Sat, Nov-28-20, 02:59
Could a new type of sugar solve our obesity problem?
The obesity crisis: Michelin-starred Michel Roux and Bake Off’s Ruby Bhogal put a revolutionary new sugar, Incredo, to the test
Avraham Baniel is a 102-year-old Israeli former bomb-maker who has invented an extra-sweet sugar which helps cut back on calories because you need less of it. Coming soon to British supermarkets – but does it fool Michel Roux and Ruby Bhogal? Harry Wallop investigates
Scientists appear to have cracked the great public health challenge of their generation: an effective vaccine for Covid-19. But what if a cure were developed for something just as deadly as the virus: sugar?
While our consumption of sugar has not caused the major economies of the world to crash or hospitals to run out of beds, it will ultimately lead to more deaths than smoking or Covid-19. Over the past year, 1.3 million people have died of Covid-19 and 2.8 million as a result of obesity or being overweight, says the World Health Organisation.
“If you look at the data, the biggest cause of death both worldwide and in the UK is unhealthy food – food that is too high in fat, salt and sugar – and not eating enough fibre,” explains Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and a leading expert on the dangers of sugar. “For years, tobacco was the biggest cause of death. Now, unhealthy food is the biggest cause and I don’t think the public have quite caught up with that. Sugar is a major part of this equation. People have become not quite addicted but habituated to a very high level of sugar in their diet.”
Adults are recommended to derive no more than 5 per cent of their daily calorie intake from added sugar. But on average in Britain we are getting more than 11 per cent of our energy from added sugars, which goes a long way to explaining why both women and men regularly consume more daily calories than recommended. A study by the Office for National Statistics found that women’s daily intake was close to 2,500 a day, compared with a recommendation of 2,000. Men’s was close to 3,000 despite being advised to eat no more than 2,500.
Sugar is everywhere. Not just in sweets but in biscuits, cereals, cakes, jams, bread, soups, pasta sauces, ready meals and ketchups. “Sugar is an unnecessary source of calories, often hidden in food,” MacGregor adds. “It is also the sole cause of tooth decay.”
The most recent data shows the UK is one of the fattest countries in Europe and that, on average, we are consuming more than double the recommended amount of sugar, with children aged 11 to 18 having nearly 3 times more. The NHS recommends that adults eat no more than 30g added sugar a day – the equivalent of 7 tsp sugar, or less than a full can of regular Coca-Cola. (Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g and children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g.)
These are 2019 figures, before Covid disproportionately hit those who were overweight, not least Boris Johnson, who has admitted one reason he ended up in intensive care was because, “I was too fat.”
The government knows it is a problem, but has struggled to tackle it. While salt has been dramatically cut from the nation’s diet over the last generation – there is 40 per cent less salt in bread than back in the Eighties – sugar has hardly budged. A mere 3 per cent has been eliminated since 2015.
Now the race is on to find a way to reduce our reliance on sugar.
Sugar taxes have already been introduced for fizzy drinks, and earlier this month the government unveiled plans to ban all junk food advertising online.
Manufacturers desperately need to cut sugar from their products in a bid to avoid any possible extension of the sugar tax and to ensure they do not fall into the “junk food” category that will see their products slapped with a big red warning sticker. Some of the world’s biggest food companies, from Nestlé to Tate & Lyle, are working on various solutions.
But one unlikely figure may have beaten them to it, a man who could become to the obesity crisis what Pfizer and Moderna have become to Covid. His name is Avraham Baniel, one-time bomb-maker, freedom fighter, and the founding father of Israel’s industrial chemical industry, who at the improbable age of 96 came up with a new type of sugar.
The story of how he developed this is told to me by his son, Eran. Seven years ago, he received a call from his father’s housekeeper. She was in a mild state of panic that his father had managed to set his Jerusalem house on fire. “ ‘Eran, it’s Luda. I don’t want to frighten you, but your father has been trying to do some cooking, cooking these candies in a pan, and there’s all this smoke. The whole house smells like we’re on fire,’ ” recalls Eran. “ ‘I don’t know if he’s confused or what to think of this. You’d better come over.’ So I jumped into the car and went up to Jerusalem.
“I said to Dad, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And he said, ‘I had this idea of taking sugar and loading it onto a carrier to see if I could enhance the sweetness.’ He was a bit sheepish,” Eran says, speaking from his office in Tel Aviv via video link, warming to the tale of his father restlessly experimenting well into his nineties and determined to find a way to reduce the world’s waistline, at the risk of killing himself and his housekeeper.
His idea was a good one. Instead of using artificial sweeteners, most of which taste horrible, use sugar itself. Just redesign the sugar so that it stretches further and we need to use less of it. His son was convinced by the concept, but not by the smoking pans. “I said, ‘We stop this here. I take you to a lab and you try to do what you were trying to do in the kitchen, only in safety.’ ”
The lab took on the project. Within months, “They told me, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got something here. Big time.’ ”
That was seven years ago. Last month DouxMatok, the company that started in the burnt saucepan of Avraham Baniel’s kitchen, struck a deal with Rogers Sugar, one of North America’s biggest sugar refiners, to begin manufacturing this new product made from cane sugar. It follows on from a collaboration with Südzucker, the £2.4 billon German sugar company, in 2018. Next year, consumers in Britain will be able to walk down the aisle of a supermarket and buy products that contain this revolutionary new ingredient, which Baniel’s company has called Incredo.
It is a name that sums up the miracle properties of a product that allows you to bake a cake using up to 50 per cent less sugar, but the resulting sponge tastes just as sweet. Even more incredible is the fact that the elder Baniel is still alive at the age of 102, with an 81-year-old girlfriend (his wife and Eran’s mother, Malka, died 30 years ago), and remains on the board of the company.
“I still go to Jerusalem to sign him up on assignments of patents,” says his son, who has taken over running the company from his centenarian father. “This was a generation that never stopped. And that’s how Israel came to be, because these guys, they just never stopped.”
It remains to be seen whether Baniel Jr, 74, who spent most of his career as a theatre director, can transform DouxMatok (the name is a pun – in Hebrew, matok means “sweet” and doux is the French for “sweet”, which sounds like the Hebrew du, meaning “double”) from a start-up to a serious player in the food industry. He has bags of charm and charisma, impossible to ignore despite speaking via video link, and the looks of a man ten years younger. But whether Incredo really ends up being used in cereals, chocolate bars and cakes around the world without consumers noticing the difference has yet to be proved.
One thing is certain, however. The company’s launch in this country next year could not be better timed. “The UK, through the experience of your prime minister, has understood and vocally expressed the risks of being overweight,” says Eran.
In theory, substantially reducing a key ingredient in the nation’s diet is possible. It has been done with salt. Between 2004 and 2011, the amount of salt in UK breakfast cereals was cut by 57 per cent without any consumer really noticing. Bakers also stripped salt from millions of loaves.
But sugar is a far greater challenge. Only one product has managed substantially to cut back on sugar: fizzy drinks, with sugar levels falling by 44 per cent since 2015 thanks to the introduction of the sugar tax – which has raised very little money for the Treasury, but forced the likes of Coca-Cola and Pepsi to change the recipes of most of their drinks.
“The sugar tax has had an amazing success with fizzy drinks,” says Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, who has advised the government on obesity. “Overwhelmingly, that reduction has been down to reformulation. It has acted as a stimulus on business, and encouraged reformulation. People have looked at that success and said, OK, we should extend to other products.”
She points out, however, that salt was simple. It is an additive. And changing the recipe for fizzy drinks by replacing the sugar with an artificial sweetener was “an absolute doddle… because the product is mostly water”. Biscuits, cakes and confectionery are a different matter, because the sugar doesn’t just add sweetness; it adds bulk and colour. You can’t just take it out and hope no one notices. “What do you put in its place?” says Jebb.
DouxMatok claims it has the answer: fibre or protein. “We’re trying to use this bulk that we have to replace and put good things there,” says Gal Shimoni, food technician at DouxMatok, who explains that in many of the products, such as chocolate, you can replace the sugar with chicory root or rice fibre, or protein such as whey protein or chickpea protein.
Jebb is impressed by the concept. “If you can swap the sugar with fibre you’ve got a fantastic win, because we worry about sugar but, goodness me, we don’t eat enough fibre in the UK,” she says.
What makes Incredo so different from previous attempts to create a new sweetener is its taste. Nearly all sweeteners currently used in diabetic chocolates or sugar-free biscuits have an odd, metallic taste. Many adults, keen to cut out sugar from their tea or coffee, learn to like artificial sweeteners such as sucralose or aspartame. But children are not so easily fooled – that was the conclusion of Eran’s father, who well into his eighties was working for Tate & Lyle, the sugar giant. He was analysing why children didn’t like Splenda, Tate & Lyle’s branded version of sucralose. “People are not going to give up the flavours they love – especially children. So if you want them to consume less sugar, you need to find a sugary way to do it,” explains Eran.
Avraham’s breakthrough idea, which he was playing about with in his kitchen, was to use a common food additive called silica, often listed on packaging as E551. His thinking was to take silica, an anti-caking agent often found in spices and powdered soups, and bond sugar crystals to it. Shimoni explains, “With a normal sugar crystal, it’s like people standing in a line next to each other, holding hands very strongly. You need more saliva to dissolve it.” Bond the sugar with silica and the hand grip is loosened and less saliva is needed. “We make more of the sucrose dissolve faster and it gets to your taste receptor quicker.” As a result, you taste far more of the sugar, and you need between 30 and 50 per cent less of it to experience the same sweetness.
Crucially, the DouxMatok product is still 99 per cent sucrose and can be listed on an ingredients list as “sugar”, rather than an artificial sweetener.
Making sugar go further was something Avraham had been thinking about since an episode in 1946. Back then he was living in Tel Aviv in what was the British Mandate of Palestine. His family, originally from Lodz in Poland, were part of a wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine during the Twenties, about 160,000 in total who escaped Europe for a better life before the rise of Nazism and the horrors of what were to come.
He arrived as a schoolboy in 1924. “It was like, you know, sand then,” says his son. And after being part of the first intake at Jerusalem University, he ended up being “hired by a factory that made paints for the maintenance of the British Navy coming to Haifa during the latter part of the Second World War”.
“They used to make paints upstairs in the factory. Underground, they made other stuff that served later for the independence of Israel,” Eran says, giving me a conspiratorial look. What, explosives? “Er, yes,” he says. “So, my father was also among the first to have started the defence industry in Israel.”
It was at this time, during 1946, while stringent food rationing was in force, that a neighbour – a primary school teacher – approached Avraham. Her pupils were failing to concentrate because they were so hungry. “It turned out that these kids were craving sweet things, craving sugar.”
The teacher said all she needed was some starch and she could replicate a wartime trick: make a tapioca-style pudding and sprinkle a small amount of sugar on top. The starch coats the tongue, making the sugar go a long way. “He got her some starch, and they tried it and he said to himself, ‘Wow, that works.’ Then he said, ‘One day I’ll get back to this.’ Then he forgot all about it.”
He went on to set up the national industrial chemistry research labs of the Israeli government. “Even today, more than half the citric acid in the entire world is manufactured using methods he developed,” Eran says. His father eventually ended his career at Tate & Lyle.
Eran trained as an actor, studying at Lamda in the Sixties. He gave it up in favour of directing, producing and start-ups, eventually teaming up with his father to launch a company that derived biofuels from animal feed. After that came DouxMatok.
So far, Incredo sugar can only be found in one brand of Israeli cookies. Eran is hopeful, now that deals have been struck with leading sweetener companies, that it will end up in a host of baked goods in the UK next year, not just in supermarkets but in high street sandwich chains too. Negotiations with leading brands are well under way, although he says he can’t name names. Maybe Greggs’ next huge hit, after its vegan sausage roll, could be the low-sugar doughnut?
100% v 40% sugar – can the experts tell the difference?
Is it possible to use 40 per cent less sugar in a biscuit or cake and for consumers not to notice the difference?
To find out, we asked Michel Roux, owner of Le Gavroche, holder of two Michelin stars, and Ruby Bhogal, Great British Bake Off finalist in 2018, to taste ten products made using Incredo sugar and ten equivalent products made using normal sugar. The tasting was blind.
Roux is dubious that it is possible to remove that much sugar without it affecting the quality of any biscuit or cake. “It is not just flavour. It is a rising agent – it helps activate the yeast, and with palmiers, croissants and doughnuts it gives them that lovely golden colour.”
His scepticism was shared by Bhogal before the tasting. “Reducing sugar alters the chemistry, it alters the mouth-feel and the texture,” she says.
No Incredo products are available outside Israel yet. But to persuade potential investors that its sugar works, the company has developed various biscuits, cake mixes, chocolate and spreads for tasting purposes.
It is these that we test.
First up is a chocolate and hazelnut spread. Bhogal and I immediately recognise that sample A is Nutella. “You can just tell. Oh, I love it,” she says, dipping her spoon into the jar. “But this one,” she says, trying sample B, “really tastes of hazelnuts. I think it’s actually much nicer.” For me, a Nutella fan, the Incredo version is far superior.
Roux agrees, saying product A (later confirmed to be Nutella) tastes “synthetic; I don’t like it”, while the other one “is good. It really tastes like hazelnut and chocolate.”
After one product, Incredo has scored a big win. Its hazelnut and chocolate spread, with 28g sugar per 100g, is more delicious than Nutella, which has more than double the sugar (56.3g per 100g) and palm oil.
The rest of the test, however, is less clear cut. The next product is a biscotti. “They are both pretty tasteless,” says Bhogal. We all marginally prefer the sugar version. However, it only tasted slightly sweeter, not the 39 per cent sweeter it should have been considering its sugar content.
A gluten-free Incredo biscotti is marked down by Bhogal. “You know what? As a gluten-free biscuit, it isn’t bad,” says Roux after he is told which is which.
None of the Incredo versions come out lacking in sweetness; it’s just that they are often not as tasty as their high-sugar rivals.
Two products, a lemon cake and an oat muffin, come as premixed dry ingredients to which you add butter, eggs and vegetable oil. I baked them the night before and so duck out of tasting these two.
The lemon cake verdict? One from Marks & Spencer performs better, maybe because it has a sugary topping, unlike the Incredo one I made. Roux is fascinated by the cake recipe and wants to know what has replaced the sugar. In some cases DouxMatok has just increased all the other ingredients, meaning that flour – rather than sugar – is the single biggest ingredient.
In other products, however, the bulk of the sugar is replaced with either fibre such as chicory root or rice fibre, or protein such as whey protein or chickpea protein, which is why Eran Baniel declares it a “smart sugar”.
“We replace the bulk that sugar once occupied with something healthier,” he says. With a flapjack or breakfast cereal you can possibly kill two birds with one stone – reduce sugar and increase fibre, allowing a manufacturer to claim it is far healthier than the previous version.
The extra flour in the lemon cake makes it just a bit too dense. The Incredo muffins, however, are a success. “It is a bit synthetic,” says Bhogal of a muffin that turns out to be from Sainsbury’s.
Roux says approvingly of mine, “Yes, I could eat that. It’s not too sweet.”
He is also a fan of the Incredo butter biscuit. He takes a second nibble. “It’s really not bad. Just needs more butter.”
The final product is milk chocolate. Hard to believe Roux does not recognise the distinctive taste of Cadbury Dairy Milk. “I don’t like either,” he says, screwing up his face. “They don’t taste of chocolate at all; it’s all milk and sugar.”
I force him to choose which he prefers. He plumps for the Incredo one. When I tell him he’s just dismissed Britain’s favourite chocolate he shrugs, adding, “I don’t think the low-sugar version tastes that different.”
Bhogal swiftly works out it is Dairy Milk, but says, “I think I probably prefer the other one.”
The final score? Incredo has beaten its high-sugar rivals 40 per cent of the time – notably trouncing Nutella and nudging out Dairy Milk. A respectable performance, if not world-beating.
Roux, despite how little he enjoyed some of the biscuits, is quite impressed. “We do need to reduce sugar in our diets. If we can eat less and not miss it, that would be a great thing.”
Is changing recipes, however, really the answer? Bhogal is not fully convinced. “You want to eat less, but better quality.”
Of course, she is right. But that is not realistic when it comes to children.
At the end, I snaffle the jar of Incredo chocolate spread to take home. My four children devour it within minutes. With one product at least, the Baniels have a hit on their hands.