January 23, 2009

Sugar By Any Other Name… Avoiding The “S” Word

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Former Sugar-Cereal Junkie

This week I had my students develop ideas for new energy drinks. Some of the health-conscious students had trouble determining how to sweeten their drinks without sugar or chemically contrived substitutes. (We Los Angelenos continuously seek ways to minimize our sugar consumption — it so clashes with our daily smog intake.)

We discussed the various natural substitutes, but they’re still basically sugar, with varying levels of glucose and fructose. Specific glucose and fructose levels matter to people who are hyper- or hypo-glycemic, but for most of us they result in the same thing: chubbiness. (I have the middle-aged-male innertube to prove it.)

So I hit my local grocery stores to see what the major packaged food manufacturers are doing.

And some of the ingredient labels I found were funnier than the sketches on Saturday Night Live. (Then again, some of the Congressional testimonies on C-SPAN are funnier than the sketches on Saturday Night Live.)

The most popular S-word substitute was “honey.” Remember the breakfast cereal Sugar Smacks? In the ’80s, it magically became Honey Smacks. Healthier, right?

Dig 'em?

Dig ’em?

Except pure honey is 70% sugar and 17% water, and the stuff on breakfast cereal is mostly dehydrated. That’s right, it’s sugar. So Honey Smacks was still more than 50% sugar. Today, it’s simply called “Smacks” — but the sugar is still there for all who want it. Mmm.

I also found products “flavored with real maple syrup” — which is essentially flavored sugar.

On the trendy side of the aisle, I found agave, the natural sweetener du jour that’s mostly fructose (just like the vilified High Fructose Corn Syrup, but without the evil syrup stuff). And there were products sweetened with various fruit juices (also mostly sugar).

My favorite S-word substitute came from my favorite store, Trader Joe’s. For the uninitiated, Trader Joe’s sells low-priced gourmet and healthy foods in a friendly, unpretentious, and arguably liberal-yuppie atmosphere. And yet, they’re not immune to sneaky marketing speak. What does Trader Joe’s call sugar on some of its labels? Get this:

“Evaporated Cane Juice Solids”

Yep, that’s the textbook definition of sugar. You’ll also find “evaporated cane juice solids” listed as an ingredient on many bodybuilding nutritional supplements.

Just fun with words, right?

Not if you’re a diabetic who doesn’t immediately connect the dots.

Trader Joe’s and others can argue that they’re still abiding by truth-in-labeling laws, and yet I don’t see them calling salt “evaporated sea water solids,” milk “bovine mammary-gland secretions,” or honey “insect regurgitation.”

So while I admire cleverness, I’d prefer less of it on ingredient labels and more on Saturday Night Live. Now that would be sweet.

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Dig that? You might also dig this: Facts and Go Figure: The Sneaky Art of Justifying Anything

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

3 Responses

  1. You know…being a health nut that has been avoiding the “S” word for 5 years now (i still give in to it…but avoidance is the attitude).

    So you touched on the agave nectar. didn’t realize it was simply fructose. but i will say health books do speak positively about agave nectar.

    the one i am curious of is brown rice syrup. supposedly that’s the “healthiest” sugar you can use. I wonder what that is.

    on an artificial tip…most artificial sweetners are frowned upon in health books…but there is one that exists that is natural. Stevia is a natural non-sugar sweetner. Does not have the same “chubbying” effects as sugar. You can buy stevia at a lot of health food stores. it still doesn’t taste quite the same as sugar, but it’s a good natural substitute.

    What’s interesting is that the FDA approves Stevia to be sold for human consumption in its pure form, but it does not approve stevia to be used as an additive (i.e. diet coke with stevia in it). is this decision influenced by questions of health??

    from what i’ve read, the FDA not approving it as an additive is more influenced by lobbyists in the sugar industry than any health questions raised by testing.

    sorry long rant but as you can tell i’ve read a lot on this whole “S” word.

  2. i must apologize for that fragment sentence to start my comment off. i got button happy and clicked submit before proof-reading!!

  3. Fun fact: The artificial sweetener used in basically everything artificially sweetened, Aspartame (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspartame), breaks down into 3 main things when digested. The most interesting is the anti-depressant Phenylalanine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenylalanine).

    I guess drinking diet coke really does make you feel better about yourself.

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