SWEET TEMPTATIONFORGET "fat-free" diets. The new enemy in our food is rising amounts of sugar which, research shows, threaten increasing numbers of people with heart disease and obesity.
A study has shown that the surging consumption of refined sugar in foods could be responsible for the deaths in Britain of up to 3,000 women a year from heart disease alone.
Thousands more men and women are known to be dying from other conditions, such as obesity, related to high sugar consumption.
"People who want to have a good diet are not being told by the medical system that sugar is one of the big problems; they are unwilling to think of it as a killer," said Dr William Grant, a Nasa scientist whose independent statistical study has revealed the hitherto unsuspected level of risk.
While growing health awareness has seen the British halve the sugar they add to tea or sprinkle on cereals and puddings since 1980, there has been a steady increase in the amounts eaten inadvertently in processed foods.
Even foods promoted for their "healthy" content can contain unexpectedly high amounts of sugar. Kellogg's Healthwise Branflakes, for example, are 22% sugar.
Grant used official health and nutrition statistics from 33 countries, including Britain, to examine the impact of refined sugar consumption, including that taken as a component of processed foods.
He found a strong association with heart disease among pre-menopausal women and said his work suggested that excess sugar should be considered a health hazard.
The statistics did not show an increased risk for men or post-menopausal women and Grant surmised that this probably showed that female hormones played a role.
Sugars, including sucrose and glucose, are an excellent source of energy but provide few nutrients; experts say that they should be only a small part of a balanced diet. When someone eats more sugar than they need it is converted to fat, which can lead to obesity. High fat levels can clog arteries causing heart disease. Since 1980, sugar consumption in Britain has risen by 31% to 1.25lb per person per week, according to official statistics. Some campaigners claim the figure is probably closer to 2lb.
Much of this has been in products that many assume to be a healthy option. For example, McVitie's Go Ahead range, advertised by Mr Motivator, includes Fruit-Ins biscuits which are 45.8% sugar, a third more than milk chocolate Hobnobs. Even they, however, are far below Slim Fast, the slimming drink, which contains 61.9% sugar.
Savoury foods can also contain substantial amounts: Weight Watchers low-fat salt and vinegar Weavers contain 5.7% sugar while Sainsbury's regular salt and vinegar crisps have just 0.8%.
While sugar has less than half the calorific value of fat, over-consumption is thought to be contributing to the growing problem of obesity. In 1996 Department of Health statistics showed that 59% of British men and 48% of women were overweight.
Food campaigners complain that it is hard to keep sugar intake down because some manufacturers do not label their products properly.
Jack Winkler, chairman of the campaigning group Action and Information on Sugars, said soft drink and chocolate manufacturers were among the worst culprits, often failing to show that a can of fizzy drink could contain up to seven teaspoons of sugar: "Some of these companies know there is a growing awareness of the risks of sugar but are afraid to reveal the amounts in their products."
Dr Cyndi Thomson, a clinical nutrition researcher at Arizona University in America, said: "More and more of these low-fat foods with a high sugar content are entering the market and their over-consumption is contributing to weight gain."
Mary Whiting, a food lecturer and author of Healthy Eating for Babies and Children, said pumping more sugar into food was cheaper than putting in more nutritious ingredients. "If people knew the amount of it they were getting in their food, they would be very surprised," she said.
Experts say some people may have become "hooked" on sugar. Michael Lean, professor of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, said: "It is a vicious circle - people have become so accustomed to sugary foods that companies wanting to make a new product have to make it even sweeter."
In some areas, children's dental health is deteriorating for the first time since the 1960s as a result of sugary diets, said Stella Saunders, honorary secretary of the British Association for the Study of Community Dentistry.
"People tend to think it doesn't matter if kids eat sweets and drink fizzy drinks if they clean their teeth afterwards, but that is not the case at all."
Linda Lazarides, director of the Society for the Promotion of Nutritional Therapy and author of The Nutritional Health Bible, said people were unaware of the threat posed by sugar. "Most of the public are very poorly informed about the dangers of excess sugar consumption thanks to the power and wealth of the sugar industry." However, the industry rejects the criticisms. Dr Richard Cottrell, director of the Sugar Bureau, said it was an important part of a balanced diet.
"A moderate amount is useful in the diet for all sorts of reasons; and by helping to provide the required levels of carbohydrate, it actually helps to prevent disease," he said.
% sugar Nestlé Nesquik (banana flavour) 97.7 Slimfast (French vanilla flavour) 61.9 Ovaltine Light 56.7 McVitie's Go-Ahead Apricot Fruit-Ins 45.8 Batchelor's Cup-a-Soup (tomato) 37.5 Entenmann's carrot cake 34 Branston Original Pickle 32.5 Baby Organix oat apple and pear porridge 32.1 Sainsbury's fruit and spice muesli 30.8 Farley's oats & apple cereal (for babies 7 months) 29.8 Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars 29 Safeway sweet and sour sauce 24.9 Kellogg's Healthwise Bran Flakes 22 Heinz original sandwich spread 21.7 Safeway Pasta Pronto (tomato, onion & herb) 20.9 Kellogg's Special K 16 Sainsbury's low-fat fromage frais 14.6 Weight Watchers low-fat salad dressing 11.5 Safeway curry-style savoury rice 10.7 Sainsbury's freshly squeezed orange juice 10.5
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