The government has asked the food industry to cut sugar in ten major product groups by 20 per cent. But as the deadline looms, progress is painfully slow
The first artificial sweetener was discovered by accident. In 1879 Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was working with coal tar, a sticky black by-product of coal processing, when he licked his unwashed hands. His fingertips, coated with a thin layer of saccharin, tasted sweet.
After the First World War provoked sugar shortages, the market for saccharin exploded. It was followed by the discovery of cyclamate in 1937 and aspartame in 1965, each artificial sweetener many times sweeter than sugar. Then came natural sweeteners, stevia sourced from South American plants and xylitol extracted from trees, as well as high fructose corn syrup created from starch.
Each new sweetener led to speculation that they could curb our growing addiction to sugar. But despite the growing number of alternatives – and the government’s drive to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets – our love of the white stuff isn’t going anywhere.
The average person in the UK currently consumes around 60 grams of sugar per day, twice the recommended daily amount (RDA). Sugar is piled into everything you’d expect, confectionery, soft drinks and cakes, and everything you wouldn’t, condiments, pasta sauces and bread. A single can of regular Coca Cola would push you well over the RDA of 30g. As would a jar of Dolmio pasta sauce or two Muller Fruit Corners.
The list of health conditions associated with excessive sugar consumption is long and well-known: obesity leading to diabetes, high blood pressure and fatty liver disease, to name but a few. “Obesity in children and adults continues to increase; harming health and stretching NHS resources,” says Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford. “Reducing energy intake is crucial to prevent further excess weight gain.”
To crack down on our national sugar intake, in 2016 the UK government handed the food and drink industry a deadline. By the end of 2020 any product that falls into one of the ten categories identified by health authorities as contributing most to sugar intake among children (a list which includes confectionery, yoghurts, pastries and breakfast cereals) must reduce sugar content by 20 per cent or risk more draconian steps, such as an extension of the 2018 tax on soft drinks. But with only months to go progress has been painfully slow and hopes of hitting the target have been described by Jebb as “wildly ambitious.” In a 2019 report, the average reduction in products from 2015-2018 was just 2.9 per cent. In chocolate that fell to as low as 0.3 per cent.
Why, more than more than a century after scientists stumbled upon the first alternative, does replacing sugar still feel like an insurmountable task?
One of the biggest obstacles is that sugar delivers more than sweetness. Its ubiquity in food and drink goes far beyond taste, the molecule plays a role in colour, consistency and how long a product can last on the supermarket shelf. It’s a highly efficient preservative, explains Ashley Pollock, a specialist in food and drink innovation at business consultancy Ayming. “Reducing sugar content means that instead of an 18-month shelf life, a product might last only nine or ten.”
It’s also a texture modifier, providing soft drinks with their viscous consistency, a base for fermentation, and a colouring agent. It gives breads their crust, biscuits a toasted texture, and acts as a cheap bulking agent. Taking out sugar from any one product means replacing each and every one of these functions. “On top of all that the customer has to like it,” says Pollock.
And sugar delivers a rush that current alternatives can’t match. “It hits the same reward centres in the brain that light up with drugs and other substances that give us a high,” says Sally Norton, a consultant weight loss surgeon for the NHS.” It’s hard-wired into our DNA to be something we crave.
The main sugar in nature is found in ripe fruit which is full of nutrients and was abundant in late summer and autumn – great for helping our ancestors survive a lean winter when other sources of food energy were lacking.” Synthetic alternatives, such as saccharin or aspartame, might be significantly sweeter but they don’t trigger the same rush of dopamine in the brain. “Perhaps it’s because our bodies expect a hit of energy and nutrients when they taste sweetness,” Norton says. “Instead, they get a calorie-free chemical concoction and so send us off searching for nutrients elsewhere.”
Sugar alternatives often fail to match the mouthfeel of sugar too, leaving a bitter aftertaste or chemical coating on the tongue. It’s why when Lucozade swapped out sugar for aspartame and acesulfame K in 2017 the low sugar recipe was criticised, compared to bleach and branded a flop. Sales plummeted £25 million in the months following the relaunch. But despite 11,000 people signing a petition calling for the brand to revert to its old recipe the company stuck to its guns and more than two years later sales have begun to recover.
Even where sweeteners able to ape the many roles of sugar in function, debates rage on as to whether any of them are actually any better for us. In 1911, 32 years after its chance discovery, saccharin was deemed unsafe and banned in the US, before being reinstated when sugar shortages kicked in due to the First World War. Then 39 years later, in 1977, it was banned once more after tests linked it to cancer in lab rats. In 2011 that ban was once again lifted when research showed you’d need to drink 800 cans of saccharin-containing soft drink each day to reach the carcinogenic dosage that triggered the disease in rats.
Almost every artificial sweetener has been subject to the same vicious cycle of erroneous claims. Cyclamate was banned by the UK in the late sixties after being linked to cancer, before being re-evaluated and reinstated in 1996. Ten years later the European Food Safety Authority ordered urgent tests after paper linked aspartame to increased rates of leukaemia and lymphomas. A year later that paper was discredited and the link between leukaemia and aspartame debunked.
The damage had already been done though. “Whether true or not, negative health connections will always be hard to shake, especially for a product that is not natural,” says Daniel Reeds, owner of xylitol supplier Total Sweet. Public concern around aspartame, fuelled by media coverage of the findings of the flawed study, even led PepsiCo to pull the sweetener aspartame from its diet drinks in 2015.
Against this challenging backdrop progress toward the 2020 targets has been sluggish so far. But food and drink companies are “furiously innovating” to come up with something, insists Pollack, and they’re not the only ones trying to come up with a new solution to our age-old sugar problem.
Start-ups are trying everything from creating sugar with a low glycemic index that prevents the body from absorbing as much glucose, to altering the surface area of sugar molecules and building designer proteins.
The latter is an approach being tried by Israeli start-up Amai Proteins, set up by Ilan Samish in 2016. The company sources sweet proteins found in exotic fruits that are 10,000 times sweeter than sugar but not yet sturdy enough to use in food. By applying a process called Agile-Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) though these proteins can be redesigned as both sweet and stable. DNA for these redesigned proteins are then inserted into yeast and grown at Amai’s brewery. The result, Samish says, is a stable protein that tastes exactly like sugar, allowing for a far more dramatic reduction than sweeteners allow, and at a significantly cheaper price. In January the start-up was awarded a €1m (£850,000) grant from the EU to bring the protein to market, working alongside PepsiCo and Danone.
In 2019 another Israeli company called DouxMatok received $22m (£16.9m) in funds to commercialise its technology, which doesn’t replace sugar but allows manufacturers to use far less. The company coats a tasteless mineral particle called silica with sugar molecules. This increases the surface area meaning our taste buds detect the same sweetness with a far smaller volume. At Cambridge start-up Stem meanwhile scientists have created a method to extract and purify natural low calorie sugars found in plant fibres. Unlike traditional sugar sourced from sugarcane or beets, the ingredient is low-calorie and suitable for diabetics, says Stem’s founder Tom Simmons.
But technical innovations will still have to contend with one more potential hurdle: consumers.“For the most part the public are not looking for engineered foods. They want food made from the ingredients they’ve got in their kitchen,” says Jebb. Reformulation, whether with the latest hi-tech solution or the oldest synthetic sweetener we have, is only going to be part of the answer anyway. What we need to do is buy and eat less sweet foods, no matter what they contain.
Extending the sugar tax is one route to nudging consumer behaviour in the right direction. In 2018 the Soft Drinks Levy came into force in the UK which added a 24p penalty per litre where a soft drink contains more than 8g of sugar per 100ml, and 18p per litre where it contains 5-8g per 100ml. The Treasury has forecast a potential income of £1.37 billion from the levy in 2020-24, or more than £340m per year. Sugar reduction has been significant across soft drinks, with an average sugar reduction from 2015-2018 of 28.8 per cent. That’s compared to an average of less than three per cent across other foods facing the 20 per cent target.
Jebb points out we can’t know for sure whether or not the tax drove this behaviour change (given their liquid state soft drinks are also easier to reformulate) but “we know that putting up the price of food decreases how much people buy,” she says. “But before we get to those kinds of pretty hard policy measures, which are regressive and will hit poor people the hardest, we should be looking at other options.” Campaign group Action on Sugar say those could include tighter rules around marketing and “front of pack uniform colour-coded nutritional labelling.”
Whatever we do, we need to do it soon. Poor diet is the cause of 11 million preventable deaths worldwide each year with high fat, high salt and high sugar foods a major contributor. “This is a new era with a new consensus across the scientific community that sugar is an enemy of world health,” says Samish. The clock is ticking.
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