Some more reasons why I’m a bit cynical about the food industry’s efforts to help stem the tide of obesity

I’m a bit cynical about the food industry’s attempts to help us lower our weight and trim our waistlines through tactics such as giving us smaller portion sizes or taking some fat out of a highly processed foods to replace it with sugar or something else of dubious value. I recently wrote about this here after being asked by BBC Radio 4 to contribute to the debate.

Many years ago I wrote an article about nutritional myths for a men’s magazine. I spent an afternoon in a supermarket ‘researching’. I found lots of what I believe to be misleading marketing techniques used to sell ‘slimming’ foods.

One was a bread that boasted XX calories per slice. Its energy density (calories per gram) was the same as any other bread, though. The reason that there weren’t many calories in each slice was because, err, each slice was impossibly small.

Another example that lives long in my memory concerns packet soup which could be found, from the same manufacturer, in ‘slimmer’ and regular varieties. The ‘slimming’ version contained about 40 fewer calories, but when I looked at the ingredients and percentages of fat, carbohydrate and protein, the packets were virtually identical. The manufacturer had managed to reduce the calorific value of the ‘slimming’ version by 40 per cent by putting 40 per cent less ingredient in the packet. But here’s the thing: it was the exact same price as the regular version.

I recalled these things while sitting on a train this morning. In front of me was a little ceramic dish which contained, among other things, packers of Demerara (brown) sugar and a ‘low calorie’ alternative. Here’s a photo of the two packets.

The top one contains just sugar. Sugar is carbohydrate, which contains about 4 calories (kilocalories, actually) per gram. So, as you can see, the energy in the product per 100 g is quoted, quite rightly, as 400 calories (100 X 4).

Now look at the ‘low calorie’ option. It contains sucralose (the artificial sweetener in Splenda) and maltodextrin (a carbohydrate that is somewhere between a starch and a sugar). Now take a look at the calories it contains per 100 g: 375. I don’t have weighing scales with me here, but although the sweetener is in a bigger packet, the contents feel the same weight as the sugar.

Now, I’m not at all calorie-focused, but I know plenty of people who are. When someone keen to keep their diet ‘calorie controlled’ opts for the ‘low calorie’ sweetener over sugar on a train or in a café, what do you imagine is going through their mind or is their unconscious assumption?

I don’t know for certain, but I’d hazard a guess that most will assume the low calorie sweetener contains hardly any calories at all. Or certainly a lot less than the sugar. What they’re probably not thinking is that the ‘low calorie’ sweetener is essentially comprised of sugar and that, weight for weight contains just 6 per cent fewer calories than sugar. Call me cynical…

13 Responses to Some more reasons why I’m a bit cynical about the food industry’s efforts to help stem the tide of obesity

  1. Nigel Kinbrum 27 June 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    The maltodextrin in granular sweeteners has one eighth the density of sucrose, so 1 teaspoonful of sucralose-based granular sweetener weighs 0.5g and provides 2kcal instead of 4g & 16kcals for sucrose. You don’t use it weight for weight. You use it volume for volume.

  2. nonegiven 27 June 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Remember that you can’t replace 100g sugar with 100g powdered sucralose, it would be way too sweet to the point of inedibly bitter. I have a bag of generic powdered sucralose that you measure by volume to replace sugar. The bag, when full, weighs 9.7oz (275g) and replaces 5 pounds of sugar (~2250g.) One cup contains 24g carb, so about 96 calories compared to sugar at 192g carb and 768 calories. I know the filler weighs a different amount in the envelopes than in the bags, at least here in the states, but whatever the packets weigh here it takes 24 of them to replace a cup of sugar so that would be 2 teaspoons equivalent per packet, or 1g carb, 4 calories. I think they make the packets heavier and smaller volume so it will pour out of the packets easier. One cup of sugar is 200g, a little over 7 ounces, so one cup of bagged Splenda must weigh about 24g, less than one ounce.
    If you do want to avoid the filler, try to find a liquid substitute like Sweetzfree, Da Vinci, Torani, etc

  3. PhilT 27 June 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    The low calorie version will either be lighter or sweeter, they are usually formulated to have a very low density hence a teaspoon will match a teaspoon of sugar. If you look at the “granulated” sucralose product in a supermarket is is quite a big volume but only a modest weight – for example says 2 calories per teaspoon which requires 0.1g per ml powder bulk density.

  4. Frances K 27 June 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Don’t forget the addition of that delicious ingredient…. Silicon Dioxide. Yummy.

  5. Janknitz 27 June 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Sometimes I see packages of the “Lite” version of something that have exactly the same ingredients and calories as the regular version. The difference is that there are supposedly more SERVINGS per package, as if the consumer ever bothers to look at the serving size in the first place. Most people think 1 package = 1 serving, regardless of serving size.

  6. Paleo Suz 28 June 2012 at 10:05 am #

    One of the biggest frustrations is that people seem to go from a more natural product – to one containing hundreds of ingredients they don’t even recognise – just to “save” a few meaningless calories. Surely the ingredients are of the most importance!

  7. Ted Hutchinson 28 June 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    There is an interesting discussion at Wholehealthsource discussing Dr. Anthony Sclafani’s work on mice whose sweet taste receptor had been knocked out and who didn’t gain weight despite drinking sweetened water, only when a little fat was added so the brain was able to sense the “palatability” of the water did weight gain occur. It’s worth reading the comments as well, it’s always good to challenge your preconceived ideas.

    Seth Roberts shangri la diet claims to work on the same idea avoiding the signals to the brain.

    Seems to me the idea that sweet calories are only fattening if you can actually taste them contradicts those who think it’s all about calories in = calories out.

    But it serves as a warning that adding sugar/caloric sweeteners or anything else that triggers the brains palatability reward system to every possible food item and even those where you wouldn’t believe it was possible, (high fructose corn syrup in sliced cooked beef?) may be going to produce an increase in fat storage.

  8. jake3_14 29 June 2012 at 1:07 am #

    Dr. Briffa,

    You have reason to be more than a little cynical. The food processors’ profit motive is antagonistic to optimal health. I hope that by your work in improving patients’ lives, and enabling them to make wiser food choices on their own, that you won’t succumb to a deeper cynicism about the possibilities of the obesity crisis.

  9. John Walker 29 June 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Back in the days when Doctors knew a bit more about the ‘truth’, and weren’t dictated to by the Government, I was eating a well-know ‘slimmers’ bread’. This bread was advertised as having fewer calories per slice. My Doctor’s advice? “Why pay extra for that stuff? Just eat half the usual quantity of normal bread, if you want the same effect.” He also added, ‘But if you really want to lose weight, give up bread and other starches altogether.’ (Nowadays, I wish I’d taken that last bit of advice more seriously!)

  10. hilda glickman 29 June 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    It is possible to lose a sweet tooth by cutting out sweet things.

  11. Lori 29 June 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    Splenda has fewer calories than sugar by volume, but most people would just take a packet of sweetener and dump it in their coffee.

  12. Jackie Bushell 1 July 2012 at 5:23 pm #


    I certainly lost my sweet tooth when I went very low carb. I didn’t try anything sweet for 6 – 9 months so I don’t know whether it took all that time to re-sensitise my taste buds or not. Even lettuce tasted sweet to me at that point.


  13. Dr. Bill Wilson 2 July 2012 at 1:52 am #

    I have a better idea. If you eliminate sugar and HFCS from your diet then you cravings for sweet food will start to go away. You no longer will need to add sugar or artificial sweeteners to your food or beverage. Simple fruits will tend to satisfy your sweet tooth. Carbohydrate cravings are the result of some degree of brain dysfunction and brain dysfunction comes from eating foods with sugar, HFCS and high glycemic carbohydrates.

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