Bitter Sweet Insanity

How seriously should we take official exhortations to cut sugar consumption while governments continue to subsidise industrial scale sugar farming? asks Craig Sams

When my brother Gregory and I set up Harmony Foods in 1970 we committed to never using sugar in our business. In 1972, in my book About Macrobiotics, I had written about sugar: “If it were discovered yesterday it would be banned and possibly turned over to the Army for weapons research.” But the same chapter had recipes using apples, raisins, currants and apricots. Our macrobiotic guru, Michio Kushi, even gave his support to candies made with rice malt sugar. We were all a little bit hypocritical.

In 1976 we created a separate brand, Whole Earth, so that if we ever sold Harmony products to supermarkets we had a separate brand that would not upset health food retailers’ sensibilities. Then in 1977 Waitrose and Safeway saw us on BBC News and wanted to order Harmony Peanut Butter right away. They insisted on the Harmony brand. Sales boomed in supermarkets as well as health food shops and Harmony Peanut Butter soon swept away our competitors Granose and Mapleton’s.

Then in 1977 I did something nobody had done before. I invented a jam based on apple juice and fruit. We decided to market it. We couldn’t use the sugar-free Harmony brand as apple juice concentrate is a sugary syrup. So we dusted off the Whole Earth brand and launched a hugely successful range of jams made with apple juice and marketed as ‘100% fruit, no sugar added.’ Sales of Whole Earth soared so much that we eventually retired the Harmony brand and put the peanut butter under the Whole Earth brand. For a while we were the biggest users of apple juice concentrate in the world, apart from the cider industry. My ethical defence was that our jams were only 38% sugar while white sugar jams were 65% sugar. But it wasn’t long before competing ‘no sugar added’ jams also hit the 65% level.

Now the Government has, surprisingly, got a health policy that makes sense: cut down on sugar. All sugar. Beet sugar, cane sugar, apple juice, grape juice, honey, agave syrup, coconut sugar, jaggery, maple syrup, corn syrup and any other product that is 99% sucrose, glucose and fructose. To paraphrase Romeo’s insightful sweetheart Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call sugar, by any other name would taste as sweet.” All sugars are in the sights of Professor MacGregor of Action on Sugar, who is leading the charge. The same thing is happening worldwide.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a horrifically misguided campaign that urged tens of millions of Britons to abandon butter in favour of margarines that were rich in trans fats from hydrogenated fat. The result was millions disabled or killed off by heart disease. The US has now banned all transfats and it’s almost non-existent in Europe. Then there was the demonisation of salt campaign. That killed off a goodly number of older people for whom salt
was essential to vital functions and made little difference to anyone else.

But the sugar campaign makes sense. 500 years ago Paracelsus wrote: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; the dose makes the poison.” Most people overdose every day on sugar and that’s why it’s such a major factor in obesity, cancer, diabetes, tooth decay and heart disease. But in smaller quantities can it make a useful contribution to our health and energy levels by enhancing our enjoyment of food and drink?

What’s a safe dose? MacGregor wants a 30% reduction. Others think we consume three times too much: the overdose makes the poison.

When we developed the Gusto Cola recipe we aimed for a level of sugar one third of what you’d get in a can of Coke or a bottle of apple juice. We opted for stevia as a calorie-free sweetener. Ooopsadaisy! EU Organic Regulations don’t allow stevia, unless it’s in a drink imported from the USA. So we canned it in the US, using organic stevia. Oopsadaisy! EU regulations for soft drinks, organic or not, restrict stevia levels, so you still have to use 50% sugar to match the sweetness of regular drinks – or add aspartame. Yuk. So we made the recipe less sweet and it tasted fine.

But it made me wonder why the EU and our Government exhort us to cut back on sugar while enforcing regulations against natural sweeteners that have exactly the opposite effect. Even worse, the EU subsidises sugar farmers and refineries. So does Brazil, to the tune of $2.5 billion a year. Just one French producer has had €60 million over 3 years.

A good start would be to let the sugar market find its own level instead of using taxpayer money to drive down the cost. Then exhort people to consume less.