Not So Sweet Sugar


Imagine a new world populated by obese people who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs, drinking soft drinks, eating sweetened food and staring at ads on computers screens.  Even though it is a fiction scene of the famous computer animation movie WALL-E, it is hard to deny the fact that American people (and also people around the world) are becoming heavier and that our food, full of added sugar, is making us fat. But if everyone already knows extra sugar is bad, why does the food industry still add it in more than 800 products sold in supermarkets?  A lot of sugar is continually added in processed food for three basic reasons: it improves the food’s taste, is cheap, can increase shelf life and holds a lasting market with loyal consumers.

The first reason that sugar is added in processed food and drinks it is because sugar increases the palatability of food, i.e. improves its taste.  This fact has been known since World War II, when was observed that depression and stress on the battlefield decreased the appetite of the soldiers, and sugar was added to their ration in order for them to eat more.  By the mid-70s, a Japanese scientific innovation was brought to the U.S.: a new type of sugar produced from corn, the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It was soon added into every conceivable food: pizzas, breads, sauces, cured meat, coleslaw, soft drinks.  It provided that “just baked” sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years.  Today, each processed milligram of food is tweaked and sweetened by food industry for maximum palatability.

Another reason that sugar (or HFCS) is abundantly used in the food industry is because it is cheap.  Forty years ago, as a result of American government policy to lower the food prices and the modernization of agriculture, there was an over production of corn.  This surplus of corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses of corn, including the addition of also the incredibly cheap high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Nowadays, corn is still subsidized by the U.S. government, making the high fructose corn syrup cheaper.

The third reason that food industry still uses lots of sugar is that extends shelf life from days to years.  Adding sugar is a traditional way to control water activity to prevent bacterial growth, because bacteria need a friendly environment (included moisture) to grow, thrive and survive.  If moisture is decreased, especially when increasing solute (for example, sugar), osmotic pressure increases on the bacteria and causes them to burst.

Finally, the last reason that food industry still uses lots of sugar is it has a lasting market, with loyal consumers.  How it happens?  Since the 70s, Science has strongly suggested that HFCS sugar added in processed food interferes with leptin, the hormone that controls appetite, so once you start eating or drinking it, you don’t know when to stop.   It cannot been said that the food industry knowingly created foods that were addictive or that would make you feel as though you were never satisfied and always wanted more.  Food industry did not understand the neuroscience, but it learned experimentally what worked.  At some point the food industry must have become aware of the long-term, detrimental effects their products were having on the public.  Still, it has continued to develop and sell them.

No one doubts obesity is becoming a worldwide increasing problem and people are joining the dots between consumption of HFCS sugar and obesity.  Despite of that, the food industry continues to add extra sugar in hundreds of products because it is cheap, improves the taste of food, increases shelf life and holds a loyal market, claiming individuals must be responsible for their own calorie consumption.  The government and society do not seem to be reacting strongly against the food industry’s policy.  Maybe that will change when the healthcare cost to treat obesity outweighs the tax revenues collected from the snacks and soft drinks market.

HBP, April 20, 2013

Licença Creative Commons
This work by Helena Beatriz Pacitti is licensed under a Creative Commons Atribuição-Uso não-comercial-Vedada a criação de obras derivadas 3.0 Unported License

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