EU Perspectives

As from 2017 the EU market share of isoglucose is expected to increase from 500 000 tonnes (or 5% of the sugar market) to anywhere between 2-3 million tonnes a year (or aprox. 20% of the sugar market).

As from 2nd January this year manufacturers of crystalline fructose have been able to claim that crystalline fructose is healthier than sucrose.

Public Health experts are warning that this is a disaster waiting to happen.

EU Perspectives investigates why this should be so and what the impact of recent EU measures could have on the European waist-line.

Kathleen Garnett reports.

Two measures passed in recent months by the European Union could, it is claimed, exacerbate the current rise in the metabolic disorders– obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cardio vascular diseases and some cancers. The first measure refers to the reform of the EU sugar market. The second refers to a measure allowing manufacturers of crystalline fructose to claim their product is “healthier” than sucrose. How legitimate are these claims and how concerned should the EU consumer be about the impact of isoglucose and high crystalline fructose on their health?

1. Reform of the EU’s sugar regime

Since the creation of the common agricultural market in 1957 the regulation of the EU’s sugar market has been one of the strictest and most controlled of all the agricultural sectors which unabashedly favours European sugar-beet growers and cane sugar from the African, Caribbean, Pacific (ACP) countries.

Until now the production of isoglucose from the starch industry has been limited to around 5% of total sugar production or the equivalent of 700 000 tonnes a year, which explains why Europeans have been eating less corn syrup and more sucrose in their processed food.

Two industrial sectors have been lobbying hard to alter the current status quo. Firstly, the European starch industry who, for obvious reasons, would like to see their market share grow. Secondly, the food industry who would like to add the cheaper isoglucose to their factory-prepared food and beverage products.

Last summer, thanks to some intensive lobbying by the European Starch Industry Association, the European Parliament approved at second reading the new Regulation on the organisation of the sugar market, granting starch manufacturers a greater share of the sugar market. According to the ESIA,

From 2017, the European starch industry will be free to produce isoglucose, in the required quantities and in all Member States where customer demand exists. This decision has finally put an end to the out-dated, unfair and anti-competitive treatment of isoglucose, the cereal based sugar derived from EU maize or wheat starch.

The EU, it appears, is happy to oblige our sweet tooth by liberalising the market in sugar to allow the starch industry to manufacture greater quantities of corn syrup which they can then sell on, at great profit, to the food industry, who in turn profit from a cheaper product and our sweet tooth.

2. Promoting crystalline fructose as a healthy alternative to sucrose

The second measure approved by the EU relates to the publication of Regulation No 536/2013 which permits manufacturers who substitute at least 30% of glucose or sucrose with fructose to claim that “Consumption of food containing fructose leads to a lower blood glucose rise compared to foods containing sucrose or glucose.”

It is not inconceivable that many consumers may conclude that fructose (because it is in fruit) is indeed a healthier choice than sucrose. Either that – or like the very young and the very addicted – they don’t care so long as it is cheap and they get their fix.

Reaction of public health experts.

Obesity experts are stunned. Although the Regulation on crystalline fructose was published in June it slipped pretty much under the radar until The Guardian published an article on it towards the end of 2013, bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

The measure was approved without any public consultation in the European Parliament, Commission or Council. It slipped in and became law under an arcane committee procedure, referred to (somewhat spookily) as “The Article 13” procedure.

So what’s the big deal? How can isoglucose of crystalline fructose make us fat?

Isoglucose and the potential impact on European public health.

An increasing number of people are relying on factory prepared convenience foods and beverages to form an integral part of their diet. In recent decades the food industry has been adding ever higher concentrations of sugar to their products – and not just to traditionally sweet dishes but to savoury ones as well. For the food industry sugar serves two purposes. Firstly, it extends shelf-life by binding with water to prevent spoilage. Secondly, sugar imporves palatability. As someone once noted, “You can add sugar to sh..t and it would taste good.”

“Sugar” is a pretty generic term to describe an ingredient that adds “sweetness” to a dish. Simple sugars are carbohydrates made up of various monosacharides – lactose, maltose, glucose – but the sweetest monosaccaride known to makind is fructose. With the rise of the food industry in the past 150 years the sweetness level in sugar has been increasingly cranked up by increasing the concentration of fructose in any given sweetner.

Scientists working in the lab (never cooks in the kitchen) have been able to isolate fructose successfully in order to i) meet consumer demand for ever sweeter products and ii) satisfy the food industry’s desire for cheaper alternatives to succrose.

The table below demonstrates how this has developed:

  • A non-GMO, ripe apple contains about 5% fructose. The rest of the apple is made up of fibre, water, vitamins and minerals. This concentration has been determined by nature with no human involvement in the balance.
  • White table sugar (succrose) contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose. No fibre. No water. No vitamins and no minerals. Succrose derives from either sugar-cane (grown in the tropics) or sugar-beets (grown in northern Europe). Since the middle-ages, at least, man has been refining cane sugar in the tropics to access the higher concentration of sweet fructose. Beet-sugar has been refined, by man, in Europe as from the early 19th century to the same end.
  • Isoglucose or HFCF’s contains anywhere from 55% to 90% fructose with the remaining percentages being glucose. No fibre. No water. No vitamins. No minerals and a considerably reduced level of glucose. Isoglucose derives from corn and wheat starch and comes in liquid form. Refined by man as from the late 1960’s.
  • Crystalline Fructose contains 99.9% fructose. No fibre. No water. No vitamins. No minerals. No glucose. Crystalline Fructose can be manufactured from cane, beets, corn and starch and was developed in the past twenty years only. Refined by man as from the 1990’s.

Compare 5% of fructose in an apple to 50%, 55%, 90% and 99.8% respectively in refined and artificially manufactured sweet products. Interstingly, as the concentration of fructose in the diet has increased so too has the rise of the metabolic disorders with obesity and weight gain being the most obvious outward signs.

Correlation, of course, is not the same as causation. That is why the food and starch industry have no interest, what so ever, in repealing one particular law – the law of thermodynamics. According to the law of thermodynamics a calories is a claorie which implies that individual responsibility, gluttony and slothfulness are what causes weight-gain, obesity and metabolic disorder – not fructose in sweetners.

It is true there are many paths to weight gain and obesity – over consumption of plentiful food, larger portion sizes, eating too many artificial fats and a sedentary life-style. Yet, according to obesity experts, the consumption of fructose in such high concentrations is not a path. It is the equivalent of a five-lane super high-way depositing the consumer of fructose straight off at “Obesity Central”.

Dr Robert Lustig an obesity expert who works with obese children in the United States lays the blame for the rapid and startling rise in obesity fairly and squarely on fructose (see “The possible link between sugar and obesity” below). Dr Robert Lustig is putting forward a compelling and convincing case that it is the fructose element in succrose, isoglucose and crystalline fructose that is causing the five metabolic disorders: hypertension, type-2 diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, obesity and some cancers.

There is no doubt that with the passing of these laws fructose will be consumed in every great quantities in the EU than was previously the case. Ready-made factory prepared food are ubiquitous. For those who think they may escape the “curse” of isoglucose and crystalline fructose think again – it will be used to sweeten everyday breakfast cereals, breads, fruit yoghurts, children’s school biscuits, mayonnaises, sauces, chocolates and drinks. The only alternative to avoiding the consumption of isoglucose is to eat home-made produce only – and how many of us have the time to do that?

Whilst the experts bicker there is little doubt in the minds of many that opening up the market to isoglucse and crystalline sugar is hardly going to reverse or even halt the steep rise in obesity. With Europeans eating anywhere from 5 – 45% more fructose than they currently are and if fructose does indeed cause weight gain (which increasingly looks likely) then the upward trend is going to become the norm not the exception.

With many of us hooked on sweet ready-made convenience food and beverages the market for these artificial sweeteners is going to just grow and grow. Is it any wonder then that the starch industry is licking its lips like the cat that got the cream. Or should one say the cat that got its paws on the sticky fructose syrup?

If the obesity experts are correct – and it looks increasingly like they are – then Europe will indeed see a spike in its obesity levels and other associated disorders that accompany obesity, as more and more people, particularly children, switch to consuming isoglucose and crystalline fructose in ever greater quantities.


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