Teaspoons of evil hiding everywhere

It’s getting harder to avoid this bothersome talk about how sugar is killing us. I can’t stand it. Let me eat my Easter eggs in peace.

I get even more uncomfortable when they start pointing the finger at fruit and honey too. Oh come on, leave the poor fruit alone.

One of my favourite things in the world is honey on toast. With lots of butter. That’s right, saturated fat and sugar smeared on carbs. What would you like on your toast today? Pure evil, please.

And yet, I hate to admit it, very slowly this sugar conversation is wearing me down. I notice I’ve been paying more attention to the amount of sugar I consume.

The World Health Organisation has drafted a new guideline that could potentially hurt our collective sweet tooth. It’s not yet a firm recommendation but here’s what they are proposing: That we should reduce our daily sugar intake to less than 10% of our total daily energy intake for the day, preferably aiming for 5%.

Did you follow that? Sounds important but I have no idea what any of it means. What are percentages and sugar doing in the same sentence? This isn’t maths, it’s breakfast. All I want is for my Weet-bix to not taste like cardboard.

Getting practical, it turns out that the 10% figure averages to around 50 grams of sugar. Twelve teaspoons per day. That’s your recommended allowance. Drop it to 6 teaspoons per day if you’re aiming for the more highly recommended lower limit.

I have a tiny head start because I don’t add sugar to my tea or coffee. Nor have I been seduced by that dark lord of the fizz, Coca Cola.

I once went through a phase of toying with energy drinks. Fortunately I wised up and gave up, unlike my friend Todd who still has a can of V for breakfast. Yes, I named you, Todd. This is a public intervention. Come back to the light.

V’s website tells me there is 11.2 grams of added sugar per 100ml of V. That’s 28 grams of sugar in one of those skinny 250ml cans. It’s common to see people chugging back on the 500ml cans. Wham, 56 grams, nearly 12 teaspoons of sugar in one hit. There goes your daily limit.

You see how bad sugar is? It’s making me do maths.

But soft drinks have never pretended to be healthy. In a way, I respect that. It’s the other stuff that’s more insidious. There’s sugar hiding in tomato sauce, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, flavoured yoghurt, baked beans. Even bread. Everything. We’ve become slaves to sweetness without even realising it.

Whether it’s corn syrup or dextrose or maltose or any other sweetener, it’s all effectively sugar. Teaspoons of evil hiding everywhere.

At some point last century food manufacturers realized sweetness sells better. But our modern lifestyle has led to what evolutionary biologists are calling ‘mismatch diseases’. We naturally crave sugar because it is an energy rich food, but our bodies are not adapted to scoffing it in abundance while slothing on comfy chairs all day. The resulting mismatch means that previously rare conditions like high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes are now all too common.

On this topic I recommend Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, which was one of the most interesting books I read last year.

It’s an obvious move to try cutting down on private treats. Reducing sugar levels across the whole supermarket? That’s more complicated. Entire product lines rely on sugar for their success, and not just the biscuits.

I really hope the food industry doesn’t respond by throwing artificial sweeteners at everything. The sugar-free revolution is simmering. It might be a bitter battle. I chew on my delicious marshmallow Easter egg with nervous anticipation.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 14 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.