Business must have conscience over sugar levels

Chocolate is the most craved food in the world. There were many nodding heads among delegates at the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) in Cape Town last week when Innike Taljaard of North West University confirmed this during her presentation on consumers’ emotional response to the sensory properties of chocolate.

Chocolate arouses a lot of positive emotions; it increases joy, reduces tiredness and elevates mood, said Taljaard, who has a PhD in consumer science.

“But some negative emotions too, mostly guilt.”

Another academic – Jacques Rousseau, lecturer in critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and co-author of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains – pooh-poohed the popular notion that sugar is addictive.

Caffeine yes, sugar no, he said – the issue is a lack of impulse control.

“There is no physiological evidence for any foodstuff other than caffeine being addictive in humans,” he said.

“Addiction, and its prevalence, is misunderstood – you don’t see people robbing houses to feed their sugar habits.”

Rising obesity – 55% of South Africans are overweight, with a body weight index of more than 25 – and the role which sugar plays in that, was a recurring theme at the congress.

Unsurprisingly, the food industry is not a fan of the government’s plan to impose a health promotion levy, also known as the sugar-sweetened beverages tax, arguing that credible studies have shown that the imposition of such a tax is not as effective as other strategies.

Food scientist Nigel Sunley pointed to the McKinsey Global Institute discussion paper on curbing obesity, which analysed 44 interventions and found that in terms of impact – in the UK at least – reducing portion sizes, reformulating foods and restricting the availability of high-calorie foods would have the most impact.

Of course, reducing portion sizes – putting sugar-rich fizzy drinks into 300ml cans instead of the current 330ml, for example – would be regarded as shrinkflation if the companies didn’t decrease the price along with the can contents.

Sunley had some very harsh words for industry when he took the podium.

He’d sent a survey – via the Consumer Goods Council – to South African food companies, asking what they were doing to combat the obesity crisis, and the response was “dismal”.

A few did deliver – dairy products manufacturer Danone outlined its plans to reduce sugar in its products, Coca-Cola said was reducing its can sizes and Woolworths got rid of all the sweets and chocolates in its checkout queues, suffering a dramatic knock in sales as a result.

“To those of you who didn’t bother to respond, shame on you,” said Sunley, a past president of SAAFoST.

“Combating obesity is not a competitive issue,” he said.

“You are shooting yourselves in the foot if you don’t communicate about what you are doing – regulation will be imposed.”

Food fraud and a rip-off

Many restaurant menus feature “buffalo mozzarella” – soft, white, delicately flavoured cheese originating from southern Italy, and yes, it’s made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo.

One company is producing it locally – in the Cape – but most is imported, and all of it carries a premium price.

So how do we know whether the “buffalo mozzarella” on the menu or swimming in that little tub in the supermarket fridge really was made with the milk of buffaloes rather than that of cows?

Well, some may be able to discern that from the taste and consistency, but the only way to know for sure is to do DNA testing.

And a laboratory in Cape Town – Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services (FACTS) – does just that.

Remember the donkey meat scandal? Same lab.

Jana du Plessis of FACTS revealed at the SAAFoST congress last week that she’d DNA tested 16 samples of so-called buffalo mozzarella bought from both supermarkets and restaurants.

Of those, 11 were indeed made from buffalo milk, but five were not.

And of those five, three were from Cape Town restaurants, and pretty pricey ones at that.

That’s food fraud, and a rip-off.

It remains an academic exercise, as Du Plessis has not yet approached those restaurants with her findings, much less publicly called them out on it.

So we don’t know if the restaurants knowingly passed off cow’s milk mozzarella as buffalo, or whether it’s their suppliers who are pulling a fast one.

I intend to send them some fresh samples from other restaurants, and if the results show cow instead of buffalo, naming and shaming will follow.

Because it’s not just about posh cheese – the issue is one of trust and ethical behaviour.



Twitter: @wendyknowler

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