“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please.” Chemicals in our Food (part 4)
Sugar Additives and Ultra-Processed Foods
This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know. This post is from the chapter, Safety 101 and the final episode of a four part series.
How sugar insinuated itself into the American diet is a fascinating tale that begins with the scientific community’s colossal error in choosing personality over substance, and how we’re all living with the ramifications of this onerous mistake.
The Charm Offensive: Sugar vs. Fat
In the 1950’s, two competing theories were being floated on what caused heart disease. A physiologist from the University of Minnesota, Ancel Keys, posited that fat (cholesterol) was the enemy. On the other side of the Atlantic, John Yudkin, a British professor of Nutrition, had a hypothesis that sugar was the culprit. Ancel Keys was also the inventor of K ration, the packaged food America’s soldiers relied on.
When US President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, his doctor gave a press conference instructing Americans to stop smoking and cut down fat and cholesterol to avoid heart disease, citing Ancel Keys’s theory. Meanwhile, to buttress his hypothesis, Keys collected what seemed to be inarguable evidence that a diet low in saturated fat was key to a healthy heart. What came to be known as the Seven Countries Study (which included countries like Greece and Italy), introduced Mediterranean diet into the gastronomic lexicon and became the foundation for vilifying fat. Never mind that Keys may have cherry picked his data, having excluded France and West Germany which had high-fat diets and low rates of cardiovascular disease.
What followed was a bloody battle where fact-based data was not the winner. In The Sugar Conspiracy, published by The Guardian, writer Ian Leslie describes how the scientific community gravitated towards Keys’s Fat hypothesis despite inconsistencies in data, attributing personality as a key determinant. He writes:
“Ancel Keys was brilliant, charismatic, and combative. A friendly colleague at the University of Minnesota described him as, “direct to the point of bluntness, critical to the point of skewering”; others were less charitable. He exuded conviction at a time when confidence was most welcome. The president, the physician and the scientist formed a reassuring chain of male authority, and the notion that fatty foods were unhealthy started to take hold with doctors, and the public.”1
Don’t forget he was also the inventor of the all-American K-ration. Yudkin, on the other hand, was of the quiet sort. We all know who won that war. John Yudkin was ridiculed by the scientific community and when he published his book, “Pure, White, Deadly” in 1972 to warn the public that it was indeed sugar that was the enemy of good health, his reputation had tanked and his book, though popular at the time, languished into near obscurity.2
So “Fat is Bad” won, now what?
Here’s where it gets dicey. In 1980, the US government released dietary guidelines to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol. The UK followed suit in 1983. The verdict was loud and clear and resounded beyond the borders of North America. FAT IS BAD AND CAUSES HEART DISEASE. A surge of Low-fat and Fat-free food products began lining supermarket shelves and refrigerated sections. Eggs were shunned, margarine replaced butter; skim milk was substituted for whole milk. In Manila, I was using non-dairy creamers in coffee and avoiding avocados.
The thing is, besides physiological benefits like helping you feel fuller, fat is responsible for other positive culinary traits such as a smooth and creamy texture, delightful mouthfeel, moisture and most importantly, flavor. Someone at one of my cooking classes told me that FAT stands for flavor and taste, and while I haven’t found any evidence of its veracity, I thought it was rather cute, and on point. So while food manufacturers scrambled to remove or reduce fat in their products, they had to find a way to compensate for the loss in flavor.
“Knock, knock, who’s there?” Enter, Sugar Additives.
Here’s where the bump in sugar additives begins. A sugar additive is basically sugar added to food in the processing stage. As it turns out, sugar doesn’t just make food sweet. In its web page (which includes a photo of colorful, healthy fruits), The Sugar Association uses candy-colored graphics and dots to depict sugar’s functional roles beyond sweetness to include: flavor enhancer/balancer/aroma, bulk, texture/mouthfeel, shelf-life/microbial stability, fermentation, freezing point depression, color and moisture retention.3
Sugar is quite the multi-tasker, and it’s no surprise it goes by different names. What’s surprising to most of us is how many--a whopping sixty one, according to the Sugar Science page of the University of California San Francisco’s website.4 You might be familiar with some that we use at home: cane sugar, coconut palm sugar, maple syrup, honey. And then there are those ubiquitous in most commercial food items like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, dehydrated cane juice (see end notes for full list). Added sugar is everywhere. They’re hidden in whole-grain cereals and granola, fruit juice, yogurt and baby food. They’re also in savory food items like canned soups, pasta sauce, bread and salad dressing.
The Nutritional Gamble that’s Sickened Millions
After forty years betting on Fat as the enemy, we find out that the scientific community, government and health organizations were absolutely wrong. When the US government released dietary guidelines minimizing fat in 1980, obesity rates in adults were at 15%. By 2016, 4 out of 10 adults in the country were obese.5 In youth, it’s worse. Childhood obesity tripled since the 1970’s and now affects 1of 5 school-aged children.6
To understand what had happened, new research finally uncovered what John Yudkin had known all along: Sugar is the real enemy. It’s been implicated in cardiovascular disease deaths.7 What’s more, the old villain, Fat, has now proven to be not only beneficial, but critical to good health.8 For the first time in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration recommended a cap on sugar.
More and more Americans are becoming aware of the harmful effects of sugar. Yet it is still misunderstood, especially in conjunction with the corollary benefits of fat. Going against an established belief that was imposed on nearly two generations is an uphill climb. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo of sugar-filled and fat-free products will fight. There will be mixed messaging, further perplexing consumers. Proof of that is that supermarkets are still full of zero-fat products, but to add to the confusion, new labels have appeared: sugar-free, zero sugar, no added sugar, etc.
The sugar industry is feeling the onslaught. On their website, The Sugar Association takes a defiant stance:
“There is no substitute for sugar. With all these valuable functions, sugar can’t simply be replaced by another single ingredient. Its versatility is unmatched—and that’s just one of the reasons why we love sugar.”
Actually, there is a substitute for sugar. It’s called real food.
Ultra-Processed, The Unreal Food
Processed food by definition is any food that has been altered in any way, including freezing, canning, or simply cutting into pieces. It refers to a broad spectrum that ranges from minimally processed items like roasted nuts, frozen vegetables, vinegar, to ultra-processed food and beverages like sodas, potato chips and breakfast cereals. So as not to get caught up with technical definitions, let me make a distinction that what I will refer to as poison will be ultra-processed food and beverages.
Ultra-processed means food and beverages are manipulated to enhance flavor, texture, aesthetics, and nutritional profiles as well as to prolong shelf life. We already know there’s way too much sugar in ultra-processed food. Besides sugar in its many forms, commercial food is also a toxic cocktail of sodium, artificial preservatives, coloring, flavor enhancers, and a host of other food additives. You can check out the rap sheet yourself, but here are a few examples from the Environmental Working Group: Nitrates and nitrites, coloring and flavor agents often found in cured meats (WHO declared these as probably human carcinogens), Potassium bromate to strengthen bread (known carcinogen in California), Butylated hydroxyanisole (endocrine disruptor). The list goes on, but you get the drift. Ditch unreal food. Read ingredient labels. Here’s how you’ll spot them.
Ultra-processed food and beverages have:
an ultra-lengthy list of ingredients, i.e., probably more than five
unidentifiable ingredients that sound like something out of chemistry class
added sugars. Remember, they masquerade under different names like fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, sucrose
The Reality Check
To commit to healthy eating, it’s important to build a habit of reading ingredient labels. Start by making your next grocery shopping experience one that avoids all ultra-processed food and beverages. Second, check ingredients of all food items in your refrigerator and pantry and make a plan to toss out most if not all ultra-processed food and beverages. It might seem daunting at first because you’ll find most every kind of item---condiments like ketchup, salad dressings, juices, sodas, supposedly heart-healthy breakfast cereals and snack bars, peanut butter, potato chips and canned goods, will have one or more of the offending ingredients we mention. Though I’m very much anti-waste, if you come to believe, as I have, that we are slowly poisoning ourselves with sugar and chemicals that are hidden in food, you’ll find you can manage a steely resolve towards the project. It might seem expensive in the beginning to replace ultra-processed with real food, but when you consider the expensive medical bills and poorer quality of life that you have avoided, you’ll find it was a bargain after all.
Summary: “I’ll Have The Poison on the Side please.”
Toxic chemicals are hidden in most of our commercial food supply and are a leading cause of disease and ailments in the world ranging from gluten-intolerance to type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. For a healthier diet:
Buy fresh organic or chemical-free fruits and vegetables starting with those in the Dirty Dozen list which have the most chemicals
To avoid the very toxic glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, buy organic or glyphosate-free flour and wheat products, oats, barley and beans
Choose eggs, poultry and meats that are free-range, grass-fed, organic, sustainably-raised, which have minimal or no chemicals added to them or their feed.
Avoid Ultra processed food and beverages. It’s ultra-processed if there are added sugars, generally more than five ingredients, or if ingredients sound like they are from your chemistry class.
Barley malt syrup
Cane juice crystals
Coconut palm sugar
Corn syrup solids
Dehydrated cane juice
Evaporated cane juice
Free-flowing brown sugars
Fruit juice concentrate
HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
Interested to learn more? Check out companion posts on Cooking Subversive:
“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please” : Chemicals in our Food
part 1: Chemical Fertilizers, Herbicides and Pesticides
part 2: And Then There’s Roundup
part 3: Steroids, Antibiotics and other Chemicals in Meat and Poultry
part 4: Sugar Additives and Ultra-Processed Foods
https://time.com/2863227/ending-the-war-on-fat/ and https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin
While Fat is critical to good health, they are not equally healthful. Current research has Omega 3 (avocado, Salmon) as more beneficial than Omega 6, for example. Previously oversimplified understanding of LDL as the “evil” cholesterol has been debunked with Dr. Ronald Krauss’s discovery of subparticles: big fluffy and small dense, with the former as benign, and the latter, increased by carbohydrate (sugar) intake, linked to heart disease risks. It’s a bit complex to tease out conflicting views on fat, and I will attempt to do so in a future post, but the most useful takeaway today is to recast our discussion from “Good vs. Bad Fats” to “Great vs. Good Fats.” With Sugar as the Evil Witch (the occasional guest you don’t want hanging around too long or too often).