Sweet enough already?

PUBLISHED: 06:06 26 May 2014

Sugar beet harvesting

Sugar beet harvesting

© Archant Norfolk 2013

Who would have thought that the stalks of a giant grass and a root like an overgrown parsnip could be used to produce an identical product?

Cane sugar and beet sugar have vastly different origins but remove the packaging and you’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other. As far as the current debate on the place of sugar in our diets goes, that doesn’t matter, because nutritionally it’s exactly the same. But, while one is imported from warm southern climates, the other is grown right on our doorstep.

The history of cane sugar dates back at least 5,000 years to the Polynesian Islands. Invasions, conquests and trading links ensured its spread through the centuries. Sugar beet, so much a part of today’s Norfolk landscape, has a much more recent and clearly defined history. Beet had been grown for food and fodder since ancient times but, in 1747, German chemist Andreas Marggrat discovered that sugar could be extracted from beet in a form suitable for cooking, and a new industry was born. By 1880, fuelled first by the blocking of imported cane sugar at French ports during the Napoleonic Wars, and then by the abolition of slavery, which increased its cost, beet had become the main source of sugar in Europe.

Britain’s first sugar beet crop was grown in Norfolk in 1912 and processed at the newly opened sugar factory at Cantley. Production was introduced as an extension to the factories in the Netherlands, and really took off with the outbreak of the First World War, when German U-boats sunk many trading ships. The British government intervened and persuaded farmers to grow more.

Today, sugar beet is a common part of the arable rotation in Norfolk. Sown in spring and ready to harvest in early autumn, the crop is too bulky to be stored at the factory or processed in one go, so it is lifted and delivered throughout autumn and winter. In Norfolk 40,000 hectares a year is grown – enough to produce 560 million 1kg bags of sugar, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

“Sugar beet is extremely important for Norfolk’s farms and Norfolk’s economy,” says NFU East Anglia’s regional communications adviser, Brian Finnerty. “It is grown on hundreds of farms and supports thousands of jobs throughout the chain, from field to fork.”

So does the announcement by chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, that sugar could be addictive and that the government may need to introduce a tax on it to combat obesity, cause concern? Or the new draft guidelines from the World Health Organisation that, while maintaining its current recommended level of 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, reducing this to six teaspoons, or five per cent of daily intake, would have “additional benefits”?

“Others are better placed to talk about the nutritional aspects of sugar,” says Brian Finnerty, “but it’s a fact that over the past decade consumption of sugars in the UK has declined by six per cent while the proportion of the population in England which is obese has increased by five per cent. This suggests that lifestyle diseases such as obesity are caused by a number of complex factors and there is no simple solution.”

Director of British Sugar, Richard Pike, cites government figures showing an even greater reduction in total sugar consumption in the UK over the past decade, of almost 12pc. And he cautions against sugar being singled out. “The overwhelming body of scientific evidence is that it is the over-consumption of total calories across all food groups and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles that is driving obesity rates,” he says in response to the WHO guidelines.

Commenting on a possible sugar tax, he says: “There is no conclusive evidence that a sugar tax would have the desired effect on consumer behaviour and lead people to make the right decisions about their health and diet . . . We believe instead that the public would benefit from a better overall understanding of what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet by providing them with accurate information based on facts and science.”

Sugar used to be heavily taxed, and it wasn’t until prime minister William Gladstone removed the tax in 1874 that sugar could be afforded by many more British people. Today it’s the ease of availability that’s taxing policy makers and might make taxing our pockets a reality once again.

Making life sweeter

Norwich woman Eleanor Young, tells us that giving up sugar for a year, has transformed her life.

Sugar is a hot topic at the moment, but my sugar story started nearly a year ago. After stumbling across a blog about quitting sugar, it suddenly dawned on me that I was addicted to sugar. As a healthy eater, the thought that I could be hooked on sugar was hard to believe, but the more I read on, the more I ticked all the boxes:

Do you have to have something sweet in the afternoon? Yes.

Do you scour the house after dinner for something sweet? Yes.

Do you struggle to maintain concentration for a long period of time? Yes.

I decided to change. Eating half a packet of chocolate digestives a day, tearing my hair out at night when there was nothing sweet to hand, and losing my way mid-sentence was not sustainable, graceful or practical. I gradually reduced my sugar intake until I was completely sugar-free.

At a time when we are buying more “low-fat” products than ever before and the diet industry is booming, yet we are getting fatter as a nation, it seems that sugar might play a part. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal shows increased sugar intake is significantly associated with weight gain and an increased risk of obesity in children having just one sweetened drink per day.

When I decided to quit, I’ll admit that it was tough. Like any addiction, cravings strike, and it takes everything you’ve got not to give in. Occasionally I’d buckle, unable to resist the carrot cake at 4pm, but I always made a note of how I felt afterwards - and for 99.9pc of the time the answer was: Awful.

I took small steps and, six months later, I was completely sugar-free and not even an all-butter shortbread could grab my attention. It has truly changed my life: I sleep well, my stomach no longer bloats, my energy levels stay constant throughout the day and I no longer spend endless hours thinking about food. It has also been an educational journey as I have learned about the effects of sugar on our bodies, been made aware of just how many items contain sugar and about the multiple ways that sugar is incorporated into our food. Roll on the sugar revolution!

Eleanor Young is launching a website for people interested in cutting out sugar www.thesugarfreekitchen.com

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