Have you ever looked at the back of the box or bag of the processed food you are eating and wondered why there is sugar in it? I do and I am always baffled and frustrated by this. I was also shocked when I learned from That Sugar Film by Damon Gameau that 80% of foods sold in grocery stores contain added sugar.
The World Health Organization recommends that only 5% of our daily calories consist of sugar. This means that women should only eat 5-6 teaspoons of sugar a day and men, 7-8 teaspoons. However, on average, women are currently ingesting 15 teaspoons a day and men 21. If you only add sugar to your coffee in the morning and/or have one bite of chocolate at the end of day, then you might think that you are not eating a lot of sugar. However, if you eat processed foods, you are most likely eating more sugar than you think you are. Hidden sugars are in most of the foods and drinks we buy and consume, even the foods marketed as healthy or low-fat, including yogurt, kale chips, and nuts. If a sweetener is listed as one of the first three ingredients, then the food is high in sugar. Additionally, processed foods that highlight that they are sugar-free may have alternatives like agave syrup, which has more fructose than table sugar; sugar alcohols, which contain carbohydrates and calories; or sugar substitutes that may result in overeating.
It is known that large amounts of sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay. Additionally, eating too much sugar can lead to a dangerous cycle where we eat more to get out of the sugar crash we got into by eating sugar in the first place. So then why is there so much sugar in processed foods? It is partly to help with the production and preservation of the processed foods and partly to keep us addicted so we keep coming back to buy more.
On the technical side, sugar has a role in:
- Improving the flavors of foods including savory items and vegetables
- Preserving food by inhibiting microbial growth
- Creating volume and texture, also known as mouth feel
- Helping to offset the taste and texture of low-fat foods due to the removal of fat
- Producing the brown color and caramelization we like to see on our foods
- Aiding the fermentation process in bread and alcohol
- Decreasing the freezing point and increasing the boiling point, needed for some desserts
- Helping with the consistent heating, browning, and crisping of microwaveable foods
- Balancing the acidic and bitter taste in tomato and barbecue sauces, mayonnaise and medical syrups
On the profit side, sugar has a role in the bliss point:
Howard Moskowitz, a consultant for food companies including Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft, and Pepsi came up with the term bliss point. The definition of bliss point is “the amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar, or fat which optimizes palatability”. Food manufacturers spend a lot of money to figure out the perfect range of sugar needed so consumers not only like the food but also cannot stop eating it. Think of that bag of chips or cookies. Food companies will use the least amount of sugar in that range because it means a difference of millions of dollars for the food companies. Unfortunately, the difference of sugar in the lower part of the range versus the higher part of the range means a miniscule difference in calories for the consumer. It’s still a lot of sugar. If you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend reading Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss.
If you think of the convenience of having prepared foods readily available for us to buy as we try to balance our busy lives, one may be able to understand why sugar is needed to prepare and preserve these foods. However, why do food companies need to use so much? And then that leads to the question, even though processed foods are easy, if we know the amount of sugar used, then should we still be eating them?
What are your thoughts on sugar in our processed foods?
Photo taken by Steven Depolo on Flickr