Monday, May 12, 2014

Sugar, Sugar

Trust in a sales relationship is a funny thing. I remember feeling somewhat unsettled when Paul and I bought our first piece of real estate, back in the day before buyer's brokers. Although I knew in my head and had been told many times, that both realtors worked for the seller, it was really hard to comprehend that even the broker we'd hired to show us potential homes still owed her duty to the sellers she might never have met. If there was some horrible flaw in a property that she wasn't legally bound to tell us, she was not going to tell us. If a particular property was out of our budget, she was not going to dissuade us.  And though we had a pretty nice relationship with that first broker, and she brought us a lovely Portmeiron bowl as a closing gift, I had felt a certain tension throughout the process.  She didn't behave like the stereotypical used car salesman. She was pleasant in a motherly sort of way. So though trained as a lawyer and a skeptic by nature, I still found myself pulled in and had to remind myself to be wary.

In much the same way, our eyes should be open in our relationship to food companies. They are trying to sell us something, and will go to great lengths to do so. I've written before about instances in which the companies create formulations (called, in the real world, recipes) loaded with fat, sugar and salt, designed to hook us to purchase and eat too much. They also market unhealthy foods to children, sometimes inflate or invent health claims on labels, hire very powerful lobbyists to push their agendas with Congress and Federal agencies, and, generally, subtly and not-so-subtly persuade us to buy foods that taste good, but are not good for us.

Unlike with cigarettes, we do need food to live and can't just quit it.  So we have to understand the messages we and our children are hearing and what the companies are doing to keep existing customers, attract new customers and get all of us to buy more.  We need to wise up and see that these companies are not on our side, are not in the business of protecting us and get out those reading glasses and read labels for ourselves. This includes foods found at stores considered healthy such as Whole Foods, which despite its pledges to stick to certain types of healthier foods, still carries many that are loaded with added sugar and salt.

Most packaged foods have added salt and sugars even where it seems unlikely, such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, crackers and breads.  Some of this is a result of the low fat movement in the '80's.  Fat out, other additives in.  Reading the labels is crucial, and if the newly proposed nutrition facts label is approved by the FDA, sugars will be much more clearly identified in the future, with added sugars noted separately from naturally occurring sugars.

Sugar is the subject of the new movie Fed Up, a project spearheaded by Katie Couric and Laurie David. Once I've seen it today or tomorrow, I'll have a better idea of the exact position they take, but in a general sense, it appears to be a call to arms that the obesity epidemic is fueled by food producers and added sugar. In my mind, there are several reasons for the obesity epidemic and I'm not sure sugar is the only one, but it is a big one.  I'm curious to see how much they deal with in the movie.

In the meantime, I decided to do a little test.  Generally, labels identify sugars in grams.  I can't imagine that there are many of us who can visualize grams, so the bottom line is that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. When reading nutrition facts labels on our packaged food products, it's important to remember that the sugar category includes the sugar that occurs naturally in certain foods, like milk and yogurt (lactose) as well as added sugars in the form of sugar, honey, syrup, agave, corn syrup, etc.

For my scientific example, I thought I'd use something I eat almost every day. My tub of plain (no added sweeteners) Greek yogurt has 9 grams of sugar in a one cup (8 ounce) serving.  That's the naturally occurring lactose. I measured out what seems to be a pretty hearty serving today and it was less than 3/4 cup (here is the one food whose packaging overestimates serving size!) so I'll round up to the 3/4 cup which is the equivalent of 6 ounces.

My 6 ounce serving contains 6.75 grams (3/4 of the 9 that a whole cup contains) of naturally occurring lactose or sugar.  I add about 1 teaspoon of honey to that.  That's about 5.5 more grams of sugars. Together, my breakfast yogurt has about 12.5 grams of sugar.  That's pretty close to the amount of sugar in the brands of individual cups of yogurt that I've been buying lately - I've been sticking to under 15 or 16 grams.

But I then checked labels on all the available brands of all the individual containers at my local organic market and found that the amount of sugar in the individual containers ranged from that 15 grams,  to as much as 29 grams for a 5.3 or 6 ounce container, with most falling in the mid twenties.

29 grams of sugar is over 7 teaspoons of sugar.  It's almost three tablespoons of sugar! Even if we subtract the yogurt's natural lactose, there are still 22.25 grams of sugar or a little over 5.5 teaspoons.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that one yogurt contains almost the entire daily recommended max of added sugars for a woman (6.5 teaspoons).

Most fast food places have nutritional info online. If there's an item you order often, you can take a look online and see what it contains.  For example, I checked and one of my favorite sweet treats, a Starbucks tall nonfat chai tea latte has 32 grams of sugar.  Given that a cup of skim milk contains 12 grams, that's about 20 grams, or 5 teaspoons, of added sugar.  I'm now back to a nonfat decaf latte for my occasional Starbucks stop. But if I do choose to have that chai latte, at least I know what's in it.

These companies are doing their job, mostly within the law, just like my realtor did hers. In response, we have to be more savvy and lobby the government to protect us better. These companies are not our friends, even though their commercials pull us in with their appealing marketing and even if we've used this product since childhood (hey ketchup, I'm talking to you!).  Coke might make those of us who grew up in the '70s think of holding hands and singing about peace and brotherhood on a mountaintop, but Coca-Cola is one of the major causes of the obesity epidemic we are currently facing in this country.

We should demand better for ourselves from the companies and from Congress and the Federal agencies charged with our food systems.  "Vote with your fork" if you can and help others who can't. Our food choices and our food systems are political and it's time we all recognize that.

Read the labels everyone, and cook at home!

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