Sweet truth: how and why our food is laced with sugar

| 1st November 2003
Branston Pickle. Baked Beans. Cough Mixture. Ketchup. Are there any products on our shelves that don’t contain sugar?

In 1598, German lawyer Paul Hentzner described seeing Queen Elizabeth I: ‘…Next came the queen in the 65th year of age, as we were told, very majestic, her face oblong, fair, but wrinkled, her eyes small, yet black and pleasant, her nose a little crooked, her lips narrow and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar)…’

A few years later, in his pamphlet The Diet of the Diseased, 17th century doctor James Hart warned: ‘Sugar rots the teeth, making them look black, and, withal, causes many times a loathsome stinking breath. And, therefore, let young people especially beware how they meddle too much with it.’ No one listened.

By 2001 global consumption of sugar and other sweeteners had reached around 157 million tonnes – over 2.5 times more than in 1961. And while the world’s most voracious consumers are without doubt the ever-widening citizens of the US, we in the UK are not far behind. The Brussels-based International Confectionery Association reports that the UK eats more sweets and chocolate than anyone else in Europe, accounting for 23 per cent of the total European market. Last year we ate an average of 14kg of sugary confectionery per head.

Yet the sugar industry says people are buying less sugar to cook with than in the past. And they're right, but that's only half the story. Of the 2.25m tonnes of white sugar consumed in the UK per year, around three quarters is used in the manufacture of processed products. We may be putting less sugar in our food and drinks, but that’s only because someone has added more than enough for us already. This is the problem.

Because humans are attracted to sweet tastes, food manufactures lace their foods with sugars. But because we are also increasingly concerned about our health, and therefore keen to eat less sugar, these same companies don’t want us to know that their products are full of the stuff. Manufacturers may, for example, try to make the total sugar content in their products appear less by listing all the different types of sugars separately on ingredient lists and omitting a figure that relates to total sugar content.

Thus, Cadbury's ‘new recharged’ Boost bar is billed as being ‘charged with glucose’. This must be a good thing; glucose is, after all, blood sugar – the stuff of energy. But check the ingredients list. It includes glucose syrup and dried glucose syrup for sure, but the sugars don’t end there. Sugar is listed as a separate ingredient, as a component of the biscuit, as a component of the milk chocolate and as ‘glycerol’. At no point is the consumer told quite how much sugar all these different types add up to.

Secondly, because sugars are a type of carbohydrate, manufacturers will often not list their products' sugar content separately when giving nutrition information. Instead, sugar may be grouped with all the other carbohydrates. In the nutrition information of the Boost bar there is no mention of sugar, only carbohydrates, of which there are, apparently, 59.6g per 100g of Boost. As the bar weighs 60.5g, working out how much carbohydrate it contains – let alone sugar – is not the easiest of tasks. But as chocolate bars are typically between 50 and 70 per cent sugar, you could be eating around seven or eight teaspoons of sugar in a single snack without realising it.

Sugar Basics

Sugars fall into two categories:

1 Simple sugars (monosaccharides) that the body can use directly – i.e., glucose (blood sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar); any excess is converted into glycogen and stored for later use in the liver; when the liver detects a drop in blood sugar level, glycogen is converted back to glucose.

2 Disaccharides – combinations of two monosaccharides like sucrose (table sugar), which is a mix of glucose and fructose; or maltose (malt sugar), a mix of glucose and glucose. The body has to break these down into simple sugars before it can use them. SUGAR CANE/BEET (SUCROSE) made into cane/ beet juice made into: cane/ beet syrup to raw crystals to table sugar to other products: eg, icing, caster, brown sugar, cane / beet molasses to alcohol fructose/ glucose/ dextrose (also known as added sugars)

BARLEY/MAIZE (MALTOSE) made into corn syrup which is made into: corn starch to fructose high fructose syrup to sweetening agent to canned fruits, jams, etc

FRUIT/FRUCTOSE made into fruit syrups and concentrates MILK (LACTOSE) made into pills, baby formulations Sugar sources: sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, honey, cane sugar, cane syrup, raw sugar, raw cane sugar, liquid sugar, liquid sugar demin (demineralised), corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolysed starch, hydrolysed syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, demerara, muscovado, molasses, treacle, black treacle. Concentrated fruit juices (especially apple) can also be used to sweeten products. Less than savoury Product % of sugar Batchelor's Cup-a-Soup (tomato) 37.5 Branston original pickle 32.5 Heinz tomato ketchup 23.9 Safeway sweet and sour sauce 24.9 Heinz original sandwich spread 21.7 Safeway Pasta Pronto (tomato, onion & herb) 20.9 Sainsbury's low-fat fromage frais 14.6 Colman’s tartare sauce 14.0 Weight Watchers low-fat salad dressing 11.5 Safeway curry-style savoury rice 10.7 Quaker Sugar Puffs The box says 'nutritious' and 'fortified with vitamins and iron', but this breakfast cereal is nearly half sugar (49 per cent). That means there are three teaspoons of sugar in every 30-gram serving. This is typical of breakfast cereals marketed for children. In 2002 a survey conducted by the British food watchdog the Food Commission found that only two children's breakfast cereals, Weetabix and Rice Krispies, were less than one-fifth sugar.

Most brands were between 30 and 50 per cent sugar. Some consumer groups have called for such products to be renamed as 'breakfast sweets' or 'breakfast candies' so that parents have a better idea of their nutritional content. The Danish government has banned 'fortification' (the addition of vitamins and minerals) of such products, so that manufacturers cannot use fortifying ingredients to make sugary and fatty foods appear more healthy.

Children's medicine

In 1984 a survey by the UK's National Pharmaceutical Association found that 60 per cent of adult medicines and nearly 100 per cent of children's medicines contained sugar. Even today Boots' Children's Cough Relief, for example, is still 66 per cent sugar and honey. And a single menthol Tunes sweet contains the equivalent of three quarters of a teaspoon of sugar. Kellogg's Cocopops Cereal Bar Cereal bars like these represent one of the biggest growth sectors in the snack market. Parents like them because they are a convenient treat for school lunchboxes and contain added vitamins; they look like a healthy choice.

Kids like them because they taste like sweets and chocolates and they come with cartoons on the wrapper. Yet a Coco-Pops cereal bar is half sugar and held together by added fat. Sticky pieces of sugar-coated cereal can linger on children's teeth, providing a great place for bacteria to set to work. A 20-gram Kellogg's Coco-Pops cereal bar contains 10 grams (equivalent to two teaspoons) of sugar – the same amount in two McVitie's chocolate digestive biscuits.

Lucozade Sport

It's strange how language can change your perception of a product. Would Lucozade be quite so popular if instead of being called 'sport body fuel' it was described as a 'calorie-dense sugar drink'? In the 1970s Lucozade was marketed as a hospital drink for sick people. Now the branding has changed to persuade us that it is an energy beverage for athletes. The ingredients list for Lucozade says it contains a 'carbohydrate blend' of glucose syrup and maltodextrin, which are actually both types of sugar. A 500-milimetre bottle of Lucozade Sport contains approximately 32 grams – more than six teaspoons – of sugars (plus two artificial sweeteners). Against the grain Aside from killing us, sugar destroys reefs and rainforests, traps southern farmers in poverty, is supported by an insane subsidy regime in the UK and makes a few companies very, very rich.

Jeremy Smith on sugar’s ugly supply side: 'It is a perfect, yet unbearably sad image of how connected the world has become. The production of a tiny, white grain that dissolves to nothing in a cup of hot tea is destroying the largest living organism on the planet.' Earlier this year a panel of scientists in Australia released a report that said there was ‘compelling’ scientific evidence that run-off from sugar cane plantations was the main cause of a decline of up to 60 per cent in coral species on the inner Great Barrier Reef.

Joe Baker, chief scientist at the Queensland state government’s Department of Primary Industries and chair of the report, called the findings ‘a warning signal that we can’t continue to do what we are doing’. According to the study, in the past 15 years the amount of sediment going from rivers into the reef has increased by about four times, nitrogen levels have risen by at least 300 per cent, and levels of phosphorous have more than doubled.

As Queensland’s premier Peter Beattie admitted: ‘The reef is suffering from the way we clear, drain, settle and farm the land. It is like a huge drain collecting sediments, nutrients, herbicides and pesticides from farming, grazing and urban settlements.’ It is not just the reef that is suffering. Sugar cane is usually grown as a monoculture, which often entails the removal of rainforests, mangroves and other sensitive environments.

Among the deleterious side effects of sugar cane growing can be counted water pollution in Buenos Aires and damage to river estuaries in Brazil and waterways in the Philippines. In Florida the sugar cane industry is situated just south of Lake Okeechobee, one of North America’s largest fresh-water lakes. Where once water flowed unimpeded from the lake to the Everglades, it now has to pass through thousands of acres of sugar cane. By the time it flushes into the Everglades it is contaminated with phosphorous-laden agricultural run-off. The cost of repairing the damage this has caused has already run into the billions, and has mostly been paid for by the same American taxpayers currently making themselves ever fatter on ‘cheap’ sugar.

Robert Reppetto, an economist with the Washington-based environmental think-tank the World Resources Institute, says: ‘If this continues, the downstream mangroves and estuaries could continue disappearing until the well-spring of Florida Bay’s reefs and fisheries are gone.’ So, no Everglades or Great Barrier Reef. How about a little closer to home? In the UK, we don’t grow sugar cane. We grow beet. Unlike monoculture cane, beet is always grown in rotation with other crops.

However, it is not a crop that grows naturally or easily in the UK. As a result, pesticide use is very high. In 1996 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food revealed that beet farmers used on average 10.5 herbicide-active ingredients each year. That’s more than double the amount used for any other crop. The results are obvious. The UK’s leading organic body the Soil Association explains: ‘Sugar beet fields are sparse, with the majority having less than four weeds per square metre, [and offer] very poor nesting and feeding habitats for farmland birds.’ The only people to benefit from British sugar are… British Sugar – the company that has a 100 per cent monopoly over the production and processing of sugar grown in the UK.

And that’s before you add in the money that British Sugar and Tate and Lyle, which dominates the sugar cane industry in the UK, make from EU subsidies. Artificially sweetened Sugar is one of the most heavily subsidised agricultural commodities in the world. The EU sugar regime’s subsidies are worth £1 billion a year and ensure a guaranteed EU price for sugar that is more than three times the world market price. And just as with British Sugar in the UK, by the late 1990s eight of the EU’s 14 sugar-producing member states had just one company controlling their entire sugar beet quota. In developing countries sugar workers are among the worst-paid farm labourers in the world.

In Brazil, the largest exporter of cane sugar, workers earn less than $25 a week. In the Dominican Republic the situation is even worse. There sugar workers must pay to have the cane picked up and weighed, and bear the loss if this is not done on time. Thus, in the Dominican Republic a skilled cutter will earn less than 1,000 pesos ($70) a month, and that’s in a country where it costs around 7,500 pesos ($530) to feed a family of four. To put such wages in a global context, it has been estimated that if sugar workers in the South were paid the same as workers in the North costs would be 10 times higher than they are now.

Such inequalities do not stand in the way of the EU’s sugar regime. In addition to the subsidies, the regime also supports sugar producers through a system of quotas and tariffs. These quotas are supposed to limit production levels on a country-by-country basis. They are allocated to the sugar processors, who then allocate contracts to farmers, who receive a high fixed price for their quota of sugar beet. However, the quota system has failed to prevent over-production. In 2001 production reached 17 million tonnes, almost 7 million of which had to be exported.

For the word ‘export’, read ‘dump’, as the gap between the high EU guaranteed price and the low world-market price is bridged by the aforementioned subsidies for quota exports. In other words, European taxpayers face an annual bill of £1 billion to help the sugar companies dump their excesses overseas. Needless to say, the situation is far worse for the impoverished countries to whom the sugar is ‘exported’. It floods their markets with underpriced product, undercutting any advantage their domestic crop might have had.

And, to make matters worse, restrictive tariffs are then used to block these same countries’ access to the European sugar market. They can’t sell their sugar at home, and they can’t sell it abroad. The solution to this situation, however, is not just to remove these tariffs. As Mark Ritchie, of the sustainable farming NGO the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, explains: ‘It has been argued that “world prices should prevail” in the setting of domestic sugar production policies in the North.

These demands are dangerous for poor people who currently live in the South and for the planet as a whole. The use of land for producing sugar for export just takes land needed by local residents to produce the food for their families and transforms it into huge plantations.’ Furthermore, the most iniquitous aspect of the sugar regime – namely, the dumping of vast EU surpluses onto Third World countries – need not happen at all. Unlike fresh produce, sugar does not deteriorate rapidly. There’s no reason why it cannot be stored from season to season. And if we reduced our imports so that our production of beet was all used on the home market we wouldn’t need to store it anyway. Unfortunately, however, this would only be a part of the answer. It is not the volume imported that needs to be reduced so much as the volume consumed.

While Western companies continue to fill their products with sugar, and Western consumers continue to buy those products, those companies will always be on the lookout for vast sources of cheap sugar. In the short term, the growth of the organic and fair-trade sectors can do something to improve the situation for both planet and poor farm workers. But while sugar cane – organic, fair-trade or otherwise – is still being shipped thousands of miles across the world a trading system that pollutes by its very nature will remain in place.

Jeremy Smith is the deputy editor of the Ecologist


• Sugar is produced in 121 countries. The total world sugar production in the 2001/02 season was about 136 million tons, compared to 128 million tons in 2000/01.

• India and Brazil are the two largest sugar producers, producing more than a quarter of the world’s sugar supply (36 million tons) in 2001.

• Seventy-five per cent of world production is from cane (Brazil is the single largest producer), and the balance from sugar beet.

• The five largest sugar exporters are Brazil, the EU, Thailand, Australia and Cuba. Collectively, they supply approximately 72 per cent of all world exports. South Africa is the sixth largest exporter.

• The five main underdeveloped raw-sugar exporting countries have lost around $3.4 billion as a result of falling prices during the last five years.

• Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development governments give their sugar producers subsidies worth $6.4 billion a year – an amount nearly equal to all developing country exports.

• Eliminating US subsidies alone would raise world prices by 17 per cent and increase the annual export earnings of developing nations by $1.5 billion. Top five producers (2001/02 estimates) MILLION TONS Brazil 22,906 India 19,022 EU 16,045 China 8,109 US 7,190 Thailand 5,870 Top five exporters (2001/02 estimates) MILLION TONS Brazil 12,490 EU 4,382 Thailand 4,088 Australia 4,016 Cuba 2,889 SUGAR IN THE UK

• All home-grown sugar beet is processed and marketed by British Sugar, which is wholly owned by Associated British Foods. British Sugar's sales in 2002 were £720m, and its operating profit was £72m. It has roughly 60 per cent of the UK domestic market, and holds all of Britain's EU beet sugar quota.

• Tate & Lyle was formed in 1921 by the merging of Henry Tate and Abram Lyle’s refining companies. The firm's east London refinery on the banks of the River Thames is now the only sugar refinery in the UK. It refines the largest amount of cane sugar in the world, processing over 1 million tonnes of raw cane sugar annually. Net revenues for Tate & Lyle in 2002 were £3.9 billion and the company's net profit was £118m. When the UK joined the EU it secured an agreement allowing 1.3 million tonnes of sugar to be imported into the EU each year (90 per cent goes to Tate & Lyle for refining) at guaranteed minimum prices. Tate & Lyle supplies roughly 40 per cent of the UK domestic market.

Sources: The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and company reports

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2003

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