The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. This profound and simple statement makes perfect sense. The food you eat is what keeps you healthy, fit and disease free. So, it should be no surprise to you that as the western diet has gotten unhealthier in the last half century, there has been a rise in non-communicable metabolic diseases.
Inevitably you will have come across the phrase “poor dietary choices”. This phrase is used to suggest that people are unhealthy or overweight because they knowingly eat foods that are bad for them in high quantities. However, while people talk about poor dietary choices, you are about to find out that it’s not always a choice. Sometimes even when you make the right choice you are still eating less healthy than you think you are.
This is because of something called “invisible sugar”. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but the simple truth is that food companies are poisoning you for profit.
The Rise of Added Sugar
While we have been adding sugar in one way or another, for thousands of years, industrial and commercial food production has been desperately adding sugar to everything they could for the last 40 years.
However, somewhere along the line food manufacturers realized that what they were doing was making people sick, however instead of trying to make healthier food, they began buying politicians, funding research and hiding the science. All in an attempt to hide the fact that they are pumping addictive, health destroying, harmful substances straight into the food you eat every day.
So how did this all start? Well, the western world underwent a media driven health panic and made a radical change in its diet. We call this change “The Fat Scare.” Basically, in the 1970s due to a combination of some bad science and some sensationalised journalism everyone became obsessed with the amount of fat in their food. The medical establishment believed it had discovered a link between dietary fat and heart attacks. As we now know, it is not that simple, some fats are good, others are less good, and you need a healthy balance of fat in your diet.
However, in the 1970s, to please a consumer base, the food industry went on a fat cutting spree. They made low-fat yogurt, low-fat ready meals, low-fat sauces, low-fat milk, low fat anything and everything. The only problem was that fat content is directly related to flavor. Once you take fat out the food it doesn’t taste good anymore, nor was it as craved as it didn’t trigger our primitive reward centres in the brain.
So now, the food companies were facing a problem, how to make low fat food taste good again? Their solution was to add sugar, buckets and buckets of sugar. Perhaps they were unaware of the downside at the time, the health risks, or the fact that sugar has been found to be as addictive as crack cocaine. Or perhaps they knew and didn’t care. I suspect that if even they didn’t know straight away, they were thrilled to find out how addictive it is.
How Much Sugar Are We Consuming?
Just how much sugar is the average American eating? Well the USDA says that we each consume around 150 pounds of sugar a year, or approximately 3 pounds of sugar a week. And to be honest, I think that’s a low estimate.
Other studies have suggested that this is a massive underestimate by the USDA, and that the average is closer to 170-180 pounds per year. People who eat high sugar diets may be as high as 200 pounds per year.
To put this in perspective in the 1820s the average American ate 6.3 pounds of sugar a year. With the USDA’s lowball estimate we are talking about more than a 24-fold increase in sugar consumption, on the higher estimates it’s as much as a 32-fold increase; and a lot of this increase happened in the last few decades.
How could you be eating twice as much sugar than you used to and not notice it? It’s called adaptation levels. Whether it’s the amount of sugar in your food, or the amount of salt or even spicy chilli you will become acclimated to a certain level of stimulation. So that higher level of sweetness becomes the new benchmark, and the cycle starts over again.
Now the worst culprit is hidden sugar. Take bread for example, what do you think is healthier white bread or whole wheat? All the advertising on whole wheat suggests it’s the healthier option and if you asked 10 random people the question odds are, they will tell you whole wheat bread is healthier.
However according to the USDA, white bread has an average of 4.49 grams of sugar per slice, 4.1, (91%) of which is added sugar. Compare this to whole wheat bread which everyone thinks is healthier and you might be shocked to discover it has 5.57 grams of sugar per slice, 5.0, (89.7%) of which is added sugar. This is probably because it tastes stronger than white bread and so more sugar is needed to overwhelm the flavors. Now this is just one example, but it’s a good one.
This increase in sugar consumption directly corresponds to the rise in metabolic diseases and the obesity epidemic and non-communicable metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
Robert Lustig, an American doctor, professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and an expert on childhood obesity has been campaigning against added sugar for decades. Scientifically, Lustig is an endocrinologist. His area of expertise is human metabolism — how our bodies break down food and turn it into energy.
Lusting says “nobody chooses to be obese. Nobody. Especially not children. This is a global pandemic. Do you think, all of a sudden, everybody in the world became gluttons and sloths at the same time? Get with the programme!” So why the rise in obesity and diabetes… “It ain’t the fat,” says Lustig, “The obesity epidemic, and the sudden flourishing of all these non-communicable diseases, is not a result of people eating too much fat”, he says it’s the added sugar.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are no exception. It’s called selective breeding and it’s something humanity has been doing for thousands of years. At first it was used to improve fruit and vegetables, but now it is commonly used to increase the sweetness of food we grow.
Selective breeding has been turbocharged by modern science, year-round climate-controlled grow rooms, gene analysis and genetic targeting. When you take all of this and put it in the hands of a profit driven big food company, it’s no surprise we end up with sweeter, less healthy, more saleable produce.
Why do agriculture companies want sweeter fruit and vegetables, well there are two likely reasons? Firstly, agriculture is trying to keep up with changing tastes, as we eat more sugar in our daily diet, we have become accustomed to a sweeter taste. Secondly, agriculture companies like sweeter crops which are more “craveable”, more “addictive”. It’s easier to sell, it’s more profitable.
Corn is native to America, Native Americans grew it here, the pilgrims grew it here, and it is one of the foods eaten at the first thanksgiving. But modern corn shares almost nothing in common with the corn the pilgrims ate.
The most commonly bought type of sweet corn purchased today in the US is called “supersweet corn”, its approximately 1000 times larger, it’s quite often pale and white, it contains 10 times less protein and it is almost 40% sugar… not so far off a Hershey’s chocolate bar (56% sugar). The corn the pilgrims ate, was only 1.9% sugar, it was tougher, more fibrous and healthier than any corn you can buy today.
So now we know, there is more sugar in our fruits and vegetables, and added sugar in everything from our milk, our bread and our sausages. So, you might be thinking that now you are in the know all you need to do is really careful read all the labels on the food you buy, right? If only it was that simple. However, by understanding the truth and becoming sugar aware you can take steps to safeguard your health against invisible sugar.