As an ethical consumer, I try to avoid both excess packaging and large corporations. Consequently, rarely eating packaged food supports both my choice to be healthy and my choice to be ethical.
Recently, both choices were confirmed in quite a dramatic way by viewing “That Sugar Film.”
Australian actor, Damon Gameau, who also eats an unprocessed diet, made the decision to see what would happen to him if he were to spend two months eating so called healthy processed foods. He learnt that although the U.S. recommended sugar consumption for an adult male is no more than nine teaspoons per day, the average Australian consumes forty teaspoons each day. That sounds virtually impossible to someone who watches what they eat, right? Wrong! On his first morning he ate a bowl of “healthy” cereal topped with flavoured yoghurt and washed it down with juice. That “healthy” breakfast contained twenty teaspoons of sugar.
For two months he ate cereal, flavoured yoghurt, muesli bars and fruit roll ups, and drank lots of juice and flavoured milk. His caloric intake remained the same because his usual diet is rich in fats from nuts and avocados. Despite no increase in his caloric intake, he gained weight, increased his BMI, decreased his liver health and function, felt chronically tired and became dependent on his sugary but “healthy” treats. His fitness level dropped because he found his usual exercise harder. Throughout the experiment he was being monitored by his GP, a dietician and an endocrinologist. When the two months was up, he went through a physical withdrawal from the sugar when he returned to his low sugar, low processed diet.
What happened to his body was no surprise to me. Other parts of the movie were, however. Sugar triggers the same dopamine response in the brain as heroin. While a great many of us probably eat too much sugar, either by choice or from ignorance, it is possible for people to become as addicted to sugar as any other brain altering substance; much like alcohol in the sense that many adults drink but some of them become dependent on or addicted to alcohol and to stop means going through painful withdrawal.
Food manufacturers know this. They know exactly what sugar can do to the body and are downplaying it in the same way tobacco companies once distanced themselves from lung cancer. They experiment to find the “bliss point” of food or drink, the point at which it is as sweet as it can be without tasting bad. There is a science behind it and that science is experimenting to ensure that as many consumers as possible eat or drink their sugary treats. That’s also how they market them; as treats that we deserve. Or as something that creates a friend and fun filled life instead of compromising our health so that we become so ill and overweight that we can’t frolic on the beach in bikinis or boardies with our friends, with a soft drink in our hands. Worst of all is the idea that, by feeding our children these “healthy” foods, they’ll have the energy they need to be an active kid. Those ads tap directly into the fragile confidence of parents trying to do the right thing by their children, just as the ones suggesting we deserve a treat targets hard-working, harried individuals, and the ones showing fun and friendship are usually aimed at teenagers and young adults.
The other tactic used by big food manufacturers is to say “calories are calories.” In other words, if I choose to eat a packet of sweet biscuits for lunch instead of a salad sandwich of the same number of calories, it amounts to the same thing. (I’m not suggesting they’re the same number of calories; I’m just illustrating a point.) Nothing could be farther from the truth, however. The salad sandwich is full of a variety of nutrients, all of which my body will use for energy and repair. The biscuits, however, will give me a burst of short-term energy, followed by a slump that will make me feel the need to eat more sugar. In fact, I’ll use so little of the energy from the biscuits that it will be stored as fat. If, as time passes, I fail to use the energy which is stored as fat and eat more and more biscuits, I will continue to gain weight. With that weight gain will come the associated health risks of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers. Furthermore, as I progress to one of those conditions, I’ll find myself feeling tiring more easily and less able to do the things I used to be able to easily do. So, calories aren’t just calories. If, however, the big food manufacturers can make consumers believe that they are, people will continue to eat those foods.
When we’d finished watching, “That Sugar Film”, Husband and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. The next day I went shopping and filled my trolley, as always, with mostly non-processed, ethically branded food.