September 6, 2017, by jicke

Is Sugar really that bad for you? – Dr Judy Swift decodes the “nutri-babble”.

Judy Swift, Associate Professor of Behavioural Nutrition in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, led the session “Is the Sugar the new fat?” at the British Science Festival this year. Dr Rebecca Dewey was there and reports here about the day.

Photo courtesy of @POST_UK

Dr Swift’s work, together with Dr Duane Mellor, Senior Lecturer in Human Nutrition at Coventry University and developmental chef Anthony Warner of Premier Foods, aims to make us think about what we are eating.

Rather than taking food in total isolation, we should be thinking about what food provides beyond just the chemistry. Judy and Anthony together founded the blog The Nourishment Network [], a group of academics and food professionals dedicated to providing accurate information about food. The website is a platform on which anyone from health food bloggers through to professors can engage in healthy debate without judgement. The team’s aim was to bring all opinions together and not just present the opinions of the experts. Judy says: “Everyone’s an expert in their own relationship with food so people have to work out solutions that work for them. No one size fits all. No one is 100% healthy.”

Lively discussion

The team kicked off the lively discussion surrounding sugar at the 2017 British Science Festival, hosted by the University of Brighton. Sugar has been picked up on as a cause of the British obesity epidemic, and dubbed “the new tobacco” by the Daily Mail. Public Health England advises a reduction of dietary sugar by hook or by crook, even coming up with a levy on soft drinks.

Sugar is not just the white powder you’re imagining as table sugar. Sugars make up an entire class of chemicals some of which occur naturally in foods and some are produced in the body. Some sugars are harder to digest than others, for example lactose is very easily broken down by infants but many adults break it down much more slowly, if at all.

Conflicting information

There is much conflicting information surrounding sugar: fruit is good for you, but fructose in fruit is bad, refined sugar is bad for you, but raw cane sugar is good? Duane, registered dietitian with 20 years’ experience, clears it up for us: “The bottom line is that once it’s in our bodies, sugar is just sugar”.

But it’s not as simple as all that. Developmental chef and science writer Anthony Warner, says: “Don’t forget that just by adding a little sweetness could get someone to eat a dish with lots of healthy things in”. Sugar also has a very complex role in food beyond just making it sweet. Sugar has a much lower energy density than fat, so taking sugar out of a dish often requires you to replace it with fat, thus increasing the calorific content. Anthony presented a couple of live demos to really show what sugar brings to a dish.

Firstly, Anthony heats up a simple sugar solution, gradually evaporating off the water, allowing the heat to change the crystal structure. This in turn changes the consistency and colour of the syrup from something you might pour over ice cream (after it has been heated to 110 degrees centigrade and allowed to cool), to fudge (115 degrees), to hard candy (118 degrees), to chewy toffee (125 to 135 degrees) and far beyond. As the smell of burnt sugar reaches our nostrils, Anthony tells us that at 160 to 180 degrees, the level of caramelisation is so pronounced that the colour is used to enhance products like gravy browning.

Next, Anthony shows us what sugar does when used as an ingredient in cake. He presents us with an array of cakes made with a range of different sugar contents. “Sugar doesn’t just add sweetness, it helps with aeration of the crust. Sugar controls how the proteins in the cake set at the temperature they come out of the oven. Caramelisation adds colour to the outside of the cake, helps with structure, crumb texture and shelf life. So when people say just take sugar out of food, this is incredibly difficult as it has so many different effects beyond just the sweetness of a product.”

Health psychologist and chartered psychologist Judy, brings us back to the question of what to do with dietary sugar: “I don’t find the demonization of sugar helpful.” There are arguments comparing the impact of sugar on health to the impact of aging. A point often missed by the media is that we have already started to consume less sugar. Studies of food supply between 1960 and 2010 show a steady decline in sugar consumption.

No magic bullet

The team concludes that: “There is no magic bullet. Research has not yet come up with a solution for this. We need to reduce calorie consumption, not just sugar. There is no such thing as a good or bad food. By focusing in on a single nutrient, we risk neglecting other important food areas, and as such risk increasing food desirability and guilt!”

The recommendation is to just reduce all food intake where possible and enjoy a variety of different foods. The team concludes: “Look at FOOD as nourishment rather than chemicals. How we eat and who we eat with is much more important.

Posted in Science