There was a recent article published in the October 17th issue of the Wall Street Journal that, when reading the first few sentences, gave me cause for great hope in our War Against Added Sugar!
The article was called "The Search for Sugar Substitutes" by Annie Gasparro, and it was about how the "food giants" as the writer calls them, are finally acknowledging the diabetes epidemic and the explosive growth of obesity caused by their brands. These companies are looking to make significant steps in reducing, or possibly eliminating the high levels of added sugars in their products.
There are tangible signs of progress in this pursuit by these large companies that we can embrace.
- 22% of Americans are actively reducing their sugar intake, and 52% are avoiding artificial sweeteners.
- There was also a 19% increase in 2016 in sales of products with natural or low-glycemic sweeteners.[i]
However, before we can declare any kind of victory, there are still two significant hurdles for the food giants in trying to make a substantial impact on the added sugar epidemic.
- Their initial response to the public outcry from consumers and legislators is to test or develop "safer" sweetener alternatives, like South American root extracts or monkfruit. Another strategy is to develop more "surface area" sugar in a product because you can use less sugar but still have that sweetness, if the tongue can make direct contact with the actual sweet stuff. Finding alternatives to maintain the sweetness in our products – even if they are zero calorie substitutes – still doesn’t alleviate the American addiction to sugar. According to Gasparro, there are over 22,000 foods containing high fructose corn syrup and over 200 variations of artificial sweeteners that consumers can resort to if they are not fully satisfied with the "new and improved" items.[ii]
- The second dilemma and this is out of fairness to the food giants, is that sugar serves as both a natural preservative and filler in many products. The shelf life of bread (a $14.4 billion industry in 2016) would be greatly reduced if sugar was removed. Other product lines that are basic to the economy like cereal ($8.6 billion in 2016 sales), yogurt ($7.6 billion), and fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages ($7.4 billion) would all be affected to the degree that any solutions would be costly and not likely in the short term.[iii] Not that I shed any tears for the chocolate bar sector, but reducing or eliminating sugars of any kind from a bar of chocolate means producing a smaller product portion at a price that the market may not bear.
The problem here is that the food giants have large food technology infrastructures that have to think the same way as they have been since sugar-sweetened products emerged more than a century ago. They will look to find, test and/or discover sweetener alternatives that appear healthier or can at least be marketed as such. It is, however, encouraging that product developers are looking to natural ingredients to combat the sugar problem.
The ultimate burden, the "heavy-lifting" in waging this War on Added Sugar, still falls on us as consumers and caring citizens. We have to advocate for a dietary lifestyle that goes back to the days of the American Revolution (or before it), in which we could count on one hand the number of times the average person consumed anything sweet in a given year.
The recent changes in consumer behavior based on the 2016 data above gives us hope that we can affect a strong reaction from the food giants in their product development strategies. However, we need to do more. We need them to explore alternative products that are not sweetener-dependent (whether natural or otherwise).
Interestingly enough, an excellent place to start is by looking at the example of fast food restaurants, who in recent years have been offering healthier choices. Many fast food places are now providing meals that are high in protein (to develop muscle and fill you up), are relatively low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and pack less than 500 calories per serving.[iv]
However, to go the extra mile, we need to include slow food options into our western diet. Check out our blogs for great slow food ideas that involve good carbs, good fats, and farm-to-table dining that inspires good cooking habits at home.
We need to fall in love again with cooking in our own kitchen, as well as smart shopping that focuses on the produce aisle and the other exterior sections of the grocery store.
Moreover, we need to subscribe to a belief, no a TRUTH, that our palates are capable of craving a universe of great flavors that are not overwhelmed by added sugars. Knowing how much these flavors contribute to healthier living is the sweetest taste of all!