It’s a sweet craving that can kill you, through obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“I’ve avoided quitting for ages. Mostly because I’ve known it means never touching it again. One French study found it’s more addictive than cocaine. And must be treated as such.
“But lately it’s made me crankier, puffier, foggier, sicker and more attached than normal . . . I reach for it to calm myself, to reward myself, to fill awkward pauses between activities.”
Australian media personality Sarah Wilson isn’t talking about cigarettes, heroin or even coffee but a simple substance most of us consume every day, feed to our children and consider a staple of supermarket shopping: sugar.
Wilson managed to quit the habit and is not the only one axing the substance from her diet – many New Zealanders are following suit, leading to a rise in sales of both natural and artificial alternatives.
Having less sugar is one of the trendiest ways to market food and beverages, according to Colmar Brunton. All the fast-food chains are doing it, with sugar content slashed in burger buns from McDonald’s to KFC.
Plant-based zero calorie sweetener stevia, which won Food Standards Authority of New Zealand approval only as recently as October 2008, has been flying off the shelves at supermarkets nationwide.
Sales of powdered sweetener at Countdown stores have risen 18 per cent in the past year.
“In some of our bigger stores, we now have entire aisle bays dedicated to sweeteners – whereas historically it’s been limited to the top shelves of the sugar category section,” Countdown category manager Tim Bastin said.
With between 30 and 300 times the sweetness of sugar, depending on which source you believe, a pinch of stevia extract gives the same sweetness as an entire cup of sugar but has no effect on blood sugar levels.
Within months of being stocked at Countdown, sales of South Korean stevia product Sweete were matching longstanding artificial sweetener Equal.
A traditional herbal sweetener in Paraguay and Brazil for “hundreds of years”, according to Equal, stevia plants are now grown throughout the world, particularly in Asia.
Rabobank analyst Stephen Rannekleiv reckons that by 2014, sales of the plant extract will exceed US$700 million a year.
Oprah regular turned health talk show host Dr Oz, whose show is screened daily in New Zealand, warns people to limit stevia consumption to three servings a day but prefers it to artificial sweeteners.
Because of stevia’s relative newness to the market, Sweet Poison author David Gillespie – who lost 40 kilograms when he gave up sugar – is on the fence about recommending it.
Colmar Brunton sensory evaluation director Christine O’Sullivan says there is a groundswell of interest in stevia, driven by food and beverage manufacturers.
Flavoured bottled water H2Go Zero and Just Juice 50% Less Sugar, both sweetened with stevia, have hit the shelves in the past six months.
“There has been a lot of bad press about artificial sweeteners, people often describe it as having quite a fake taste,” Ms O’Sullivan says.
“Stevia hasn’t got the negative connotations with artificial sweeteners. It is really taking off.
“The natural aspect is the key hot button for consumers . . . that it comes from a plant.”
Sugar also comes from a plant but contains 16 calories a teaspoon. The substance that few fail to find delicious was labelled “toxic” by Californian paediatrics professor Robert Lustig in a 2009 lecture that has had 2.9 million views on YouTube.
Porirua operations manager Julie Morris, who lost more than 38kg when she reduced the chocolate and soft drinks in her diet after joining WeightWatchers, says she found sugar addictive.
“It was almost controlling.
“It was something that I found comfort in but then felt guilty about later . . . I was a closet chocolate-eater, in the car sneakily. At home my husband would find empty wrappers. I would get a king-size block and eat it in one sitting.” Mrs Morris says cutting back on sugar, including a soft drink habit, was hard.
She still considers herself addicted – “It’s not like you’re miraculously cured” – but doesn’t think about it as much or get the same sugar cravings any more.
KING of sweet stuff Bernard Duignan is the general manager of New Zealand Sugar Company, which owns the country’s only sugar refinery, Chelsea, and distributes Equal and Equal Stevia.
New Zealand Sugar Company tries to combat the poor public image of its tooth-decay-causing product by funding the Sugar Research Advisory Service, which pushes messages about the “appropriate use and enjoyment of” sugar.
Although sugar sales have been declining in New Zealand, Chelsea’s exports to the Pacific Islands and Asia have been soaring.
It received its largest shipment so far of raw sugar – 32,250 tonnes – in July.
Mr Duignan, who has been with the company since 1989, spent several minutes defending the substance as “versatile”, “natural”, “legitimate” and a “great source of energy”, and one that it was up to consumers to control their intake of.
In response to the suggestion that he must sometimes feel like he is running a tobacco company, he says: “Sugar is a safe product, there is no issue around toxicity or anything like that, and I think that sort of sensationalism doesn’t help anybody.”
Wilson, a qualified health coach who has penned two e-books about quitting sugar, disagrees.
So do the more than 30,000 people who have taken part in her eight-week sugar-quitting courses, where she provides daily tips.
Demand has been so high that she is running another course, starting on October 29.
“We’re not designed to metabolise it. It was a very rare commodity 7000 to 10,000 years ago . . . We evolved to gorge on sugar since it was so rare,” she said.
“The effect of this is a direct correlation with metabolic syndrome, which leads to a host of ‘modern diseases’.
“Obesity, diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease and various auto-immune diseases are all now linked to sugar consumption.
“Quitting sugar does take a biological adjustment. I researched the science on all this and worked out it takes six to eight weeks.”
Declining sugar sales attest that we’re starting to wean ourselves off it – in 2009 Kiwis were eating 3 grams to 7g less added sucrose (table sugar) a day than in 1997, according to an Otago University study.
But as rising stevia sales show, we’re still a nation of sweet tooths.
SWEET HITS 2012:
The year New Zealand shunned sugar
Powdered sweetener sales rise 18 per cent at Countdown
KFC cuts sugar in dinner rolls from 10g per 100g to 3g and more than halves sugar in burger buns to 3g per 100g
Just Juice launches 50 per cent less sugar range
H2Go Zero flavoured bottled water with stevia launched
Nestle cuts sugar in Uncle Tobys Plus sports cereal to 9g per serving
Originally published in the Dominion Post