Guest blog by Sam Hadadi
For years and years, we have had it drilled into us that it is fat which is making us obese. Cheese, butter, milk, red meat – you name it, we were told that to be slim, to be healthy, we had to cut it all out.
Of course, we didn’t stop to question it. Instead, we nodded along in agreement, blissfully ignoring the fact that, way back before there was an obesity crisis, people pretty much lived off so-called fat-making products.
Slowly but surely, low-fat produce became the norm as we all pledged to make fat fighting our own personal diet mission. Scrambled eggs or meat for breakfast were ditched in favour of "diet cereals" such as Special K (more sugar per bowl than a Krispy Kreme doughnut, FYI) and yoghurts went out of fashion, with low-fat versions winging their way onto shelves and into our hearts.
The result of this sugary diet meant that the scales crept up and, as a nation, we were fatter and unhealthier than ever before. Quite simply, fat clearly is not the enemy.
Just the other week, experts claimed that cutting back on butter and fatty meats may have done us more harm than good1. We were told that, contrary to years of advice, high fat diets may actually be good for the heart.
Slowly, but surely, it seems that we’re starting to wake up. Despite raging debates by government experts, we know that sugar is the main culprit in the mounting obesity epidemic.
So, you can imagine the surge of anger which powered through me as I read a recent article in The Guardian2 “Obesity experts appalled by EU move to approve health claim for fructose”. Oh yes, the news that the EU is allowing food companies who use fructose in their products to market them as a “healthy product”.
The more I read, the more irate I became. My face probably grew redder and redder by the second and my fists clenched into tight balls. I was FUMING.
Apparently, the top bods at the EU (you know, those supposedly responsible for our health and well being) have ruled that sweetened products can be labeled as “healthy” if companies replace more than 30% of the glucose and sucrose they contain with fructose.
Targeting the vulnerable, the desperate - the people who will try anything to lose weight – this ruling will see our fight against obesity ultimately doomed. What chance do we stand when so-called experts feed us bad advice?
You see, food companies often turn to corn syrup (another form of fructose) as it is sweeter than glucose, therefore making foods tastier and more addictive3. This triggers those happy brain signals that makes us go back and want more, thus creating a vicious cycle – if companies sell more, they’re going to keep on doing it.
Of course, to step back from my soap box a little, fructose does admittedly come from two sources – firstly as a natural-occurring sugar in fruit (I have NOTHING against fruit – added sugar is bad, fruit is not), but also as an added ingredient in processed foods.
It's this added ingredient in food that is the problem. There's the obvious ones that you know to be wary of such as carbonated drinks and artificial sweeteners but did you realise it's in so many foods that you wouldn't necessarily think of - bbq flavoured sauces, salad dressings, some breads, soups (as a thickener and preservative) and shockingly baby foods.
The effects of fructose
Sugar is sugar, whatever form it comes in. And in fact, although fructose does have a lower GI, it is potentially more dangerous to us than any other form of sugar.
Speaking to The Guardian, Michael Goran, director of childhood obesity research at the University of Southern California, said that: "In the long term, excess fructose is more damaging metabolically for the body than other sugars".
He added: "This opens the door for the beverage and food industry to start replacing sucrose with fructose, which is presumably cheaper."
Indeed, consuming more fructose "is a dangerous and problematic issue. There is going to be a big increase in fructose exposure."
Yeah, that’s right. Fructose – that sickly-sweet stuff which, in its corn syrup form, has caused both obesity and Diabetes levels to soar in the US. And that’s not just me saying that, that’s scientists speaking.
In a study reported in ‘American News Report’4 experts found a direct link between consumption of fructose and obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. In fact, obesity levels were 20 per cent higher in countries with high intakes of corn syrup.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
So, where does that leave us? Does the use of fructose in foods present a genuine danger to us? Or am I – along with many obesity experts who have reacted strongly to these reports – over-reacting?
Well, first of all, let’s look at some recent studies. In just September of this year, further studies in ‘Science Daily’5 seemed to confirm that there is a correlation between the amount of fructose we consume and obesity levels. Indeed, even our insulin resistance levels may be affected.
The scientist on the study was even forced to conclude that: "Ironically, our study shows that much of the risk from ingesting high glycemic foods is actually due to the generation of fructose”. These studies challenge the dogma that fructose is safe and that it is simply the high glycemic carbohydrates that need to be restricted.
Yet more studies reported in Bloomberg6, using brain imaging, have shown that fructose does not send signals to the brain to curb our appetite. This means that sugary foods don’t fill us up, and therefore we become increasingly likely to binge eat. Studies have also been done at Princeton University7 showing that high fructose corn syrup prompts weight gain.
So, what happens now?
Well, if the EU has its way, our kids could grow up believing that what is actually bad for them is a health food. Long gone are fresh, homemade juices and smoothies – instead they’ll be knocking back pint after pint of fizzy drinks in the belief that they’re necking one of their five a day.
However, if we continue educating both ourselves and our children about food, then we can overcome rulings such as these. If we all aim to eat clean, honest produce (think natural, organic ingredients and home-cooked meals), then the obesity crisis will slowly fade into the past.
Happily, there are companies out there, like Lucy Bee, who produce foods which are just as nutritious and healthy as they are delicious. Coconut Oil is a wonderful product which I honestly don't think I could live without and is the perfect natural sweetener for those who are trying to stick to a low-sugar diet (just try stirring a spoonful into your black coffee to see what I mean!)."
Now, who’s with me?
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.