You won’t often find Big Sugar’s publicity department asleep at the wheel. So when it happens it’s worth wondering why. Over the past few months, some of the makers of toddler formula (the stuff for one-year-olds-plus) have been quietly tinkering with their high sugar concoctions. A few have always been sugar free, but now most of the rest have removed the sucrose and replaced it with either glucose or lactose.
Sucrose is common or garden variety sugar. It’s half glucose and half fructose. Lactose is the sugar found in milk. It is half galactose (which is metabolised to glucose) and half glucose. When Big Sugar replaces sugar with glucose or lactose they are really just eliminating the fructose.
Fructose is what makes sugar (and the food containing it) taste sweet. Some of these drinks used to contain more fructose than an equivalent serve of soft drink. So getting rid of it will have a material impact on the taste of the product. Fructose is also highly addictive, so deleting it isn’t going to help sales much either.
Call me a cynical old lawyer (go on, you know you want to), but when Big Sugar starts dressing up as Santa Claus I start looking for gotchas. Why would an industry built on getting kids hooked on sweet drinks from the age of 12 months (it’s illegal to include sugar in formulations for babies) suddenly voluntarily decide to remove the substance that makes them sweet and addictive?
Even more interestingly why wouldn’t they tell us they were doing us such an enormous favour? They’re not normally ones to hide their lights under bushels. And I can’t imagine that this could be viewed as anything other than a positive move by everyone (except perhaps the kids who have to drink the stuff). Whenever a company does something for the common good at the expense of its own bottom line, it’s normally (literally) on the six o’clock news. But not this time.
Maybe Big Sugar has been reading the recent studies that unequivocally link fructose consumption to obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease? And out of sheer concern for their customers they’ve decided to pull it out. Yeah, right. Those studies have been there for a while and Big Sugar haven’t shown any signs of altering any of their other products. In fact Nestle is doing exactly the opposite with its high fructose Fruit Fix concoction. So that can’t be it.
A more likely source for this wave of brotherly love may be Big Pharma. The baby formula and toddler milk market is pretty much the only place you’ll find Big Sugar and Big Pharma competing for shelf space in the local supermarket.
Drug companies actually commissioned some of the research, which proves the damage being done by fructose. They were looking for treatments for diabetes and obesity, but in order to treat it they had to understand it thoroughly. Hence, they paid for studies around human hormone interaction which put the blame squarely at the door of fructose (and therefore sugar). Legal deniability is a bit tricky when you were actually signing the cheques and (presumably) reading the outcomes.
The other legal difficulty that may face a manufacturer is that these products are often definitely a child’s first exposure to fructose. If you (I’m assuming you aren’t a toddler) or I front up with a lawsuit claiming fructose made us fat and sick, we’ll have problems proving that any particular tentacle of Big Sugar sold us the sugar that did the damage. We will have been eating sugar from all manner of vendors for years. This is nowhere near as difficult where the individual is in nappies and has only ever consumed fructose in one or two products.
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So the combination of actual knowledge of the research and a high probability of causation may have pushed some companies to quietly alter the formula before anyone wises up. And they probably don’t want to jump up and down about that just in case it gives any smart alec lawyers any ideas.
If they can do this for baby formula how about cutting the rest of us a break as well? How about “reformulating’”softdrinks by replacing sucrose with glucose? How about having a go at chocolate bars as well? Or breakfast cereals while they’re at it?
I don’t want to look a gift conglomerate in the mouth. They should be applauded for taking the sugar out of toddler formula. But it’s depressing to think the rest of us are expendable just because we’d have a harder time getting a case to stick. It’s time the rest of us demanded parity with toddlers and got a sugar free food supply as well.
David Gillespie is lawyer and author of Sweet Poison, why sugar makes us fat