Sweet Enough

By now, you’ve probably heard of a new movie in theaters called “Fed Up”. It’s a documentary-style expose of the “SAD” – the Standard American Diet – and covers a wide range of issues behind why America currently leads the world in both adult and child obesity rates.

Fed Up

Included in the long list of culprits behind our ballooning waistlines is SUGAR. A master of disguise, sugar often appears in our food and drink labelled as one of 40+ pseudonyms—including sucrose, maltose, dextrose,  fructose,  glucose, galactose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, and glucose solids—which makes its detection confusing to say the least.

As a communications professional in the healthcare space I consider myself reasonably well informed about the health benefits of a balanced diet. At home, we prepare most of our meals from scratch, the kids eat a home-made lunch every day at school, and we rarely eat junk food (note: rarely. I’m not a saint). So, when a colleague gently challenged her friends on social media to a week without added sugar, I gladly accepted, dragging my poor husband and children with me.

Typical sugar content of the kids' breakfast cereal plus one glass of orange juice.

Typical sugar content of the kids’ breakfast cereal plus one glass of orange juice.

The no-added-sugar week began badly in the grocery store.

It turns out that an unfathomably large proportion of the groceries we buy contain sugar. Yes, there are the usual culprits of cereal and cerealbars, but also foods that I hadn’t really considered as “sugary”, such as many basic bread items, pasta saucesmayonnaiseyogurts (even the healthy ones), and dried fruit. Our usual 1-hr food shop turned into a 2-hr gastronomic nightmare, traversing the aisles repeatedly and reading every line of the ingredients list to ensure there was no added sugar/dextrose/maltose/glucose…you get the picture.

It turned out that my “healthy” kids’ pack lunch of tuna mayo sandwiches with sides of veggies and a yogurt with dried fruit on top was nothing more than a total sugar fest and so had to go. The kids protested, but we eventually found a cardboard-like bread with no added sugar, which we filled with all sorts of sugar-free yumminess, none of which the kids ate. The dried fruit alternative was especially tricky so my husband was very pleased with his find of dried prunes as the “perfect no-added-sugar snack”, although with three kids snacking on dried prunes all day, you can imagine the ensuing consequences.

Breakfast was the toughest meal of the day . Our kids eat modestly sugary cereal, and sugar-free cereals are like eating the soles of your shoes. I know this from having experimented with two such foodstuffs last week. Never again, I tell you. Never. Again. Alternatives included eggs with sugar-free toast (but no bacon – most bacon contains sugar), smoothies with sugar-free yogurt and fresh fruit, and my vain efforts to convince the kids to eat a European-style breakfast of (uncured) ham and cheese.

When Saturday rolled round and we announced the somewhat successful completion of our no-added-sugar week, the kids were delighted to return to their old ways, munching on dried mango with glee as they headed off to their respective soccer games. But at the grocery store on Sunday I watched them scrutinizing the labels on the cereal boxes, choosing ingredients to make homemade mayonnaise, and arguing about which dried fruits might both contain no added sugar and not have unintended gastrointestinal consequences – so our week was not entirely in vain.

Public health education can take many forms, but the old adage of “tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I’ll remember; involve me, I’ll understand” has been particularly apt in helping our family understand some of America’s current sugar problem. Our no-added-sugar week didn’t result in an overnight change in what we eat, but it has resulted in incremental changes that are measurable and scalable and, as with all public health initiatives, that’s exactly where we need to start.