucose and fructose before being absorbed by the gut."

    I know, and I think notrub does too.
    I think he meant to say "Fructose is equivalent to Glucose" but slipped up.

    In any case, fructose is not equivalent to the others.

    (But of course the fructose within glucose is the same as 'free' fructose once it is released.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    338. notrub "From a dietary perspective Fructose is equivalent to Sucrose."

    353.rajagra. "Fructose is metabolised differently - entirely by the liver, creating toxins in the process."

    When you digest sucrose it is split into glucose and fructose before being absorbed by the gut.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    338. notrub "From a dietary perspective Fructose is equivalent to Sucrose."

    Only in a calorific sense. Fructose is metabolised differently - entirely by the liver, creating toxins in the process.

    "Fructose is ethanol - without the buzz."

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    "A kg in how long? A day, a week... in one cup of builders tea?"

    I think you should work on your reading comprehension. It says:
    Research has shown that the average Briton packs away 238 teaspoons a week - that is nearly 1kg.

    So which do you think it is?

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    254. Armchair Warrior
    "People are not prepared to pay the higher cost of slow fermented bread".

    Buy your own breadmaker, and you can make bread cheaply,"

    Breadmakers normally require some form of sugar to give the yeast a boost. They don't give it 12 hours+ for the yeast to rise on its own

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    These articles really need to be written by someone with common sense.

    Yes, canned tomatoes do contain sugar, but I couldn't find ANY which contain *added* sugar (just tomatoes, tomato juice & citric acid). Tomatoes naturally contain sugar. Pick one from your garden, and it'll contain sugar.

    Similarly pasta contains sugar, but no *added* sugar. Any sugar just comes naturally from the wheat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.


    'I guess it's used here as a preservative then ?'

    I was wondering if it might be caramel used as colouring. The cat probably wouldn't notice but the human opening the can might prefer nice brown 'meat'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    A kg in how long? A day, a week... in one cup of builders tea?

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    346: HilaryJ
    "Despite the fact that cats lack the taste receptor for sugar."
    I guess it's used here as a preservative then ? Historically N.European foods needed to be preserved in this way for the winter months too, and many dairy products were developed for a similar reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    'They even put sugar in cat food so that more cats out of 10 will prefer it.'

    Despite the fact that cats lack the taste receptor for sugar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Why is our diet so sugar rich ?
    Because it generates higher profit margins for foodstuffs manufacturers. If we stopped buying food with sugar in, they would stop making it.
    If you saw me sprinkling sugar all over your pizza would you eat it ? Look at the ingredients, there's sugar in everything.
    They even put sugar in cat food so that more cats out of 10 will prefer it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Oats, are you saying that diabetes is not a genuine illness? I suspect the type 1's would argue that and the type 2's (when they can be heard above the ignorant crowd) would also point out their illness is not down to them. No doubt you would argue otherwise

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    This 'tinkering around on the edge' with items we should and should not be having or using, by a nanny state who wants to tell everyone how to live their lives, is becoming ridiculous. People know about sugar, fat, alcohol,tobacco,red meat etc. there must be some other 'unknown' area the state can meddle in surely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Sugar isn't the problem, its how we have been educated on it, packaging and advertisements entice us, making it look fun and appetising no mention of health risks.
    hide the packaging, make it plain and boring, just like they did with cigarettes, which soon be a myth in the up and coming years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    Can't afford to smoke anymore
    Can't afford to drink anymore
    Can't smoke in my car even if I can afford to
    Now they are trying to put the price of cakes and sweets out of my reach.
    It's hardly worth living anymore because of these loud mouthed interfering busy bodies.

  • Comment number 340.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    I used to take 2 tea spoons of sugar in my tea (didnt like coffee) but in 1970 when the uk had a sugar shortage, (anyone old enough to remember that?) and you could not sugar for love or money I started drinking my tea without sugar, and guess what I preferred it.
    now I cannot drink tea with sugar in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    122. Paul Lewis
    "Not all sugars are the same."

    Correct Paul, but the rest of your post is wrong.

    From a dietary perspective Fructose is equivalent to Sucrose. Both are 5-membered ring monosaccharides and neither triggers your "full" switch so you tend to overeat.

    From a "fattening" perspective, there is no difference orange squash and cola.

    Glucose is the "good" sugar.


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