Sugar is the new cigarette.
And as with its smoky predecessor, deadly disease, corporate deceit and government complicity are all in full effect. Fortunately for us the wool is finally being pulled from over our eyes thanks to a recent surge of investigative efforts. These include a number of ground-breaking books as well as the major motion picture documentary Fed Up, produced by Katie Couric and Oscar winner Laurie David.
Unfortunately, being aware of the problem doesn’t change the current state of affairs, which has yielded a population of consumers that crave unnatural amounts of sugar in all that they consume.
For an industry which exists to serve food and drink this can be problematic. Especially since the term addiction is more than applicable.
In a study by the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, it was found that sugar affects the brain in ways similar to certain drugs and can be just as addictive as alcohol. It does this by causing a massive release of dopamine, which affects brain chemistry and emotional control in a manner similar to small doses of cocaine1.
Compounding this problem is the fact that fructose, which is the sweet part of sugar and the primary component of high-fructose corn syrup, is terribly inefficient at notifying the brain that you are no longer hungry 2 (which occurs by lowering ghrelin, the hunger hormone). This translates to even more of this already addictive substance being consumed.
Knowing this , it is hard to believe that in the last 30 years most food manufacturers have increased their products’ sugar content by 3- 4 times.
This all began in the 1970’s with the advent of the diet phenomenon. Companies saw that any label implying a decrease in fat was selling more. The only problem was that food without fat tastes bad. To remedy this situation they began adding sugar, and later high-fructose corn syrup made available by questionable farm subsidies. And rest is history.
Now there is extra sugar in everything. Bread, protein bars, fruit smoothies, you name it … it’s been dosed. In fact, 80% of the 600,000 food products sold in the US have added sugar3. And despite staggering health effects which have 1 in 3 Americans obese4 and record amounts of children dealing with adult diseases like Type II diabetes5, a simple definition of the term addiction can tell you this problem is here to stay.
Which leaves us to our question
… where does our industry fit into this issue?
To help us answer this question we contacted Michael Moss (New York Times, Salt Sugar Fat, Fed Up) and Jennifer Iserloh (SkinnyChef.com, 50 Shades of Kale) to get their thoughts.
1) What is the overall problem with sugar in your opinion?
The need for sugar is biological. We crave it because it’s a quick energy source, which in prehistoric times was used to get away from predators and hunt. So there is no reason to feel bad about wanting it.
But in terms of what it does to your body, it puts you on a roller coaster. This was okay back when we needed this energy to survive, but now we aren’t eating candy then running for hours. This leaves your body with surplus sugar that it is not sure what to do with. And most people don’t know that sugar is processed by the liver, which is the most important organ in our body after the heart and brain. It’s the heavy lifter when dealing with toxins and putting glucose (energy) into our cells. When you eat large amounts of sugar your liver has to go into overdrive to balance it out, turning some of it into fat for storage.
As far as sugar intake, in some ways it’s not people’s fault. Food companies have been modifying the make-up of food since the 70s, ramping up the sweetness because it is not only enticing to customers but also makes things cheaper. It is also a double-whammy because it takes nutrients to process but doesn’t put any nutrients back into your body.
In my book (Salt Sugar Fat) I focused on grocery store food because people inherently view it as the centerpiece of a healthy diet, yet it is the main contributor to the rise in obesity and diabetes rates. Sure, you know to avoid the soda, cookies and ice cream, but the shocking thing is how much of the food people think is healthy has actually become sugary.
These days things like yogurt and pasta sauce often have as much sugar as ice cream. This has caused us to expect sweetness in everything we eat, with kids now hardwired to crave sweets. This makes it even harder for us to eat more of what we should be eating – vegetables.
2) What effect do you think this is having on restaurants?
Restaurants have to meet the requirements of what the public deems sweet, which is almost 4 times as sweet as in the 1970s. This makes it very difficult for restaurants to prepare food that is healthy. Then again, most (restaurants) don’t seem to care if things are healthy as long as they are selling.
So what you see is people ramping up the sugar content. One example is double layering. This is where restaurants and food manufacturers layer fat and sugar in any way possible. Take a brownie for example, 30 years ago it was a hot brownie with half a scoop of ice cream. And it would be bittersweet, with probably less than a quarter of the sugar in brownies today. Now the brownie is super sweet, covered in ice cream, has caramel sauce on top and crumbled cookies on top of that.
And this isn’t just the obvious fast food culprits. Growing up in Pittsburgh, my family ate in all the big chain restaurants. These aren’t fast food, but if you research the sugar content of the dishes it’s still ridiculously high.
Restaurants are not the problem. They are indulgences. You know what you are getting and the next day you can go back to healthy eating habits. It’s not the centerpiece of most people’s diets, which lets them off the hook a bit.
But it’s really interesting to see the extent to which restaurateurs are trying to make their fare healthier without losing the taste. And for many of them it’s a struggle because we as a country have become accustomed to huge amounts of sugar. It’s tricky because you want to “wow” your customers, but they are now competing with grocery store food to hit those sweet points.
They are basically suffering from food manufacturers’ over-the-top drive to get us to not only like food that is fat, sweet and salty, but crave it. Whether this makes them victims or not, they are facing a huge challenge in this regard. It’s an arms race of sugar.
3) What can restaurants do to improve the situation?
One technique is to captivate the nose, ears and eyes. People always forget that we eat with all of our senses, and when creating something it can be appealing on many different levels.
First there is the recipe title. Take something healthy and make it sound really good. As long as it is achieves the result people will order it. Also think of how you describe it, if it sounds good people will start to crave it. Then focus on the aroma. There are lots of healthy foods that can deliver a great aroma. One is cinnamon, which is extraordinary because it actually balances blood sugar even though it seems sweet on the palate. Another is ginger, which caramelizes when it hits fat and adds a wonderful impression of sweetness.
I also like it when restaurants tap into food trends that are healthy. You can take trendy superfoods and spin them into sexy, delicious dishes. You’ll often need someone who is a recipe whiz, but there are a lot of talented chefs out there for any restaurant that wants to really get into recipe engineering. It’s all about looking at the food and using the texture to acheive a desired result. You can still put in a little sugar, just use less and ensure the other nutrients and vitamins are in there as well.
And because these are “trendy” foods people are more likely to order them.
Celebrate the origin of the food. I love it when I walk into a restaurant and the menu or waiter tells me where the food came from. Studies show that many consumers are willing to pay for meat from animals that are humanely raised, fish that have been sustainably caught, or vegetables that are coming from farmers living and working nearby.
This type of disclosure is something I would like to see everywhere. And it is a huge advantage restaurateurs can have over the grocery store.
Also, chefs need to help people fall back in love with actual food, which highlights another outcome of this crisis in that we stopped loving real food. Instead we eat for unnatural cravings of sugar and even emotional reasons.
The challenge now is for chefs to start making non-sugary foods (especially vegetables) so appealing that they are craveable. The more delicious and interesting they can make these things, the less people are going to want processed food.
4) In what direction do you see the problem heading overall?
There is an underground health revolution being led by food activists who not only want everyone to be healthy, but also for everyone to have fun with cooking. But we need to figure out how to make things happen. Personally I think it needs to be done at the educational level, having nutritionists, health coaches and chefs come to schools.
You aren’t just teaching cooking, you are teaching self-reliance. And I know this works because I have worked as a personal chef for children. You teach kids to cook and and they will eat healthy for rest of their lives.
Do these programs cost a lot of money? Yes. But this is nothing compared to health care costs we are currently paying. I was obese in high school and have many obese family members, some of whom have had limbs amputated due to complications with diabetes. The cost of one such procedure could pay for a chef/nutritionist to be in a school for an entire year.
I think we’re at a tipping point where more and more people throughout the country are starting to care about how much sugar they are ingesting, and they are going to act on this by looking for ways to cut back. Much of their concern is likely to be directed at the processed foods of the grocery store, which are seen as the larger influence on our eating habits.
But bars and restaurants may well come under similar pressure to reduce their sugar loads, and could face an interesting choice: follow the processed food industry’s lead, or become trend setters by taking the lead in reformulating their dishes and drinks to meet this consumer demand.