Sugaronline Editorial - You Know, That Thing We Never Talk About by Meghan Sapp
Published: 06/17/2011, 1:47:00 PM
Let's reflect just for a minute on a world without sugar.
There is this assumption that sugar has an insatiable demand. People naturally have a taste for sweet things and as such, there will always be demand for sugar. Beyond that, industry and science will always need sugar, and now it seems that cars will need sugar too, though in the form of ethanol.
So talking about things that could kill demand seems quite silly since demand for sugar always rises, at least by a few percentage points every year. But even if it’s unlikely that demand will be done away with completely, there are some issues that need to be addressed as they could at least dampen demand, in perhaps a few markets.
Let’s start with ethics. On one hand, the idea of fortifying a basic foodstuff in order to ensure that a population in a poorer country can get the vitamins and nutrients that they need in order to live long enough to dig themselves out of poverty is of course a good thing. Rice has been fortified with vitamins and iron. The Golden Rice revolution allowed science to introduce vitamin A into the nutrient-poor food staple and perhaps change the future of the world. Now iron is being introduced as well.
Maize has also been fortified with vitamin A, though it’s still unclear if consumers will want to eat such a bright orange grain when they’re used to yellow or white. Slightly less life changing now but was just as big a deal decades ago when it was introduced, salt was fortified with iodine to ensure that this hard to get nutrient made its way into diets around the world. Iodine deficiency is the leading treatable cause of mental retardation.
But then to go from iodized salt to vitamin A fortified sugar, one begins to ask the question if that’s really the way to go. Yes, fortifying sugar with vitamin A is more or less a cheap and easy way to get the process done whereas fortifying rice hasn’t exactly reached mainstream production agriculture yet. But is it the right way to get it done? By promoting higher sugar intake and perhaps increasing diabetes and other obesity-induced diseases?
There’s the argument that adding salt to a diet can increase hypertension if too much is consumed, so the ‘no nutrient value’ debate launched against vitamin A fortified sugar might be less poignant considering the successes iodized salt has had without having its own specific nutrition value.
In Kenya, vitamin A deficiency is a significant public health problem with children aged between six to 23 months at highest risk, with about 11% of them severely deficient. In Swaziland and Zambia, reports indicate that vitamin A deficiencies there have gone down considerably after fortified sugar was allowed in the market, indicating it might be a good option for Kenya too.
Considering that it’s young children who are most at risk of deficiency, it’s their diets and what they should be consuming at such an age that is the bigger question. What about vitamin A fortified milk? But then again, perhaps growing fortified maize might be a better idea after all. If anyone would eat orange ugali, that is.
On the other side of the planet, another market is undergoing a pilot that might be the beginning of a market transformation. Aspertame, stevia, and even sucralose have at one time or another posed a potential threat to sugar demand, but it has remained sidelined primarily for diabetics, those under strict diets to not consume sugar or those who prefer ‘health food’ products. But in South Korea, CJ Cheiljedang has introduced xylose sugar to grocery store shelves.
So even though the 1kg bags of sugar actually include 89% refined sugar, the 11% xylose content extracted from coconut shells helps reduce the body’s intake of sugar by between 35% and 50%. Sugar goes in, and if you’re lucky, about half of it goes out too without the chance of increased weight gain.
Last month the company completed production of the world’s largest xylose production plant with an annual capacity of 15,000 metric tonnes. Sure, that’s nothing to spit at compared to the 170 million tonnes or so of sugar produced annually, but it’s just a start to what could be an interesting trend for those who want to keep their food sweet but not have such high sugar intake.
The company is also preparing to launch a tagatose product for diabetics that is 92% as sweet as processed sugar, but cuts blood sugar down to 5% of refined sugar consumption and has just one-third the calories of normal sugar. Together, between the tagatose and the xylose products, CJ Cheiljedang expects $923 million in revenue by 2015. So maybe there is something to this after all.