Sugar on Top

EU Perspectives investigates claims that measures passed by the EU in the past six months could result in a rise in childhood obesity

Halloween may be behind us but many kids will still be happily basking in a rich sweet sugar rush from last week’s trick and treating. “Bobbing for apples” or “snap apples” used to be traditional Halloween games played in Ireland and the UK.

Forget apples. Today, its all about the candy. Apples, contain a mere 10 grams of fructose, the rest being fibre, water, vitamins and mineral.  Candy on the other hand has a far higher concentration of artificially extracted fructose.

Trick and treating is a largely North American phenomenon which has spread like wild-fire through much of Europe in the past few decades. What’s not to like? Its fun, children like getting dressed up as ghouls and goblins and they LOVE sweets. In any case, lets not get all puritanical about it. Halloween, like Christmas and birthday parties comes but once a year so lets have some fun and indulge in the sweet-fest.

The only problem to this logic is that with the onset of processed food and sweetened drinks children are having the equivalent of a “trick or treat”  sugar spike every single day of the year not just on feast days. Sugar is in our branded breakfast cereals, sweetened drinks and non-sweetened fruit juices, breads, biscuits, ketchups, sauces, chocolates …

In much of the processed food consumed today “sugar on top” is the norm not the exception.  It is added to extend the shelf-life of the product and to improve palatability. As someone once noted, “You can add sugar to sh..t and it would taste good.” Not only is sugar excellent at disguising bland or unpalatable flavours, there is mounting evidence that sugar could be as addictive as cocaine. Little wonder then that consumers keep coming back for more and more and little wonder then that the food industry has “0” interest in reducing the sugar content of their products.

On top of all that the food industry has official government advice on its side – a calorie is a calorie. The law of thermodynamics is the one law the food industry has every  interest in maintaining. According to the food industry, individual responsibility, gluttony and slothfulness are what causes weight-gain, obesity and metabolic disorder –  not sugar.

Shame then that some spoil sports, most notably Dr Robert Lustig, are suggesting that a calorie is not a calorie and that fructose in sugar is a toxin that causes obesity which in turn causes the metabolic disorders that are responsible for so many non-communicable deaths: type-2 diabetes, hypertension and cardio vascular disease.

It is true there are many paths to weight gain and obesity – over consumption of plentiful food, larger portion sizes, eating too many artificial fats and a sedentary life-style.

Yet, according to obesity experts, the consumption of fructose is not a path. It is the equivalent of a five-lane super high-way depositing the consumer of fructose straight off at “Obesity Central”.

(To see why sugar may be linked to obesity see previous post: The possible link between sugar and obesity.)

The literature, science and You Tube presentations are compelling. The science convincing if not yet confirmed. The statistics appear to confirm what the obesity experts suggest – an increase in sugar consumption correlates with an increase in fructose consumption which correlates with an increase in the over weight and morbidly obese.

Across the global blogosphere the mood is shifting. Credible news organisations and scientific journals are all giving full consideration to the accusation that the fructose content of sugar is the leading cause of global obesity. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is talking about the evils of fructose. Yet, there appears to be one organisation that appears oblivious to all of this talk – the European Union. Either that or it has become victim to the subtle lobbying of the powerful starch industry.

How so? Firstly, the EU has recently reformed how the sugar market is regulated allowing starch manufacturers a greater role in the manufacture of sugar in the EU. Secondly it has just given the go ahead to promote fructose as healthy.

Reform of the EU’s sugar regime

Since the creation of the common agricultural market in 1957 the regulation of the EU’s sugar market has been one of the strictest and most controlled of all the agricultural sectors which unabashedly favours European sugar-beet growers and cane sugar from the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) countries.

The production of isoglucose from the starch industry has been strictly limited to around 5% of total sugar production or the equivalent of 700 000 tonnes a year, which explains why Europeans have been eating less corn syrup and more sucrose in their processed food.

All of that is about to change thanks to some intensive lobbying by the European Starch Industry Association, which states,

From 2017, the European starch industry will be free to produce isoglucose, in the required quantities and in all Member States where customer demand exists. This decision has finally put an end to the out-dated, unfair and anti-competitive treatment of isoglucose, the cereal based sugar derived from EU maize or wheat starch.

European consumers, hooked on sugar, are demanding more sugary foods and the current sugar quota is not enough to meet demand.  The EU is happy to oblige our sweet tooth by liberalising the market to allow the starch industry to manufacture corn syrup.

Promoting crystalline fructose as a healthy alternative to sucrose

The second measure approved by the EU relates to the publication of Regulation No 536/2013 which permits the starch industry to claim that crystalline fructose is a “healthier” alternative to sucrose.  This measure allows the food industry to substitute up to 30% of the current glucose or sucrose content of food and beverages with crystalline fructose whilst claiming that it is a healthier alternative.

It is not inconceivable that many consumers may assume fructose (because it is in fruit) is indeed a healthier choice than sucrose. Either that – or like the very young and the very addicted – they don’t care so long as it is cheap and they get their fix.

Little wonder then that obesity experts are stunned. Although the Regulation was published in June it slipped pretty much under the radar until The Guardian published an article on it last week, bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

EU Perspectives can only take their hat off to the lobbyists who orchestrated this coup. The brains behind this strategy knew exactly how to manipulate the EU and play to one of its greatest weaknesses – its top-heavy bureaucracy.

The measure was approved without any public consultation in the European Parliament, Commission or Council.  It slipped in and became law under an arcane committee procedure, which in true Halloween spirit is referred to as “The Article 13” procedure.

Within the coming months and years fructose will be eaten in even greater quantities in Europe than was previously the case. With the forthcoming liberalisation of the EU sugar market and the approval of crystalline fructose as a “healthy” substitute to sucrose it is little wonder that the starch industry is licking its lips like the cat that got the cream. Or should one say the cat that got its paws on the sticky fructose syrup?

If the obesity experts are correct – and it looks increasingly like they are – then Europe will indeed see a spike in its obesity levels as more and more people, particularly children, switch to consuming isoglucose and crystalline fructose in ever greater quantities.

1 Comment on Sugar on Top

  1. Peter Smith // 06/11/2013 at 6:05 pm // Reply

    Excellent article, thank you very much. Sounds like an upcoming public health nightmare…

    Please note that the fructose health claim doesn’t prescribe a replacement of up to 30%, but even worse, a replacement of *at least* 30% glucose/sucrose by toxic fructose.

    The shady fructose lobbyists really couldn’t hold off this time….

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