Now that the Government is slapping a tax on soft drinks I am going to indulge in a reminiscence of my troubled relationship with sugar, health and food.
My first job, as a 7 year old kid, was to scour the streets of a Pittsburgh suburb called Bridgeville, collecting discarded soda bottles and taking them to my aunt Gloria’s store to collect the 2¢ deposit refund. At that time a soft drink was 10¢, so the drink was 8¢ and the bottle deposit was 2¢ and people still threw the bottle away. The deposit didn’t make much change in behaviour. When people wanted sugar, they paid what it cost.
I didn’t really have much appetite for sugar for most of my childhood, our mother was pretty strict about it. I remember the day in 1953 when confectionery came off the ration in the UK and some schoolmates emerged from a sweet shop with a bag of humbugs they’d just bought without having to cajole their mother to come along with her ration book. The nation went mad for sugar and the Government had to put it back on rationing until supplies recovered.
It was in 1965, when I was in Afghanistan, recovering in Kabul from a serious case of hepatitis, enhanced with dysentery, that I understood sugar. My liver was on strike and the doctors told me that I should eat lots of simple sugary food to keep my blood sugar levels up. The dysentery told me otherwise: I knew from an early bout in Shiraz, that a diet of unleavened whole meal flat bread and unsweetened tea was the key to stopping the runs. So I tried it again and the dysentery cleared up in 2 days. Amazingly, so did the hepatitis. My liver stopped throbbing with pain and the whites of my eyeballs went from greenish yellow to something close to white.
That autumn, back in Philadelphia, I adopted the macrobiotic diet which forbids sugar. My health rose to an even higher level and I haven’t once needed to see a doctor since about my health. After a few years I was able to reintroduce alcohol into my diet but tried to keep a lid on sugar.
In 1966 I was in London, aiming to open a macrobiotic restaurant and study centre. From December, I was a regular at the UFO Club, where proto-hippies would listen to the Pink Floyd and then buy macrobiotic food that my mother had helped me make. My little band of macrobiotic missionaries would then explain to people trying this strange food that brown rice was good for you and sugar should be avoided. I opened a little basement restaurant in Notting Hill in February 1967. Yoko Ono was one of our first customers, as she knew about macrobiotics from Japan.
We made bread without yeast, macrobiotic-style and I imported books like Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa (Nyoiti Sakurozawa) that were sold in Indica Books, the bookshop owned by Paul McCartney and Barry Miles.
Macrobiotics avoided yeast for the same reason they avoided sugar: too much could cause dysbiosis of the gut flora. Meanwhile the American Medical Association called macrobiotics a diet that ‘could lead to death’
Dr. Arnold Bender, Britain’s top nutritionist, said white bread was the most easily digestible and nutritious bread you could eat, slapping down the wholemeal alternative as too slow to digest and with lower nutrients, because wheat bran fibre has no protein and carbohydrate.
In 1968 I had to leave Britain and my brother Gregory opened a larger restaurant in Bayswater called Seed.
None of the desserts were made with sugar – a touch of salt was enough to bring out the sweetness of the apples in the crumbles. At festivals like Glastonbury and Phun City we would serve up porridge to the festival goers and got into trouble at one festival as our customers would head off to an adjoining catering tent to get sugar to sprinkle on their porridge and muesli. We had a shop on the Portobello Road called Ceres Grain Shop that sold all the whole grains, beans, seeds and organic vegetables but the only sweet thing we sold was Aspall organic apple juice.
I wrote a book called About Macrobiotics in 1972 that was translated into 6 languages and sold half a million copies where I wrote: “If sugar was discovered yesterday it would be banned immediately and handed over to the Army for weapons research.”
We were hard core. My kids didn’t dare even ask for sweets – they might sneak them with friends at school but would destroy the evidence before they got home.
We didn’t believe in refined cereals either – no white flour or white rice touched our lips. Our macrobiotic food wholesaling company Harmony Foods introduced the first organic wholegrain rice. In 1973, with other pioneering natural food companies we wrote the manifesto of the Natural Foods Union. We promised each other not to sell sugar or any products containing sugar or white flour or white rice. We were committed to developing organic food sources which were then rare. Signatories included Community Foods, our own Harmony Foods and Ceres Grain Shop, Haelan Centre, Infinity Foods, Harvest of Bath, Anjuna of Cambridge and On The Eighth Day in Manchester.
We published a magazine called ‘Seed – The Journal of Organic Living’ that had cover stories with headlines like “Garbage Grub – How The Poor Starve on Rich Foods” and a story on Britain’s future which set out a dystopian vs Utopian vision where on one side people were clamouring for 24 Hour TV and More Sugar. On the other they were tending goats and living in countryside communes eating whole natural foods.
Then in 1977 I worked out how to make jam using apple juice. Being higher in fructose it was possible to make a jam with a lot less sweetening, so it tasted light and fruity. They were 38% sugars from fruit when other jams were 65% sugars from sugar cane and fruit. Whole Earth jams were an international success as they reached out to the increasing numbers of sugar avoiders in the UK, Europe and North America.
However our sales met stiff competition from much sweeter jams that used fruit juices like grape juice that were higher in glucose than white sugar and they used a lot of it, to match the sweetness of regular jam. Our moral restraint cost us sales to these much more sugary jams. However we also used apple juice to sweeten other products, marketing baked beans, soft drinks and salad dressings. Even our best selling Whole Earth peanut butter contained a touch of concentrated apple juice to make it taste more mainstream.
Then, while searching for another source of organic peanuts I connected with Ewé tribal people in Togo, West Africa, who grew delicious peanuts as part of an organic crop rotation. Unfortunately the peanuts failed our aflatoxin tests but the farmers also grew organic cocoa beans. There was no organic chocolate on the market at that time so I got a sample made up of 70% solids chocolate made with organic cocoa beans.
We called it Green & Black’s and launched it in September 1991. It was the first time I had sold a product containing real sugar from sugar cane. It was the first organic and the first 70% and the first chocolate with a transparent supply chain. So we put a sugar warning on the label – I think this is the only time that any company has done this. It read: “Please Note: This chocolate contains 29% brown sugar, processed without chemical refining agents. Ample evidence exists that consumption of sugar can increase the likelihood of tooth decay, obesity and obesity-related health problems. If you enjoy good chocolate, make sure you keep your sugar intake as low as possible by always choosing Green & Black’s.”
How did I square this with my conscience? Well, a French author called Michel Montignac had written a best-selling book called ‘Dine Out and Lose Weight’ that was one of the first places the idea of glycemic index had been in print. In his book 70% dark chocolate had a ranking of 22 on a scale where sugar was 100. Brown rice was at 50 and carrots at 70. Fructose was at a mere 20.
Two of our best Whole Earth foods customers, Community Foods and Planet Organic, flat out refused to stock Green & Black’s because it contained sugar. Tim Powell at Community said: “Craig, you were the one who got us all to not sell sugar back in the day – we can’t stock this.” (they came around eventually)
I mentioned earlier that apple juice was higher in fructose. The crystals of fructose and glucose, the two monosaccharides that make up a sugar molecule (sucrose), have exactly the same chemical formula: C6H12O6. So what’s the difference between glucose and fructose?
- If you beam a light into the glucose molecule it bends slightly to the right. If you beam a light into a fructose molecule it bends slightly to the left.
- If you put a given amount on your tongue the fructose will taste more than twice as sweet as the glucose
- If you eat the glucose it raises your blood sugar within 20 minutes. If you eat the fructose it has almost no impact on blood sugar.
If you eat a given amount of sugar the glucose half hits your bloodstream, the fructose half passes down your digestion and is eventually turned into glycogen or into fatty acids. These provide an energy source that is managed by the body rather than just absorbed in the way that glucose is. So Lucozade, a glucose drink, was marketed on the premise that ALL the sugar – because it was glucose – got through to you immediately and that this would ‘speed recovery.’ It was a deluded proposition, but it captured the fact that you got twice as many sugar bangs for your bucks.
If you have apple juice, there is more fructose than glucose or sucrose, so you don’t get the same ‘hit’ as a lot of the sugar takes a different metabolic pathway. Corn syrup is about 80% glucose. Because glucose isn’t very sweet on the palate, you have to use a lot more of it to get to the same level of perceived sweetness. This increases the load of glucose to satisfy the taste for sweetness, with a resulting harsh impact on the blood sugar level. ‘High fructose corn syrup’ has a higher level of fructose, between 45 and 55%, so it is used in industry because it has nearly the same glucose/fructose balance as white sugar. It’s healthier than ordinary corn syrup, as measured by blood glucose impact.
If you really want to get all the glucose right away then it’s best to drink it on an empty stomach. All sugars are not absorbed equally. If you eat dessert before you eat a meal the sugar will get into your system very quickly. If you eat dessert after a meal then it has to work its way through the previously ingested food and has a longer exposure time to your digestive bacteria. The higher the fibre content of your meal, the longer it takes for the sugar to be absorbed. There are some fibres that are particularly good at delaying the impact of sugar. One of these is psyllium seeds. Not only do they delay sugar absorption by up to an hour or so, they also bulk up, by absorbing water, your intestinal contents, helping regular passage of food. Glucomannan also has this property as does oat bran. Wheat bran doesn’t absorb water to the same degree, but it absorbs sugar and delays its release in digestion. The longer it takes for sugar to be absorbed, the less impact it has on blood glucose level.
There are also foods that help with insulin production and that reduce insulin resistance, thanks to the presence of chromium. Chromium-rich foods include black pepper, broccoli, bran, brown rice, lettuce and green beans. The leaves of the white mulberry are considered particularly effective at delaying sugar absorption, containing a component called reductase.
There are also co-factors that accelerate the rate at which your body metabolises sugar or that challenge your natural regulatory mechanisms. These can increase the likelihood of a blood sugar drop, known as hypoglycemia, the symptoms of which are fatigue, depression and a craving for more sugar.
These co-factors include:
Coffee and, to a lesser extent, other caffeine stimulants like tea, maté, cola, guarana and cocoa. They will increase the rate at which the brain burns sugar. Small wonder then that when you purchase a cup of coffee there is always an extensive display of white flour and sugar sweetened products to tempt you. Your body knows it’s going to be short of sugar after you drink the caffeine, so you instinctively go for the antidote to have on hand as you consume the stimulant.
The liver is the main organ, along with the pancreas, that regulates your blood sugar level. As blood flows through the liver its glucose level is measured and, if it needs topping up, the liver dips into its store of glycogen, converts it to sugar and drip feeds it into the blood.
Alcohol When you drink alcohol the liver prioritises dealing with what it perceives as a poison and puts dealing with blood sugar on the back burner. The pancreas also finds it harder to produce insulin and regulate insulin levels when it also has to deal with the presence of alcohol.
Dope is another culprit. When you smoke marijuana it increases the blood level in the brain by an estimated 40 millilitres. This increases the amount of sugar available for the brain to burn and this heightened mental activity is part of what is called being ‘high.’ However this increased usage of sugar makes it harder for the liver to keep up and the resulting drop in blood sugar is the symptom known to dope smokers as ‘the munchies’ – an irresistible craving for sweet foods.
Glyphosate or ‘Roundup’ – research has shown that ultra low doses of Roundup consumed over time leads to fatty liver disease. Fatty liver doesn’t function very well and therefore makes it harder for the blood to maintain the right glucose levels. Farmers spray Roundup at the end of wheat harvest to kill off the wheat plants. When the plants realise they are dying, they frantically make as many babies as possible, i.e. wheat grains. This is reflected in an increased harvest quantity, but ensures that every loaf of non-organic bread or other flour product contains a low dose of Roundup residue.
Antibiotics also can lead to powerful cravings for sugar. If antibiotics are ingested, they don’t just target the disease bacteria they are taken to cure. They wipe out the beneficial microbes that are our healthy population of gut flora. That’s why it’s advisable to consume yogurt or sauerkraut or other foods rich in lactobacilli to replace these important microorganisms. It’s also a good idea to eat foods rich in fibre to help the equally important bifidobacteria which are a pivotal part of the immune system in the large intestine. A small population of these and other beneficial bacteria are always present in your appendix. The appendix is the body’s equivalent of a survivalist’s food store, a place, at the junction of the small and large intestine, where, once the antibiotics are finished, the intestines can be repopulated. Antibiotics can not kill off the tiny population of yeasts that are a part of the wider bacterial community of the gut. But once the dominant lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are out of the way, yeasts quickly mutate into a fungal form, candida, a sticky white slime that imbeds itself firmly in the walls of the intestines.
There is an established communication between the gut and the brain and this is a vital part of our food choices, what smells nice, how hungry we feel and also what antibodies the gut flora need to produce to combat pathogens – what we call our immune system. When candida gets a grip, like a Russian hacker taking over the CIA, it takes over the communication channel and sends a message to the brain demanding more sugar. The more of these foods it gets, the more powerful it becomes and the more successfully it outcompetes the beneficial microbes that are trying to repopulate the gut after the antibiotic A-bomb has exploded. Getting rid of candida is not easy, but there are ways to do it:
- Saccharomyces – these little microbes compete effectively with candida for sugar, thereby holding back the growth of candida and starving them out. They come in capsule form
- L-glutamine – this also attacks candida. Also in capsules
- Fasting – I often say that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day…to skip.’ This is because by the time you wake up in the morning the liver’s reserves of glycogen are low and it’s time to convert fat into glucose to keep the blood sugar level up. This keeps sugar away from the gut and the candida, which then die off. If you eat a carbohydrate-rich breakfast, perhaps with a glass of fruit juice, the sugars keep the candida topped up and maintaining or expanding their population, perhaps even migrating to other parts of the body such as the vagina or skin. Starve them out by fasting for 17 hours a day.
- Colonic irrigation – pumping water into the large intestine and then pulling it back out removes a lot of candida.
- Lactobacillli – probiotics. Eating foods rich in lactic acid and consuming spores of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria helps to create ideal conditions for repopulating your beneficial gut microbes that compete with candida
- Inulin – this is a molecule that is made of a long string of fructose molecules strung tightly together. It is indigestible and counts as fibre but when it gets to the large intestine the wonderfully beneficial bifidobacteria feast on it and increase their numbers by the billions.
Good food sources of inulin include whole grain wheat and rye, shallots, onions, leeks, chicory root and the white part of chicory leaves and Jerusalem artichokes. These are all valuable nutrition for the gut microbes. Inulin powder, extracted from chicory roots, is a concentrated source.
Candida puts pressure on you to consume the sugar it needs and urges your brain to crave refined flour products, dairy, wine, beer and sugar. It’s not just antibiotics that give candida its supremacy in the gut, it also benefits from hormone replacement therapy, the birth control pill, steroids and hydrogenated fat.
Vinegar also plays a role in sugar metabolism. Nobody’s quite sure why, but if you take 2 tablespoons of vinegar before a meal the increase in blood glucose later is 34% lower than if you don’t take vinegar. That’s a big difference as it keeps the level at a level less likely to be stressful.
The brain consumes glucose as the energy source that enables neurons to fire. It’s the ‘carb’ or ‘carbon’ in ‘carbohydrate’ that is the energy source. Oxygen feeds the fire of carbon in the body, which is why we breathe. So we are like a coal fire, burning carbon to keep ourselves warm and to enable our brains and bodies to function well. However, lactate is another rich source of carbon for the brain. If there is lactate in the blood then the neurons in the brain will preferentially coat themselves in it rather than with glucose. It’s as if lactate is like gas fuel for the brain, glucose more like coal or wood. Where do we get lactate?
- When our digestive system has a healthy population of lactobacilli they will compete with candida and other microbes that are eating starch or sugar and a by-product is lactate
- When we walk, run, jump or dance or do any exercise our muscles burn glucose and give off lactate.
At some point in evolution our brains evolved to function best on the super fuel of lactate in preference to glucose. Glucose for the body, lactate for the brain.
So exercise is really important as it provides a better quality of energy for the brain – lactate also delays brain ageing and neurodegeneration. The heart and liver use it, too. Insulin function works much better too if there has been exercise and lactate production. This is why exercise is increasingly being used as a cure for pre-diabetic conditions and for curing Type 2 diabetes in many cases.
Plato wrote: ‘I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency’. Kellogg’s say ‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Who to trust on this? Everyone has a different metabolism, but they all have the power to change bad habits.
Metabolic Syndrome is the name for the multi-symptom disease that is typical of modern sedentary people.
It’s also known as ‘Sitting Disease.’ If a person gets up in the morning, sits down for breakfast, then sits in a car or on a train or bus, then sits at a desk or an assembly line and then sits down to return home to sit down to eat a meal and then sits watching television or enjoying social media they lay the foundations for Metabolic Syndrome
Contributing factors are
- Inactivity/laziness (Both cause and effect but a natural human condition)
- Overeating – large food portions of food low in nutrients
- Pesticides – these have a hormonal effect as well as being mildly toxic
- Processed denatured food that is low in fibre
- Hydrogenated fat – harms the circulatory system, reducing blood flow
- Sugar and refined cereal such as white bread and low fibre breakfast cereals
- Television, electronic games and sitting at computers.
So what’s the answer?
Our Government has one solution for everything: Tax it.
A tax on soft drinks will have little impact as the appetite for sugar is not responsive to pricing. If your candida want sugar or you are on a cycle of high and low blood sugar you don’t give a damn what the cost is of a soft drink. It’s the cheapest form of sugar already and a tax won’t make a difference. You get more sugar in a chocolate brownie than in a can of Coke and a brownie costs at least 3 times as much. The best selling soft drink in Britain is Red Bull. It costs double the cost of Coke and has just as much sugar.
A tax will help in one way though: The Government currently subsidises sugar beet farming and sugar production to the tune of £250 million per annum. A sugar tax will raise an estimated £400 million. So the soft drinks tax will neatly subsidise the taxpayers money that goes to sugar producers. How smart is that?
There is a far more intelligent alternative. Researchers studied a group of 46,000 people in a Japanese city who were over 48 years old. They measured their blood sugar, blood pressure, lung function and other measures of health and then recommended actions to rectify any problems before they became serious diseases. Not all of them complied, but enough did to make a difference. They became ill less often and therefore cost the health system less. The estimated average saving came to £200 per person per year.
In the UK, with 26 million people over the age of 48, that would be a saving to the NHS of £5.2 billion every year. Why don’t doctors and pharmaceutical companies recommend it? Why don’t wine makers discourage wine drinking? Why don’t car makers urge walking instead of driving? No business likes to lose its customers, even the caring professions.
In 2011 the Soil Association applied for and won a £17 million National Lottery grant to initiate its Food For Life project. It was a huge success, with schools coming in at Bronze entry level and working up to Gold, where they offer a significant proportion of school meals that are organic, locally sourced and freshly prepared on the premises. There are now 2 million school dinners a day served under the Food For Life Programme. A lot of those schools have stopped serving desserts on some days a week. These kids perform better and learn something really important: you are what you eat.
Those kids will fare better in life, but we have a couple of generations who got the worst of crap food, hydrogenated fat (recommended by doctors), exposure to lead and pesticides and other environmental toxins. They are the ones who need help. Diabetes levels are already dropping in the Western world as more people eat more wholesome food and exercise a lot more, but there is still work to be done. A soft drinks tax is pathetic when you consider what the government could be doing to support healthier lifestyles
Change begins with the individual and it’s about education. If people are junk food junkies they will always find junk food. Trying to reform the food industry, which is responding to demand that arises from a multiplicity of causes, is to fight the wrong battle. If we change demand then supply will follow.
The new science of epigenetics informs us that acquired characteristics can be inherited. The unhealthy acquired characteristics of previous generations has been one factor in the increase in autism, birth defects, hereditary diabetes and other diseases, food allergies and other developmental problems. But we need not despair, this is already being turned around and future generations can look forward to even better food produced in a cleaner environment to make healthier happier people, whose babies will be even healthier and happier. We know more now about these factors than we ever did before, so we have the power to evolve positively.