News on Health & Science

Sweet Temptation

New tests will mean that you can no longer lie about the amount of sugar you eat, says Thomas Stuttaford
London’s current plague of moths that chomp their way through women’s cashmere cardigans and men’s Savile Row suits can be fairly blamed on the banning by the EU of the use of the only effective anti-moth preparations that used to be available. However, Brussels can’t be held responsible for the number of mice there; that’s the people’s fault.

It is estimated that the rodent populace in London increased by 10 per cent last year and the number of calls to pest-control agencies from people in certain areas rose by 23 per cent. This rise is thought to be the result of many different factors, including poor rubbish collection, central heating and the increasing use of stud, rather than brick, internal walls.

The most surprising medical aspect of the mouse epidemic, however, is not the worry that doctors have about diseases spread by mice after they have returned from the wheelie bins and are scuttling about between the internal walls. Instead, doctors are concentrating attention on what mice have been feeding on. Mice in every child’s storybook, as well as in Tom and Jerry cartoons, cannot resist cheese. The writers evidently didn’t know about modern mice or the diet of crumb-scattering children and those who chuck out household rubbish. The British taste is now more sweet than savoury in both mice and men. (And it seems in cats, too: recent research has shown that the number of overweight cats is increasing alarmingly.)

Cheese is no longer a tempting morsel for mice used to convenience foods. To judge from the comments attributed to the British Pest Control Association, a Snickers bar (a popular candy in Britain) is the modern urban mouse’s idea of caviar and champagne. The experts have found that a small piece of a Snickers bar, which is made of a mixture of chocolate, caramel and nuts, is irresistible to 21st-century mice.

The sophisticated middle-aged palette may find a Snickers too sweet, but it is a safe bet that many adults, as well as most children, enjoy nibbling them and other calorie-dense convenience foods. Overweight people may not admit it but — as a research team from the Medical Research Council and Cambridge University, led by Professor Sheila Bingham of the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit, Cambridge, has confirmed and most of us suspected — they eat more, and their food contains a higher proportion of sugar than does the diet of their thinner counterparts.

The research team also demonstrated that the overweight, when compared with those who are skinnier, overrate the amount of vitamin C they take and underrate the amount of sugar. Professor Bingham didn’t undertake this research only to demonstrate that those who are overweight underrate the sugar content of their diet. The objective was to discover the true composition of people’s diet. Without this information, derived scientifically rather than from patient’s memory, any attempt to relate sugar intake to disease, including malignant ones, would be meaningless.

The Cambridge team has used new testing techniques to analyse self-reporting data derived from hundreds of volunteers taking part in a European study that was investigating the relationship of diet to the incidence of different cancers. Doctors tend to regard all patients’ own claims about the amount they drink every day with some suspicion. It is an assumption that is fully justified with heavy drinkers but is apt to irritate the modest social drinker. As with alcohol, so with sugar. The new tests reveal that thinner people give a reasonably accurate account of the amount of sugar in their diet, whereas those who are plumper than doctors recommend are as parsimonious with the truth about their sugar intake as they are generous with the chocolates, fizzy drinks, ice-creams and puddings they award themselves. As a person’s weight and body mass index (BMI) — and presumably their waistband — increases, so shrinks their memory for the sugary items they have surreptitiously eaten. In this survey, the 20 per cent of people who had consumed the least amount of sugar ate around 76 grams of sugar daily, whereas the 20 per cent who ate the most had on average 207 grams of sugar daily, nearly three times as much.

Fortunately the blood and urine tests developed by the Cambridge research workers give a true indication of how much sugar people have been eating recently. This test will enable scientists to verify any association between the proportion of sugar in the diet and a wide variety of diseases, including cancers. By simple spot testing of a patient’s urine and blood, doctors will in the future be able to work out just how much sugar — both sucrose and fructose (the sugar in fruit) — their patients have been eating.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.