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Ten things you need to know about sugar and sweeteners

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down... whistling this song we often convinced ourselves that we needed only a pinch of positivity and lighthearted extra cheerfulness to overcome any sad or unpleasant, tiring or worrying event, starting from doing our homework or tidying up our room when we were children, up to the most consistent problems of adulthood. But if it is true that the sweet taste, to which we have become accustomed since early childhood, immediately brings to mind pleasant sensations, it is also true that sugar also serves to mask and make more palatable any dish, even where the quality of the raw materials is not the best, and this over time has promoted a use and abuse that alarm experts. Here are 10 things that perhaps we should know about.

1. A little bit of history

Sugar has an ancient history, but its consumption has not always been at the current levels of popularity: for a long time, on the contrary, it has been marketed as a rare and precious spice, sold as a medicine at very high prices. Its production began 8000 years ago, first in New Guinea and then in the Philippines, India and the rest of Asia. It arrived in Europe thanks to the Arabs, who in the eleventh century exported it to Spain and Sicily, where the cultivation took root definitively under Frederick II of Swabia. It is with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus that the cultivation of sugar cane moved to where it is still practiced on a large scale: the conquistadors who arrived in Mexico, Cuba, Brazil and the Antilles started huge production, exploiting the labour of slaves imported from Africa.
Instead, it was necessary to wait until 1575 for the agronomist Olivier de Serres to realise that a syrup similar to that of sugar cane could be extracted from beet. The discovery remained in silence for a long time, until, in the Napoleonic era, following the Continental Blockade of 1806 that banned the import of English products, it became necessary to find a viable alternative for the French people, now accustomed to the consumption of sugar to sweeten their palate. When, after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, cane sugar became available again, the price of both products had by then fallen dramatically and consumption spread little by little to the whole population, definitively changing eating habits and behaviour of use.

2. Over-consumption damage

Sugar is an essential nutrient for our body: glucose, one of the molecules of which it is composed, is the main source of energy for living organisms, along with the equally demonised carbohydrates. But, in the long run, its consumption causes a real dependence, with effects comparable to those of psychoactive substances such as cocaine. The more we consume it, therefore, the more we are inclined to take it to satisfy an ever-increasing need, in a vicious circle that is difficult to break.
Excess sugar has serious consequences for the body, including: headaches, increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart problems and cancer, permanent damage to memory, loss of tissue elasticity and premature aging, drowsiness, hormonal imbalances, reduced immune defences, increased attention deficit, increased levels of body stress. The list goes on.

3. Recommended daily quantity

In 2015, the World Health Organization updated its guidelines on the quantities of natural sugars to be consumed, from 10% of total daily calories to a desirable 5%. The choice, stressed the director Francesco Branca, was necessary to try to reduce the risk of being overweight, obesity and development of dental issues caused by excessive consumption of sugars, mainly present in hidden form in foods in common use.

The daily dose recommended by the WHO for adults is 25 grams, which corresponds to about 6 teaspoons of coffee.

4. Hidden Sugars

Not only in the form of lumps or crystals: sugar is a treacherous enemy because we are mostly unaware of consuming it. It starts with carbonated drinks and fruit juices, a single portion of which can contain six to nine teaspoons of sugar and continues with some of the main foods that appear on our tables at breakfast: cereals, vegetable milk and packaged snacks, such as snacks, biscuits, spreads and jams.
And if you can expect various sauces, breadcrumbs and condiments to contain added sugar, perhaps it is more difficult to believe that some savoury dishes (soups, frozen foods and ready-made sauces) are just as rich. Or that the yoghurts and the various products considered "light" actually contain many more sugars than their natural versions.

5. Sugar tax

To remedy a critical situation, for some time now many countries have been taking measures to discourage the consumption of sugar: on the one hand, through the introduction of food education courses offered in schools, to create culture on food and teach how best to direct their choices; on the other hand, by banning the advertising of unhealthy foods, especially if designed for children, and by introducing forms of taxation - the so-called sugar tax - that affect producers of sweetened drinks and discourage consumers from buying.
To date, more than 30 countries have already legislated in this regard, including the following: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Hungary, Great Britain, France, Ireland, Australia, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates. In America, the sugar tax is applied autonomously only in some cities and Italy is also among the countries that intend to open a dialogue with companies to invite them to voluntarily reduce the amount of sugar used in their products.

6. Type of sugar

Sugar, as it is commonly called, is the product of sucrose extraction from plants, particularly sugar cane and beet. The different and multiple varieties of sugar that we may have heard about are simply the result of different refining processes: here then on supermarket shelves, next to icing sugar, we can find raw sugar, white caster or even very fine caster; cane sugar will be obtained from Demerara, Moscovado or Panela cane sugar, while in confectionery you can use liquid sugar, sugar syrup or invert sugar.

7. Tips for reducing consumption

The way out of sugar dependence is not easy, precisely because it is easy to exceed, even unconsciously, the recommended doses, but few and simple good habits can help to reduce consumption. First of all, we should avoid adding sugar to foods and drinks that do not need it: typically milk, which already contains lactose, and drinks such as tea and coffee, which you should learn to enjoy naturally, but also yogurt and fruit.
Secondly, we should try to reduce the consumption of alcoholic beverages as much as possible and avoid candies and chewing gum, which, despite their small size, are concentrated sugars. Finally, but more importantly, we should learn to read labels, to "flush out" hidden ingredients and, in general, start to ban ready-made and packaged foods from the table, in favour of proteins and foods rich in fibre, which do not increase blood sugar levels and allow you to maintain the feeling of satiety for longer.

8. Natural sweeteners

Without wanting to give up our daily dose of sweetness altogether, there are good natural alternatives that can help us. These include: honey, which has a low calories content and numerous antibiotic, antiseptic and calming properties; maple syrup, used mainly in North America as an accompaniment to classic pancakes, or apple, rice or corn syrup; barley malt, molasses, agave and grape juice; amasake, a sweetener obtained from rice fermentation and the well-known stevia. Even if the best solution, as desired by many experts, among which Prof. Franco Berrino, doctor and epidemiologist and author of numerous books on alimentary well-being, remains that of getting used to less sweet tastes or to utilizing the sweetening power of the fruit, in particular cooked or dried.

9. From sugar to rum

With its name from the uncertain etymology - it could come from the English rumble, "gurgling", or be the diminutive of saccharum officinarum -, the rum - rum - for the French, rum for the English, ron for the Spanish - is a brandy that is obtained from sugar cane. Two types can be distinguished: the traditional rum, with an English and Spanish flavour, obtained from the distillation of sugar cane molasses, and the so-called agricultural rum (AOC Martinique), of French origin, which instead uses fresh sugar cane juice. Among the most interesting producer countries are Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, Guyana and Guadeloupe, and there are also exceptional cases, such as the Japanese Nine Leaves.

10. Invention of the sachet of sugar

The invention of the sachet of sugar dates back to 1862 in Philadelphia, at the hands of a certain Mr Partridge. In France, in 1908, two Parisians, Loïc de Combourg and François de la Tourrasse, deposited their invention: the Sucre-Pochette. The following year Ernest Picard created a special casing to contain sugar and protect it from flies and dust microbes. During the First World War, restaurants began to manufacture sachets of sugar in order, this time, to ration the quantities and avoid waste, printing clear messages on them: ne gaspillez pas le sucre and ration pour une tasse.
Germany, on the other hand, was responsible for the intuition, around 1930, of the pyramid-shaped packages, useful for better dosing the desired quantity. Today, sugar sachets are for many admirers a collector's item, with specialised sites, catalogues, clubs, national and international gatherings, and events dedicated to the exhibition, sale or exchange of the rarest pieces.

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