Food & drink

Big Sugar

We’ve had Big Tobacco, so is it now time for Big Sugar? Sugar, alongside salt and fat, is becoming political, not only because they are all directly linked with a number of serious – and expensive – global health issues, but because poor people tend to be fat and rich people tend not. In other words, fat is a class issue.

In the UK people are, on average, three stone heavier than they were 50 years ago and this costs the NHS around 5 billion pounds annually to treat. The usual explanation is that the masses eat too much and don’t do enough exercise. They are greedy, lazy and ignorant and snack on junk food throughout the day. In other words, it’s their fault.

But this view is being challenged by those who argue, while it’s easily possible to avoid cigarettes and alcohol, it’s not so easy with sugar. Sugar, you see, is added to food and drink often without the consumer knowing. Labelling, where it exists, is weak and made worse because the food industry, which has been removing fat from convenience foods since the late 1970s, has been adding sugar in various forms to make their food taste more appetising.

According to the research, sugar in whatever form is highly addictive, fattening and could even be toxic. High fructose sugar syrup, developed from corn, is a particular villain and while its presence is usually labelled, most people have no idea what it is let alone what it might be doing to them. Again, you can say that this is just ignorance on the part of consumers, but trying to buy anything from a supermarket other than fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or fish (all becoming increasingly expensive) that does not have added sugar in some form is difficult.

As to specific links between sugar and obesity, it looks as though the problem could be that, when the body is fed sugar it craves more sugar. This perhaps interferes with the body’s in-built over-eating defences by undermining a hormone called leptin that regulates appetite. Fructose in this form is linked with liver toxicity and a host of chronic diseases ranging from diabetes to heart disease and cancers.

A fat tax (aimed at the food companies, but perhaps aimed at individuals too?) might be the answer to this, at least in the sense of paying for the future trouble created, but clear public health messages and better labelling would go a long way too.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 17 June 2012, ‘Our supermarkets must put sugary foods on the top shelf’ by M. Marrin.
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Search words: Sugar, obesity, fat, diabetes
Trend tags: Obesity

Possible links between diabetes and Alzheimer’s

The human brain was originally developed to seek out fat and sugar. But what was originally a survival mechanism from prehistory has become a self-destructive addiction in the modern world. It’s universally recognised that poor food choices can trigger obesity and diabetes, but increasing research suggests there could be a link with Alzheimer’s disease as well. Indeed, some people believe that Alzheimer’s could simply be a variant of diabetes, one that attacks the brain.

It is early days, study-wise, but if this linkage were to be proven this could have enormous consequences. Not only would we have a world where between a third and half of all people are obese, similar numbers of people would suffer from dementia. Take an experiment conducted by Suzanne De La Monte at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island (US), for example.

In the experiment, rat brains were modified to change the way they responded to insulin. Poor sensitivity to insulin is classically associated with Type-2 diabetes. As a result, the rats had difficulty remembering what they were doing and found it difficult to learn.

One of the problems, physiologically speaking, is ‘future discounting.’ This is a mechanism whereby the human brain seeks out short-term rewards over acknowledgement of longer-term risks. In other words, if many people see a cream cake sitting alone on a plate they tend to think “yummy, eat now” rather than “calories later”.

It has been argued (see story above) that all it takes is a bit of self-control and we could solve such problems, but if this doesn’t work what should we do instead? One option being looked at is taxing certain foodstuffs, either to dissuade people from eating them or to pay for the subsequent medical intervention that will be required.

Another future option might be the blocking of such cravings via the optional (or perhaps obligatory) use of drugs or other treatments. But like many modern remedies, this merely masks the problem rather than addressing it and may very well create a new set of dependencies or issues.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 1 September 2012, ‘The Ultimate food scare’ (leader) and ‘Eat your way to dementia’ by B. Trivedi.
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Search words: Obesity, fat, Alzheimer’s, diabetes
Trend tags: Obesity

Are cupcakes opium for the masses?

Sugar, as we’ve seen, is a potential killer. Often taking the form of a white crystalline substance, it is slowly taking over the lives of most people, especially in the developed world. Consider the cupcake, for instance. The craze for brightly coloured tiny cakes continues unabated.

We like to think of cupcakes, alongside donuts, as being a retro thing. They remind us of childhood and of simple pleasures and, perhaps, better and more certain times. Nonsense. The reason we like cupcakes and donuts is because they are loaded with sugar. They allow us to mainline it much like cocaine. Along with online pornography, online gambling and social media, they are becoming necessary supplements to more mainstream addictions such as alcohol and illegal drugs.

But is sugar actually a drug? Intelligent beings from outer space would surely think so. Sugar certainly has a drug-like capacity to impact the brain and mimics the way in which more traditional drugs can take over lives by guaranteeing a short-term pleasure hit over longer-term health issues.

An increasing number of doctors certainly believe it, including Henry Dimbleby, who runs a chain of restaurants called Leon. As he puts it: “Sugar is our number one eating problem– I think 40% of the population has some sort of addiction to it.”

So why isn’t more fuss being made of sugar? The answer is that we have been misled – on purpose or by accident – into believing that fat is the bigger problem. But this is nonsense. Fat in high amounts isn’t necessarily good for people either, but the difference is that it’s almost impossible to become addicted to fat-laden foods. We may crave a KFC meal, but we will generally stop when we’ve had enough. Indeed, it would be fascinating to work out what percentage of all food thrown away is sugary versus savoury. One suspects that most food waste would be savoury.

Of course many of the world’s biggest food companies know this all too well. Take “mini-bites” for instance. These treats have been designed to appeal to our instant gratification needs, especially the needs of stressed out urban office workers. They are slimmed down versions of hugely calorific and sugar-laden foods, such as confectionery and cakes, which give the impression they will absolve us of all guilt. You are only meant to eat one mini morsel, but almost nobody does.

Cereal is another example. Where cereal was once just cereal, it is now merging with confectionery in the supermarket and even so-called healthy brands are adding chocolate and yet more sugar. Again, the refrain is: “eat me, I’m low fat”, but they forget to mention the sugar content, which is worse than just empty calories.

Study-wise the case against sugar is strong. In a 2008 Princeton University study it was shown that rats can become addicted to sugar in much the same way as cocaine and amphetamines and other experts have commented upon the way that sugar gives a temporary rush much like cocaine.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK) 19 May 2012, ‘ ‘Why cupcakes are the new cocaine’ by D. Thompson. See also ‘The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over our world by Damian Thompson.
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Search words: Sugar, fat, obesity, addiction.
Trend tags: Obesity

Fatty food restrictions

In its last annual report, Coca Cola listed 30 global risks that could potentially impact earnings and profitability. The list included: water scarcity, a global credit crisis, increased competition, lack of expansion in developing markets, the cost and supply of energy, shortages of ingredients, changes in laws and regulations, significant additional labelling requirements, litigation, weather, obesity and other health concerns.

Regulatory change certainly looks serious. In 2011, Denmark introduced a ‘fat tax’ whereby food and drink companies are charged DKr 16 (US$2.70) per kilogramme of saturated fat in any product sold in Denmark.

Last year the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, announced that the sale of ‘supersized’ sugary drinks would be banned in all New York restaurants, cinemas and entertainment stadiums. Similarly, Walt Disney recently said that it was banning junk food advertising on its children’s TV programmes while Mars has dumped all adverting aimed at the under-12s. Nestle has also said it would limit ads targeted at under-12s and ditch those aimed at under-6s.

So what, apart from modifying their adverting and products, are the potential responses from big food and drink companies to an increasingly tough legislative and regulatory environment? One option, favoured by the tobacco companies, has been to focus on emerging markets where the rules are more relaxed, so perhaps the big food companies will move in this direction.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 9-10 June 2012, ‘Fatty food clampdown is hard to swallow’ by L. Lucas and A. Rappeport.
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Search words: Junk food, obesity, risks
Trend tags: Obesity

Prams in pubs

Be warned, young mums with babies are coming to a pub near you soon. In the UK, many pubs are in trouble due to a combination of cheap alcohol available from supermarkets, online entertainment and socialising at home, and the relentless rise of the coffee shop.

But all is not lost. The National Childbirth Coalition (NCT) says it has seen an 80 percent increase in the number of pubs signing on to what it calls its “Breastfeeding Welcome” scheme. Meanwhile, the Victoria Inn in Peckham, South London, reports a one third increase in daytime sales after a playroom for babies was installed in the pub.

Apparently, cafes don’t have the same amount of space available, and many are packed with people holding business meetings. This may help to encourage customers back to pubs. Meanwhile, according to Tim Martin, founder of the Weatherspoon’s pub chain, tea and coffee (combined) have become the company’s biggest selling drink, ahead of wine, beer and spirits, over the last 18 months. It’s a weird and wonderful world folks.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 14-15 July 2012, ‘Pubs warm to half-pints in prams’ by C. Thompson.
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Search words: Pubs, beer, children, mothers
Trend tags: -

Table photography

Food and flash photography don’t mix. The growing trend for photographing your next meal and then instantly emailing the image to friends is provoking a growing backlash.

According to the New York Times, the number of people taking photographs in restaurants is reaching epic proportions, even in Michelin–starred establishments. On one level, people are proud of where they are or what they are eating and want to communicate this with others. On another level, it’s just showing off. But this can border on obsessive-compulsive behaviour (one blogger posts an image of every dish of noodles he’s ever eaten on his blog).

The response from chefs is varied. Some have tried outright bans, many suggest no flash photographs, and others tackle the issue head-on by suggesting that people photograph the food in the kitchen rather than at the table where the behaviour can upset other diners.

Ref: New York Times (US) 22 January 2012, ‘Restaurants turn camera shy’ by H. Stapinski.
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Search words: Restaurants, photography, food, blogs, status, kitchen
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