The enticingly named milkshakes available from many High Street food outlets are bad for us — full of sugar and calories we’d be better off avoiding. We all know that.
But when I read yesterday that some of them can contain up to 39 teaspoons of sugar, I really was astonished.
That’s the equivalent of nearly 15 Kit Kats in one glass, a level the campaign group Action On Sugar describes as ‘grotesque’, given that it is more than six times the recommended daily intake of sugar for a ten-year-old.
Left, Toby Carvery Unicorn Freakshake, weighing in at 156g of sugar, and right, a Five Guys banana and chocolate milkshake, with 149g
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But it is not just milkshakes that contain shocking levels of sugar. As I’ve found, everything from sandwiches to pizzas and ‘health drinks’ contain more sugar than you’d ever imagine.
Action On Sugar’s call to arms over hidden sugar levels could not be more timely given that today is World Diabetes Day, dedicated to raising awareness and fighting the disease which costs millions of lives around the globe.
It is no mystery that excess sugar consumption leads to obesity which, in turn, can cause type 2 diabetes.
Of the 3.7 million diabetics in the UK, 90 per cent have type 2, which is linked to myriad health conditions from blindness, kidney failure, heart attack and stroke to dementia and poor circulation.
Every week doctors perform more than 120 amputations on diabetic patients. Research shows that up to 80 per cent of patients die within five years of such surgery, while the NHS says that 24,000 people die prematurely every year because of the disease.
Meanwhile, the cost to the NHS of treating diabetes is currently a staggering £10 billion a year, projected to rise to £32 billion by 2035.
It’s horrifying — but the real scandal is that type 2 diabetes is an entirely preventable disease. In many cases, people have reversed the diagnosis.
That’s what I have done. A few years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Last summer I realised that if I didn’t get my weight down and the diabetes under control, the chances of me being around to watch my two children grow to be adults and have children of their own were, frankly, very poor.
In little more than a year, I’ve lost over 100 lb — more than seven stone — by changing my diet and taking up exercise. I no longer need to take medication and I feel fantastic. I now want to help other Britons to do the same.
I began with small steps —taking the stairs instead of the lift — then took up cycling and running. Another key decision was to cut down on sugars and starchy carbs. From a top weight of 22 stone, I’m now down to 15 stone.
In the past few days I’ve achieved another milestone. I’ve finally hit the ‘unsubscribe’ button on the emails from my local pizza delivery service. All those seductive 2-for-1 offers landing in my inbox are no more. Friends and colleagues who know me will understand that this has not been easy.
Tom Watson lost seven stone after cutting out sugar. Here pictured (left) in September 2016 and (right) last month
It had never occurred to me that pizza was laden with sugar. But it is. A typical small pizza contains 7g of sugar in the crust and 6g in the tomato sauce — almost half of the NHS’s guidelines for the maximum daily added sugar intake for an adult.
Now I know about the abundance of sugar in everyday foods, I understand better what happens to our bodies when we consume it.
After overloading my body with sugar and starchy carbs, I would get a massive spike in insulin — the hormone which promotes the uptake of sugar (glucose) from our blood.
An hour later I’d feel as if I’d been hit by a tranquilising gun. The only solution was to take in more sugar. I was essentially a sugar addict — urges I thought were hunger were actually cravings.
I make this point to highlight the dangers of hidden sugars in our food. If you consume lots of it from a young age, you become addicted.
Even if you forgo the obvious culprits — milkshakes, sweets, cakes and biscuits — you’re still being exposed to huge amounts in products where you don’t expect it, such as in sausages, cereals and soups.
Excess sugar consumption leads to obesity which can cause type 2 diabetes
There are more than 50 names used on food labelling to describe sugar. They include fructose, dextrose, barley malt, maltodextrin . . . Effectively, the sugar is hidden in plain sight behind complicated names.
To be a health-conscious shopper, you need biology and maths GCSEs at the very least to decipher the nutritional information.
Let me give you some examples of products for which I think the packaging and labelling is misleading.
M&S Percy Pig juice drinks are branded ‘one of your five’ a day and made ‘partially from [juice] concentrate’. The sugar content is not immediately obvious, but the mandatory labelling elsewhere on the 200ml carton states there is 10.5g sugar per 100ml.
By including just one carton in your child’s lunchbox, you are giving them 21g of sugar. That’s 3g shy of the daily recommended intake of sugar for a seven- to ten-year-old.
Farley’s Rusks, made by Heinz, have been a staple in infant diets for generations, often used as teething aids. Yet sugar is the main ingredient after flour.
Even the reduced-sugar ones contain 3.4g of sugar per rusk, so an older child who eats perhaps three or four a day could easily hit half their recommended sugar intake.
Alpro is a name we associate with health, its plant-based products offering an alternative to dairy. ‘Enjoy plant power’ and ‘low in sugar’ are among the messages on its Growing Up drink which claims to be ‘nutritionally tailored as a main drink for children one year onwards’.
Yet it contains maltodextrin, raw cane sugar and fructose, and a 250ml carton contains 6.3g of sugar. One with each meal would exceed the daily sugar allowance of 19g for four- to seven-year-olds.
When I found out recently that the youngest type 2 diabetic in the UK was just eight years old, I was horrified. But I understand how and why it’s happened.
Foods for the rest of us are just as bad. A Tesco Ham Hock and Cheese sandwich has 15.1g of sugar in it, or four teaspoons — half your recommended daily allowance. Pair it with some crisps or a fizzy drink, and you’re over the limit in one meal.
The harsh fact is that food packaging laws allow packaging to be unacceptably unclear about how much sugar a product contains.
Claims such as ‘one of your five a day’ and ‘high in fibre’ persuade parents that the product is healthy and distract from the heaps of sugar it contains. It doesn’t seem right that we allow the sale of ‘child-friendly’ products with bright colours and jolly illustrations, yet the contents are close to the recommended daily sugar limit for youngsters. It’s not fair to parents or to children.
One in every 15 adults now has the condition, which can lead to kidney failure and stroke, and also raises the risk of cancer. Of these, 90 per cent have type 2, which is usually associated with being overweight, a poor diet and lack of exercise
If we are serious about dealing with our obesity and diabetes epidemics, we’ve got to get a grip on this issue. At the moment it’s the Wild West. Local trading standards are supposed to have oversight on packaging, but what can they do against a food giant?
TV food advertisements are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, while nutrition and allergen labelling is overseen by the Food Standards Agency.
Too many products fall through the gap and instead of truthful packaging, we are getting packets of lies.
Today, when we are reminded of the terrible consequences of diabetes on our personal and national health, we must resolve to do something about it.
- Tom Watson is deputy leader of the Labour Party.