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.

TEN a day?

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Remember when we were being urged to eat five portions of fruit & veg a day?

Some of us decided that it was worth a shot, so we began watching our fruit and veg intake, bearing in mind that potatoes couldn’t be included, and fruit juice could only count once.

Then, not so long ago, someone decided that five wouldn’t cut the mustard and we needed to eat seven portions a day. Again, potatoes didn’t count, and the rule was still ‘more veg than fruit’, with an additional warning that fruit could only count as two of your five portions.

And now what do we hear? Five isn’t enough. Seven isn’t even enough. Now we are supposed to eat ten portions of fruit and veg a day – well, actually, make that ‘at least ten’ and again, the emphasis is on the veg … except potatoes. And sweet potatoes. And cassava. And it’s no good hypothesising that the wheat ‘berry’ is the fruit of the plant so why not include bread and pasta, because the answer is still no.

Hands up all those who eat five-a-day. Seven? Alright. How about ten? Yep, I thought so – a deafening silence … except you at the back there, and you can sit down because we don’t believe you1.

But wait! There is a burning question still to be answered, isn’t there? And I bet you don’t know the answer. What constitutes a portion?

Is it, for instance, one tomato? Fine, which size? Are we talking cherry tomatoes, or those smacking great beefy slicing tomatoes? What size pear? How many green beans – and what type? How many peas? How many stalks of celery – and is that large or small stalks, the big ones from the outside, or the little skinny sweet ones from the heart? Cooked or raw? And does that apply to everything, or just some types of foods?

Well, as it happens, I have done that bit of research and I can now answer this for you. It’s 400g in total if you’re on five-a-day, and 800g for ten, with raw veg coming out slightly ahead of cooked. Interestingly, there is no difference in recommended quantity between raw and cooked, despite the fact that we cannot digest all that uncooked cellulose, so a lot of that raw carrot is actually nutritionally unavailable to us. Does it matter? Do we need to absorb it, or is the fibre the important component? And if fibre is the most important factor, why don’t wholemeal breads and cereals count?

Nobody knows.

You will notice, dear reader, that 800g is getting on for a kilo of fruit & veg. Greengrocers up and down the country must be rubbing their hands with glee!

But wait … How can we eat nearly a kilo of fruit & veg each day without unbalancing our diets and/or missing out on important vitamins, minerals and trace elements? And how can we do it without increasing our food intake and putting on weight?

We’ve been told that whole grains are essential to our health, being particularly good for our hearts (and to help prevent Type 2 diabetes) and we need to eat ‘at least three portions a day’ The American Heart Association goes further and says ‘six to eight’.

We’ve been advised to eat more fish – especially oily fish – because of the beneficial effect on our blood pressure & cholesterol levels. We’ve been told it’s good for the skin, brain and nervous system because of the vitamins and good fats that it contains.

How about dairy? Here we come to one of the most argued topics, with government advice on the subject being described as ‘baffling’ and ‘contradictory’. On the one hand we are told that a Parliamentary report issued last spring recommended that we should up our intake to three portions a day to improve the nation’s health, and on the other hand, Public Health England says we should severely curtail it to no more than 200 calories a day from dairy for men and 160 calories for women (which, according to the Telegraph, would be gone in a single latte) However, pregnant, lactating and menopausal women have a high requirement for calcium and need 1,200mg daily.

Then there are all the studies which come out and say we should eat a handful of blueberries a day for this reason, a handful of almonds a day for that, or a handful of walnuts, or seeds, or a tablespoon of coconut oi, or linseed. Or so many cups of green tea. Apples and cider vinegar for our acid reflux, etc, etc.

Once upon a time I went to a nutritionist and I asked the question ‘how can I lose weight without missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements?’ I wanted her to help me to plan a diet, taking these factors into account, and you know what? She couldn’t do it. It seems you can either get your recommended daily intakes of the major food groups and those pesky little vitamins, minerals and trace elements, OR you can lose weight, but you can’t do both. I am now questioning whether it is possible to eat 800g of fruit and veg while maintaining the recommended intakes of everything else.

Lastly, I have found a paper written by a British cancer researcher and published in the BMJ journal ‘Gut’ which states that too much fibre may be implicated in bowel cancer development.

See, in the past we’ve been advised to ‘Go to Work on an Egg’, switch to margarine rather than butter, and use artificial sweeteners to help cut down on sugar, and each one of those recommendations has been reversed. Now, palm oil is all the rage because it’s supposed to be healthier. I’m willing to bet that time will prove that it isn’t healthy at all, but quite the reverse – and in the meantime, its cultivation is devastating whole ecological systems in the countries where it is grown.

Personally, I think most people should eat more fruit and vegetables, less fat, more wholegrains and less sugar2. I love vegetables. I’m that woman in the restaurant who orders a side of veg in addition to the ones that come on the plate and eats her husband’s broccoli into the bargain, but I still find it nigh-on impossible to eat 800g of the stuff, and I just think that before people start recommending ‘eat more of this’ and ‘eat less of that’ they should make sure they have all the facts, and they have them right.

The study that sparked this recent recommendation appears to be flawed. Some of the factors were not followed through, some data was missing, they didn’t ask about other aspects of the diet, and it was self-reported, for heaven’s sake. They simply asked a whole bunch of people what they ate yesterday and how much exercise they took, measured them at set intervals, and followed their mortality over the years. Perhaps more tellingly, it says ‘This study has found a strong association, but not necessarily a causal relationship’. And on the basis of this, a whole nation has been advised to change their diets.

1 – Just kidding!
2 – Personally, I think sugar is our biggest problem, but maybe that’s just me.

A quick internet search will throw up a lot of date (much of it contradictory), but some of the references I’ve used are listed below:

The study

It’s still worth getting your five a day

Five a day should be upped to seven a day

Whole Grains – eat three portions a day to reduce risk of total mortality, in particular cardiovascular disease (NICE evidence search: an analysis of fourteen studies from reliable sources)

Advice on dairy foods ‘baffling’

Dairy nutrition