Sugar & spice, and all things … salty!

I am old, clearly. I have arrived at the age when we all start to say ‘when I was young … ‘, and this is exactly what I’ve been thinking lately. Suddenly, there are an awful lot of sentences that begin this way, and a lot of them are to do with food.

It all started some time ago now, when I was diagnosed as hypertensive, and cut down drastically on my salt intake. Then some time in the early 2000s, I had a short but successful tussle with oral cancer, which resulted in the advice to stay away from spicy foods and spirits2, and when I was later diagnosed with GORD, I had another important reason to do so.

A decade or so after that, one by one, a whole bunch of my friends and family found that that were pre-diabetic, and then a few years after that, some had slipped over that invisible line into full-blown Type 2 diabetes. This tends to make an ageing person think, and as a result, I realised that my body no longer handled massive sugar hits as easily as it used to. In fact, it was positively pissed with me if I added a smacking great sugary dessert on top of a carbohydrate-rich restaurant meal laced with alcohol. This didn’t show up in blood sugar tests, but my pancreas was hinting that it could only be a matter of time until it did, so I made the decision to stop eating sugar, and in February 2016, I went cold turkey on added sugar. Not, I hasten to add, simply the sugar I used to put in tea, or on cereals or fruit – no, I stopped cooking with sugar, and I stopped eating desserts and cakes, and biscuits. Now, this year, I find that my cholesterol is working its way slowly towards the Dark Side.

So, here I am, a woman who doesn’t eat sugar or hot spices, and needs low-salt and lower-fat options. Did I mention that I also have a bit of a problem with yeast3? I don’t know if you’ve ever tried shopping for anything other than basic ingredients with those points in mind, but I can tell you that it ain’t easy – especially for someone who really doesn’t like to cook, and has other dietary restrictions (my allergies and intolerances).

But for the purposes of this blog post, my allergies and intolerances are beside the point.

Here’s the point. You try going into any supermarket and find even so much as a packet of cold meat which doesn’t contain sugar in some form: sucrose (usually just listed as ‘sugar’), dextrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, honey, molasses, and/or the insidious ‘fools-you-into-eating-far-too-much’ glucose-fructose syrup. Those are by no means the only names you’ll find for sugars in your food, by the way, but you will find one or more sugars in almost any prepared foods, from bread to pasta sauce, savoury biscuits & crisps to frozen chips – I once found a tub of pasta sauce which contained sugar in no less than five different forms. This bottle of BBQ sauce contains four.

Go ahead: try finding unsalted crisps or roasted nuts. Or soups, stocks, crackers, or pretty much anything savoury with a low salt-content. Then try finding soups, prepared meals, sauces, stocks, gravy mixes, etc with low salt content, and no yeast or hot spices.

Fats? Fats are a special kind of crazy. There are ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’, and the perception of which are good and which are bad changes regularly. At the moment there is a belief that palm oil is good, which has led to palm oil being almost ubiquitous in processed foods of any kind. There is nothing magical about palm oil except that it is naturally high in unsaturated fats, and it can be produced cheaply, and in large quantities. There is – naturally – a very heavy price to pay for this in terms of the world’s resources4, and what’s more, palm oil does a number on my acid reflux, so I try really hard to avoid it. But I challenge you: go into any supermarket, and do your usual weekly shop without buying anything with palm oil in it. The chances are that you’ll find yourself having to make substitutions before you’ve got halfway down the first aisle of shelved goods. And remember, palm oil masquerades under various names too, but you’ll have to look those up for yourself because there are too many to list. You’ll also find it in cleaning products and personal hygiene stuff like toothpaste, shower gel, and shampoo. We are literally destroying the earth for this crap. The fashion for palm oil will pass, but it might be too late for fragile ecosystems and magical places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Madagascar. Wildlife is being destroyed right now to make way for the increasing demand for it.

But the crazy doesn’t stop with palm oil.

In the search for low fat products with ‘good flavour and mouth feel’, manufacturers have reduced the fats, but upped the sugar and salt content, and added all kinds of emulsifiers and fillers. What’s more, they seem to be ignoring the use of more traditional ‘good fats’ like olive oil. You see, your body does need oils and fats. Your brain has a particularly high need for them, and the rest of you needs the vitamins which are fat-soluble – and it is being increasingly recognised that simply popping a vitamin pill doesn’t actually work as well as getting them via your diet. Oh, what a surprise.

And here’s where it’s really insane. Our Beloved Leaders have issued guidelines on nutrition, some of which are admittedly just plucked out of thin air, but some we know make sense. We know that too much salt and sugar can wreck your health, and yet manufacturers are allowed to carry on adding them in large quantities to our foods, because ‘it’s what the public want’. True enough, people like the taste – people are addicted these days to highly salted, highly sweetened, intensely-flavoured foods, but I can tell you, from personal experience as a reformed junk food lover, that it takes relatively little effort to kick all that and get used to the real flavour of the food itself. Trust me, it tastes more than acceptable. I still love my food, but now I don’t enjoy the artificially heightened and intense flavours at all.

This is not about persuading you to join in and kick the habit. This is about choice: your choice to keep on eating what you enjoy, and mine to find the healthier alternatives. Healthy alternatives do sometimes exist (Waitrose do a great line in sugar-free, additive-free, yeast-free, low-spice and salt-free stocks) but often they do not.

Products with good, sustainable fats also exist, with or without sugar or salt. But you could pack all these into a single, short aisle in most supermarkets, and it would be rather nice if they did!

At the moment, for people like me it’s back to basic ingredients, and I seriously dislike cooking. But for now – and this is great – since I’m forbidden to anything with my left arm, OH is doing the cooking (under close instruction). And this is his very first Shepherd’s Pie, made from basic ingredients. Give the man a big hand – it was tasty, too!

1 No, not the sort which go bump in the night

2 Which means that Chorleywood bread does me no good at all. If you don’t know what Chorleywood bread is, or why it can be bad for us, look it up. It’s interesting reading.

3 Slashing and burning to clear huge swathes of virgin rainforest is all-too-common. Sometimes this is done illegally, because they know that once the land is cleared, the profit from their lucrative new crop will be more than enough to make up for any fines they have to pay. Whether the clearing of forest is legal or illegal, all of the forest-dwelling wildlife is left homeless – including Orang-Utans, who are sometimes left with horrific burns and/or their babies orphaned. The wildlife on the periphery of these vast plantations is then further threatened by pesticides, or shot if they raid the fruit.

At last. The Experts have caught up with me!

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I have been saying for decades now  …

Well, I’ve been saying two things: firstly that foods like cakes and biscuits and desserts and drinks continue to get sweeter all the time, and secondly that manufacturers need to start giving us more choice in this.

Actually, I’ve been saying more than that, to as many people who’ll listen to me, and as often as the subject crops up.  I’ve said that the insidious increase in sugar content of so many foods is to blame for more health problems than high fat content, that feeding a sweet tooth seems to make it sweeter, that sugar is addictive, that the food manufacturers are fiendishly clever because they know this and try very hard to hook us young with overly sweet breakfast cereals, desserts, yoghurts etc aimed directly at children, and also that I would not be unhappy to see a tax put on sugar.  Nobody needs it in these quantities, and it’s positively dangerous for some of us.

I do have a sweet tooth, and it’s often my undoing when it comes to trying to keep my weight down, but I do wish I could buy a chilled coffee drink, for instance, with no damn sugar in it!  When I drink coffee at home I never add sugar, so why would I want an iced coffee with about four teaspoons of sugar dissolved in it when I’m out?  If you doubt how much sugar is in those things – and in ice lollies and ice creams – try letting one warm to room temperature and then taking a swig. You’ll be shocked at how sweet they really are.  Fact: the more you cool things, the less you can taste the sugar.

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Let’s think about the things which have sugar added – things which, if we made them at home, would usually contain none at all.    Bread, for instance.  It is not necessary to add sugar to bread.  OK, some recipes call for it but many do not. Those that do add it as a kind of short-cut to ‘feed’ the yeast and get it started more quickly, and it’s actually a lot more healthy to give bread a long fermentation time, which uses the yeast more effectively and more thoroughly and results in an ‘old-fashioned’ loaf instead of the playdough-textured Chorleywood1 type.

Have you ever noticed that the biscuits and fruit pies and cakes you buy are so much sweeter, and yet somehow less satisfying, than those you make at home? They are full of sugar and other refined ingredients, including glucose-fructose sugar which fools your body into thinking that you’re still hungry and encourages you to overindulge2.  Eat them quickly and you’ll feel slightly unwell because your poor body is trying to process  the overload of fat and sugar.  Homemade biscuits and cakes don’t do this – at least, not so quickly or so thoroughly: because there’s no glucose-fructose syrup, because you need to chew them more, and because they are simply more satisfying.

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Processed meats are difficult to find sans sugar.  Ham, pastrami, the so-called deli-meats, meat pies, meat patés, sausages and so on, go take a look at the ingredients lists if you don’t believe me.  Mayonnaise3.  Bottled sauces.  Gravies.  Even frozen chips.  Why the hell would anyone think of putting sugar in chips?

Then there are fruit juices and fruit ‘drinks’, which are often nothing more than flavoured sugar water. I make a drink called ‘ACE’ at home, which I discovered in Italy. ‘ACE’ stands for (vitamins) A, C and E, and it’s easy and quick to make using bottled carrot juice, and chilled, unsweetened, orange and apple juices. The original recipe calls for a dash of lemon, but the apple and carrot juices will have this added already. You do not need sugar for this drink, and it’s simply a matter of getting the proportions as you like them, so just experiment. Our taste runs to around one third carrot juice, and then the proportions of apple and orange depend on which brands I buy, but usually just a tad more orange than apple. If you’re not used to such an intense, pure-fruit juice, try adding sparkling mineral water to taste – or even simply tap water… but please, no sugar!

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Sugar is in all those things to ‘educate’ your tastebuds to keep coming back for more, and to make the food processing easier.  Does it do us any favours at all?  No.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to read this article, in which food experts are calling for a reduction in the amount of sugar allowed in processed foods.  Three bloody cheers!  Never mind vilifying obese people and telling us how we lack self-control, for fuck’s sake, how about beginning to point the finger at those really responsible for the increase in the population’s weight: the food industry?

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I admit it. I have struggled with my weight all my adult life.  I, along with all the rest of you who are unlucky enough to have succumbed to an addiction to sugar (and those who are genetically predisposed to put on weight4), have had to employ more self-restraint than most simply to avoid getting to the point where I can no longer walk due to damaging my joints with the extra avoirdupois.  We, unique among addicts, cannot go cold turkey.  We still have to eat to live, and must therefore suffer the torture of struggling with our addiction on a twice or three-times-daily basis.  It’s a bit like trying to give up smoking while allowing yourself two puffs of a cigarette three times a day – but while smokers are now offered help from their doctors, obese people are still blamed for their lack of self-control.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we are the last remaining group of addicts who are punished for their problem.

It really is about time that the government stopped telling us it’s all our fault and withdrawing vital health services5, and began to help us by bringing in legislation to restore our food supplies to something which does not continually poison us and scupper our best intentions.  We cannot all prepare all our own food from scratch, and that reminds me:

Who suffers most from being fed processed, pre-prepared food?

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Those who cannot help themselves by preparing their own food, that’s who.  Those in institutions of any kind: schools, nursing homes, respite homes, residential facilities for the elderly, prisons …

And hospitals, where we should be fed a diet conducive to regaining health, but far too often are not6.

 

<sup>1</sup> – See link: The shocking truth about bread

<sup>2</sup> – See links:

Effects of fructose on brain may promote overeating

Fructose effect on brain may explain link to obesity

Sweet poison: why sugar is ruining our health

Sugar, not fat, exposed as deadly villain in obesity epidemic

<sup>3</sup> – Whose ingredients, as all the purists will tell you, should be very simple: a good quality oil, plus egg.

<sup>4</sup> – See link: Genetic mutation causes obesity

<sup>5</sup> – See link: Lose weight, or your operation is cancelled

<sup>6</sup> – See link: Hospital food: what’s the prognosis?