Freaking sugar

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of Brexit news and political shenanigans at the moment that reaches you with every notification ping of the latest breaking news story. Therefore, I almost missed the fact that it had been Sugar Awareness Week. This year, Action on Sugar focused their campaign on banning all milkshakes over 300 kcals. Their main target is a sugar monstrosity known as the Freakshake. A Freakshake is unlike anything ever seen or even dreamt up before and is more than some ordinary milkshake having its moment in social media. It is an indulgent, calorie dense, sugar loaded mash-up of 3 different puddings in one. It is also an absolute feat in pudding engineering and pushes the boundaries of sickliness to extreme limits.Freakshake 1

The construction of a Freakshake starts with the glass du jour, essentially an outsized jam jar with a handle that looks more like something you would serve a cold beer in. I could not tell you why the glass is important, only that it seems to matter. This massive vessel is filled with a base of extra rich milkshake. Then the equivalent of an ice cream sundae is crammed into the glass, sauce and all. This is followed by a third pudding which is precariously balanced on top as the Freakshake’s showpiece. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a doughnut, a waffle, pieces of cake, an ice lolly, some biscuits or even a sweet Yorkshire pudding. Finally, the Freakshake is finished off with a bit of decoration such as some sugary sprinkles, sweets, sticky sauces, whipped cream or popping candy. The challenge is to add as much as you can until you reach the Freakshake tipping point. Some Freakshakes are given a final touch with the addition of a jaunty straw even though this useless utensil risks a very sticky avalanche not to mention the wrath of environmentalists.

According to an investigation by Action on Sugar, a single Unicorn Freakshake served at Toby’s Carvery clocks in at 39 teaspoons of sugar (156g). To put that into context, the daily limit of added sugar recommended by the government for 7-10 yr olds is around 6tsps (24g) whereas the limit for everyone over the age of 11 yrs is 7½ tsps (30g). The British Heart Foundation has estimated that an average 25yr old would need to vacuum the house for five hours to burn off the calories consumed in the dessert although, I can’t imagine they are its target audience. As tempting as it would be to get 5 hours worth of vacuuming for the price of a Freakshake, it does sound like an excessive amount of sugar in one dessert.

It is worth reiterating that the government guidelines are there because the continued overconsumption of added or ‘free’ sugars is driving the high prevalence of obesity and tooth decay worldwide. Added sugar includes the ‘bad’ sugar that we expect to find in processed foods such as biscuits, sweets, highly sugared soft drinks and those hidden in savoury condiments, such as ketchup. And they also include the sugars found in natural, unprocessed sweeteners such as manuka honey, agave nectar, maple syrup and the sugars found in dried fruit and unsweetened fruit juice. This is important because our bodies aren’t picky about where the added sugar comes from and treats it the same, whether it comes from a brightly coloured hard candy or some organic freshly squeezed OJ.

Added sugars are also known as “non-milk extrinsic sugars” and so this does not include the sugars found naturally in ‘intact’ fruit and vegetables and in milk and milk products, which are not implicated in obesity and tooth decay. In a sense, comparing these sugars to added sugar is like comparing apples to chocolate oranges. Since sweetened milkshakes and Freakshakes by definition, contain milk and milk products, they will also contain some of milk’s naturally occurring sugar (lactose) but this is not harmful.

But back to Action on Sugar’s call out to ban Freakshakes. At first, it may seem slightly drastic and hardly enforceable when they have such a presence on social media. Many would think that individuals must take some responsibility for the choices they make. You could argue that anyone who reads the description of a Freakshake on a menu and still orders it will be fully aware of the monster they or their child will be facing. However, the menu doesn’t refer to its actual size or suggest that it is 1,280 calories. The fact that it is on the menu as a dessert (rather than as a challenge) means that Toby’s believes that it is an appropriate dish to order. But why should anyone have to face such a beast? Who really needs to eat the Goliath of all puddings? One of the problems with Freakshakes and with food, in general, eaten out of home is that there is rarely ever any basic nutritional information available to consumers to inform their choice.

The second part of Action on Sugar’s campaign relates to this and has called for mandatory traffic light coloured nutrition labelling across all menus. At the moment, even when you suspect that a menu choice such as the Freakshake is pretty high in sugar, there is still no way of really knowing quite how bad it is. You cannot even compare it to any alternative. In the case of Toby’s Carvery, there are 16 more desserts on the menu to muse over and consider before settling on the Unicorn Freakshake. It is not as if restaurants do not have the information. Most larger chain restaurants now publish their menu’s nutritional information online, but can you find it easily? Is it realistic or fair to expect customers to research their menu choices before they go out?

The sheer lack of on-hand nutritional information including portion sizes does not help anyone make healthy choices but using traffic light labelling could be a simple step in the right direction. If we look again at supermarkets, the labelling is still not entirely consistent but most manufacturers have begun using some sort of the traffic light system to signify levels of energy, fat, sugar and salt in portion sizes. Although the system is far from perfect, it does allow consumers to make a judgement at a quick glance. Not everyone has the time or willingness to decipher ingredients labels and not all consumers know what they should be looking for. However, it is also true to say that not all consumers will act on the information.

It would be an easy solution for Public Health England, if just by giving the public information, they would make healthy choices. But by that logic, we should have solved this whole obesity epidemic many moons ago. However, even if consumer choice is influenced by more than just having the nutritional information available, it can still prompt change. For example, having nutritional information on a menu may encourage restaurants to make changes, if only to avoid having too many foods and drinks with bright ‘red lights’. This has already happened in supermarkets, where competition has forced manufacturers to give their products a healthy makeover through reformulation and by reducing portion sizes. Is there any reason to believe that it couldn’t work in the out of home sector?

Hopefully, Action on Sugar’s campaign will gain some more traction because all consumers should have a right to nutritional information. Unfortunately, with the current preoccupation and chaos of Brexit, it may be some time before the government responds. At least we can hope that like most trends, the Freakshake will eventually die on social media. Let’s just pray it disappears from most menus before it causes too much damage to people’s waistlines.

In the meantime, I have faced the challenge of giving the Freakshake a healthy makeover…This Healthy freakshake doesn’t come with any red lights so it may not fuel 5 hours of free vacuuming. But it definitely gets an extra green light for yumminess.Freakshake bite 1

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