Searching for the Sweet Spot

First published in the NASGP Newsletter in December 2020

On family outings to the seaside I always looked longingly at the candy floss stalls. But my mother wouldn’t let me have any, even in exchange for my daily sweet ration of seven Smarties. When, eventually, I was in charge of my own pocket money and away from maternal opprobrium, I treated myself to some of the pink froth. Yuk. Fun to eat, but too, too sweet. And yet, candy floss may hold the answer to the obesity crisis.

A couple of years ago I went to the V&A’s Pink Floyd exhibition. It included films of the group ‘off duty’, I was struck to see how lean they were. And their fans, too. But in the 1960s that’s how we were. Few then had the fleshy layer which insulates people who count as slim in the 21st century. A diabetologist friend says that patients no longer apologise for their weight. What was once overweight is now the norm.

Expectations, changed social habits, a food industry more than willing to foster demand for instant meals: many factors have put the UK near the top of a world-wide health time-bomb.

Seven cubes is the recommended maximum daily sugar limit. That’s what’s in one can of traditional Coke. Maybe picturing sugar content in terms of the familiar cubes would bring home how much sugar people are feeding themselves. But sugar has always been irresistible – hunter-gatherers laboured to extract honey from almost inaccessible nests­ – and sweet treats are hard to give up, especially when life is hard, money is short and smoking is frowned on.

When Boris Johnson discovered that his weight increased his C-19 risk he declared war on obesity. That’s a critical change in the political rhetoric: from sneering at the ‘nanny state’ for depriving ‘hard-working families’ of treats, to acknowledging that those treats are depriving them of years of active life. But action requires organisations to work together to tackle our obesogenic environment, and currently we don’t even have joined-up government. The DHSC has a policy of sugar reduction while DEFRA supports the production of sugar which is so inexpensive that there is little economic pressure on manufacturers to switch to cheaper alternatives.

How can we reduce our sugar consumption?

Can we make the healthy choice the cheap choice?

When it comes to tempting treats, self-denial is difficult. And charging premium prices for products advertised as ‘healthy’ doesn’t work. And a supermarket chain’s priority isn’t public health; it’s profit.

But can we make the healthy choice the cheap choice? Taste is the public’s first criterion, but price comes a close second, well before health or fair trade.

That’s why VAT is used to encourage healthier choices. Plain biscuits are judged necessities and so are VAT-free. But add chocolate to Hobnobs or icing sugar buttons to gingerbread men and they become luxuries incurring 20% VAT. (To escape the tax McVitie’s persuaded the VATman that Jaffa Cakes are in fact biscuits.)

Fizzy drinks are the obvious face of sugar excess – available everywhere, often drunk in public, and a suitable focus of middle-class moralisers who prefer more sophisticated treats. In fact, sugar-free versions have been gaining ground for some years, costing exactly the same as traditional carbonated drinks. The introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in 2018 opened up a price differential, making sugar versions more costly. Artificial sweeteners are very cheap, so it costs less to make sugar-free Coke. Manufacturers are sharing the extra margin with retailers, so sugar-free versions now substantially outsell their now more expensive traditional counterparts. All those calorific milky drinks are surely the next target.

The experience with another compound with adverse health effects is instructive. Salt. Since 1984 the food industry has been reducing the amount of salt in processed foods very gradually. They didn’t disclose what they were doing, and neither consumers nor companies’ accountants detect a difference.

The food industry has also been very gradually reducing the sugar in its products. Guess which popular, mass-market product has made the largest reductions in its sugar content, both in percentage terms and absolute amount, without the use of sweeteners. (Answer below*)

So far, so helpful. But because of the complexity of sugar it has to be reduced even more slowly than with salt, and much bigger cuts in our intake are urgently needed to make an impact on obesity.

What about developing other kinds of sugar? Much of the sugar we consume is in baked goods and ready meals, and in chocolate, which is rapidly becoming the nation’s favourite sugar hit. The problem is that sugar is more than just a jolt of sweetness. It also gives cakes their springiness and chocolates, spreads and biscuits their texture. A cupcake made with artificial sweetener just isn’t the same.

There are no direct, affordable substitutes for sugar which fulfil the many complex roles it plays in our food. And since sugars are central to our body’s biochemistry, any substitute might play havoc with our complex metabolic processes.

Many substitutes are under trial: artificial sweeteners, other natural sweeteners, new sugars, other surprising compounds – celeriac! – which can affect flavour. After more than 100 years some people are still anxious that stirring artificial sweeteners into their coffee is potentially harmful. It isn’t – though adding sugar certainly is. But aspartame doesn’t work in cakes or sweet chilli sauces or ice-cream. Finding a substitute that gives foods the appeal we are used to means thousands of products have to be reformulated – a long and expensive process.

One possibility is to use sugars which are not absorbed by the body.  These sugars provide sweetness for fewer calories and they aren’t metabolised by oral bacteria, so don’t cause caries – a double benefit. One such is maltitol, which is not without its critics, though right-on parents are probably unaware of this when they spoon maltitol-containing sugar-free Calpol into their infants. Maltitol is used in some Spanish chocolate brands, but they’re not for sharing in the cinema – more than couple of squares can produce flatulence. And maltitol doesn’t substitute effectively in most foods. Allulose does better. Manufacturers are keeping a close eye on the increasing sales of allulose chocolate products.

There’s another strategy: to somehow make sugar less calorific. Which brings us back to candy floss. Imagine a form of sucrose which gives us that familiar sweet taste without the calories. Spun sugar, which is what candy floss is, changes the crystalline structure of sucrose so it hits the taste buds much more effectively, so far less is needed to convey the same taste effect.

A start-up has developed Incredo, a form of sucrose given the candy floss treatment. Cakes and chocolate made with Incredo apparently stand up to the consumer taste test, and Incredo is coming to the market shortly with the support of major sugar refiners in Europe and north America. Meanwhile Nestlé and others are experimenting with Nucane Life, a spun sugar developed in Malaysia.

Ensuring that the next generation, and the generation after that, doesn’t suffer the health burden of obesity will take a long time and take more than candy floss technology. But in the field of sugar reduction that pink fluff that I finally tasted all those years ago is a game changer.

* It’s champagne! In the late 18th century champagne was very sweet, with 300g of sugar in a standard 750ml bottle. That’s 40g/100ml, compared with 10.6g/100ml for a traditional cola. Reformulating champagne has taken 200 years, but you can now buy an Ultra Brut which has no added sugar.

With thanks to Jack Winkler, Professor of Nutrition Policy, London Metropolitan University (Retired), for his advice.