We were delighted to welcome Tracy McVeigh, Chief Reporter from The Observer to our Sensory Facilities to talk about the amount of sugar in our foods. Tracy was given a tour of our lab, and agreed to have her own taste-buds tested to see if she had what it took to be a super-taster.
Health experts are stepping up the attack on the amount of sugar in our diets, and our experts at Marketing Sciences Unlimited are testing just how much change ordinary consumers will accept.
Tracy writes : (see the full article here)
Inside a modern office block in Westerham, Kent, a team of ordinary people with extraordinary powers has been assembled. They turn up every day to put on lab coats and sniff, chew and slurp their way through whatever is pushed at them through little serving hatches.
They are doing some of the most crucial experiments we’ve never heard of, tests that will affect all our lives. This is the frontline of the sugar wars.
The independent laboratories of Marketing Sciences Unlimited are where food manufacturers are bringing their products to test on ordinary consumers to see if they are likely to accept changes in formulation or recipe that will mean we can finally stop eating so much sugar.
Experts are calling sugar the new tobacco – and last week a major report from a committee of scientists advised the government to halve the current recommended daily intake. Sugar consumption is causing not just obesity, but is linked to type two diabetes, cancer, heart disease, chronic fatigue and tooth decay. Nutritionists say no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake should come from sugar – about seven teaspoons.
To reduce the amount of sugar we eat would mean accepting a change in the over-sweetened, over-fatty foods that we’re being served by supermarkets and manufacturers every day. This is the crucial sticking point for the industry. However, Anna Herron of Marketing Sciences said she was seeing more manufacturers looking at voluntarily reducing the amount of sugar in their products, based on evidence that consumers were interested. “But a lot of food and drink is about habit. Changing habits is quite difficult,” she said. “But it’s also the fact that you can change one ingredient, or the amount of that ingredient, and it affects so much else about the product.”
Their own in-house experiments have shown consistently that products which replace sugar with other sweeteners are coming up constantly as having an “artificial” and “chemical” taste. “Mouth drying” and “bitter” are other frequently used words, which will strike terror into food manufacturers’ hearts – and hit profits. If they are going to reduce their sugar content, they won’t want us to notice. “It’s quite a challenge,” said Dr Debbie Parker, head of the sensory department at Marketing Sciences. Her super-tasters are drawn from what is estimated to be the 15% of the population who have good enough senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight to make the grade.
“Sugar has several functions; it’s not just providing sweetness – [it affects] texture, [the way it feels in the] mouth and it helps to hold a product together. So take away sugar and everything is going to change. The whole point is that we can give manufacturers information that they can act on,” she said. “We’re not asking our tasters ‘which one do you prefer?’, we’re asking them to discriminate and describe, using their senses to look at a product in depth.”
According to the British Medical Association, the issue of diet-related ill health in the UK is thought to lead to 70,000 premature deaths each year, roughly 12% of the total number of deaths. Equally, poor diet was found to have a high financial impact on the NHS, costing around £6bn a year.
That means that leaving such a crucial health issue to food manufacturers is wrong, say campaigners. Sugar is the deadliest threat facing Britain today, and yet it is all but ignored by politicians and sold in every town across the country, said Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute, Queen Mary College, University of London, and chairman of the health pressure group Action on Sugar, which wants urgent government action.
“The socially deprived and children are being targeted heavily by very clever people and it’s a disgrace. Fast-food outlets are in socially deprived areas and every one is selling fat, sugar and death.
“But it’s not just the socially deprived,” MacGregor added. “There are all these TV chefs – their food is not much better.
“People haven’t twigged that the biggest cause of death is what we’re eating. It’s no surprise that we’re so obese; the biggest surprise is why aren’t we all obese. We’re all being slowly poisoned. We’re all eating too much sugar – people grossly underestimate how much they consume. We know that because in surveys, if you ask people how much fizzy drink they consume, you get a figure two-and-a-half times less than how much is being sold.”
According to MacGregor, there are easy lessons to be learned from reductions in salt content in recent years. “We’ve been very successful in reducing salt. It’s gone down by 30-40% and nobody’s noticed. That was because there was the political will in the Labour government. We can easily do the same thing for sugar and fat. And without it, frankly, we’re looking at a bankrupt NHS. Diabetesalready costs the NHS £10bn a year and is set to go to £30bn by 2020. It will eat half the NHS budget.
“The food industry walks all over us. It is seen as untouchable. The government knows it can enforce [change] if it wants to. We did it with tobacco; you can easily take out up to 50% of the sugar without anybody noticing, if you do it slowly.”
Herron suggests that consumers expect the action to come from the industry, not their own habits. “Humans enjoy fat and sugar and things that are bad for us. All our research shows that consumers don’t want to change but do feel that it’s the manufacturers’ responsibility to reduce the sugar in their food and drink. It’s clearly what a lot of companies are thinking,” she said. “We’re seeing far more looking to test sugar reduction and how reformulation is going to affect their products.”
So the lab experiments in Westerham will continue, and the nation’s health experts and professionals will be praying for a breakthrough.