Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Sweet, Simple Things of Life

By Peter Bowditch

From artificial sweeteners to fruit, sugars give wellness warriors a sugar high.

When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, “It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all,” she wasn’t referring to things used to make food taste better, but it is undeniable that humans have a preference for sweetness. There is even some indication that a preference for sweetness is common throughout the animal kingdom.

In 1998 a book titled Sweet Poison was published. The author, Janet Starr Hull, described herself as a “certified nutritionist” (which is not a dietician, the actual scientific discipline related to diet and food consumption). The book addressed the terrible dangers of aspartame, one of the five most deadly chemicals in the mythology of people who oppose real medicine. (The other four are mercury, Prozac, Ritalin and fluoride.)

The fact that millions of people consumed aspartame on a daily basis without any apparent ill effects was just an inconvenient fact that could be ignored. The hysteria about the chemical is matched by the nonsense we hear whenever a new mobile phone tower is to be erected. As my local council is proposing yet again to fluoridate the water supply, the letters pages in the local paper would be on fire if they weren’t being quenched by mouth foam.

In 2008 another book titled Sweet Poison, written by lawyer David Gillespie, warned us of the terrible dangers of fructose, the carbohydrate that makes fruit taste sweet and that is chemically bound to glucose in the sucrose crystals we find in sugar bowls everywhere. While hysteria about aspartame has subsided slightly over the years, the nonsense about sugar seem to have increased in volume.

I should mention that I have Type 2 diabetes and have to read labels and carefully measure the amount of sugar that I consume, but luckily I have spent many years building up filters against nonsense so I don’t have to take seriously every bit of dietary advice that comes along. For example, I’ve been told that all forms of carbohydrate should be removed from my diet because they are dangerous. As I’m not a sheep, a cow or a horse I don’t really think that consuming the carbohydrate cellulose would have much effect on my blood glucose level. I know why the nutrition labels on food packaging list “sugars” as a subheading of “carbohydrates”.

I also know that “sugars” doesn’t mean “cane sugar”. Nestlé has announced the removal of the 4.5 star health rating from cans of Milo milk flavouring because people have been claiming that it is almost totally sugar. I have been told that “Milo is chocolate-flavoured sugar,” and yes, sugars make up a large proportion of the product. However, the first three components in order of their contribution to the weight are two forms of malted grain and milk solids, all of which contain sugars that are not sucrose.

Just before Easter this year a campaign was launched about the dangers of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs. Deceptive pictures were shown with one of the eggs next to about a cupful of cane sugar. Yes, each egg contains 18 grams of sugar, but I’m not sure how anybody should be surprised that a confectionery is sweet. Nobody eats these things as a significant part of their diet.

One figure that is seen regularly is the average annual weight of sugar consumed by everyone in Australia. It is always a frightening amount, but what the scaremongers don’t say is that not all cane sugar is used in cooking or in sweetened drinks. The 10% ethanol in the fuel I put into my car has to come from somewhere, and there are several other uses for sugar in manufacturing and industry. Yes, we should all eat less sugar if we want to be healthy, but distorting the facts shouldn’t be necessary to get the message across.

When the attacks on aspartame were at their height, the recommended alternative non-sugar sweetener was stevia, which is also extracted from a plant and has all the good qualities of sweetness, heat stability and non-fermentation. The legend was that Stevia had been banned by the FDA, who were of course in the pockets of businesses like Monsanto. When somebody took the time to ask it turned out that nobody had ever submitted Stevia to the FDA for approval as a food component. When it was submitted it was almost immediately approved. This caused some amusement to those of us who had been subjected to the legend.

In 2008 I made a joking prediction that another book called Sweet Poison would come out in 2018. Perhaps I should go into the predicting the future business, although author Bill Robbins got in a year early with his 2017 book Sweet Poison.

I wonder what 2028 will bring.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (