ArchiveFebruary 1, 2014

Sugar, the New Tobacco

A little of what you fancy does you good. Well, no actually, all evidence points to the fact that sugar is damaging our health in a myriad of ways we are only beginning to understand. Make no mistake about it, sugar is addictive and is set to be the ‘New Tobacco’ as it becomes  abundantly clear that it’s an ingredient we absolutely don’t need, empty calories that pile on the pounds without nourishing us in any way.

Type 2 diabetes and obesity are increasing dramatically around the world but excess sugar is also linked to cancer, heart disease and of course tooth decay.  Ireland’s leading obesity expert Donal O’Shea paints a grim picture, 25% of Irish children are overweight, 25% of adults are obese while a further 40% are considered to be overweight. International doctors, scientists and obesity experts are joining forces to put pressure on governments to force food and drink manufacturers to cut hidden sugar in processed foods by up to 30%.

In the UK, Action on Sugar has launched an initiative chaired by Professor Graham MacGregor – who also heads up CASH which spearheaded the hugely successful campaign on salt reduction. “Provided the sugar reductions are done slowly, people won’t notice. In most products in the supermarkets, the salt has come down by between 25% and 40%. Kellogg’s Cornflakes contain 60% less salt than they used to.”

The panel includes obesity experts, high profile scientists and doctors including Robert Lustig author of Fat Chance – The Bitter Truth about Sugar and Professors John Wass, academic vice-president of the Royal College of Physicians, Philip James of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, Dr Aseem Malhotra cardiologist and Sir Nicholas Wald of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.

Yoni Freedhoff from the University of Ottowa, Canada is another advisor to the group said   “Not only has added sugar found its way into virtually everything we eat, but worse still, the use of sugar as a means to pacify, entertain and reward children has become normalised to the point that questioning our current sugary status quo often inspires anger and outrage.”

Experts have calculated that reducing sugar in processed foods by between 20 and 30% over the next 3 to 5 years could remove 100 calories a day from diets, enough to reverse the obesity epidemic.

Deep down, we’ve all known this was coming.

People are aware that fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and biccies are loaded with sugar, but they are often amazed to discover that sugar can also be in many types of bread, soups, sauces…

So what to do?

Labelling can be confusing, low fat does not mean low sugar and labels are often carefully worded to mask the reality. For most people, teaspoons are easier to visualise than grams. We now know that Coca Cola Original, 330ml and Pepsi, regular contain 9 teaspoons of sugar. Mars Bar 51g has 8 teaspoons sugar. Even zero fat yoghurt can contain up to 5 teaspoons of sugar, while a tall Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream and skimmed milk was found to have 11 teaspoons of sugar.

Over the years we’ve noticed many items getting progressively sweeter. In fact, I’m convinced that sugar itself has become more intensely sweet, since we are now using imported sugar now that our domestic sugar beet industry is gone, can this be my imagination – I’m awaiting the results of a scientific analysis. In the meantime we have been systematically reducing sugar in many of our recipes often without a murmur of complaint.

Sugar is unquestionably addictive, so cutting sugar out of our diet altogether is a ‘big ask.’ It can certainly be done but one may have to endure a couple of weeks of ‘cold turkey’ then apparently the craving dissipates. However with a certain resolve it should be possible to cut out sweet fizzy drinks, sugar in tea and coffee, sweetened yoghurt and soups. There are still some supermarkets that have aisles of tempting sweets and bars as one queues for the till, perhaps it’s time for Mammies of the world to unite and demand support to help solve this global problem of obesity.

So what are the alternatives, bananas are naturally sweet and can enable you to reduce or eliminate sugar in banana bread, muffins or buns. Think about eliminating breakfast cereals from your shopping list and replace with porridge, a brilliant food which also includes fibre.

Honey can be substituted for sugar or add a sprinkling of plump raisins or sultanas. Several of my grandchildren love peanut butter on their porridge, sounds very odd but it’s been their winter breakfast of choice for many years and keeps them sated until lunch time.

Completely eliminate sugar sweetened drinks, SSDs as they are called – make no mistake sugar is addictive so if you or your children are used to a couple of these drinks a day – you’ll need to be full of resolve to kick the habit. Substitute real apple juice with sparkling water or just water.  Dried fruit and nuts or blueberries are good for snacks but why are we snacking all the time? A bar of dark chocolate has less sugar but at least has the benefit of antioxidants.


Debbie Shaw’s Banana and Pecan Loaf

This is a lovely, moist loaf and a great way to use up over-ripe bananas. See sugar free version of this recipe below.



Serves 10-12


110g (4oz) white spelt flour
110g (4oz) brown spelt flour (Ballybrado)
1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of mixed spice
1 teaspoon of salt
75g (3oz) Billington’s unrefined caster sugar
2 tablespoons of maple syrup
1 large egg, beaten
75ml (3fl oz) of sunflower oil
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
65g (2 1/2oz) pecan nuts or walnuts, chopped
4 large ripe bananas, well mashed


Place the flour, salt, finely sieved baking powder and caster sugar into a large bowl. Lightly mix the egg, oil, vanilla and maple syrup together and add to the dry ingredient mixing very gently. Fold the pecan nuts and mashed bananas into t this mixture with a fork being careful not to over beat or mix. Place in a lined and oiled 900g (2lb) loaf tin and bake in the preheated oven at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 1 hour. Allow it to cool in the tin before turning out.


For a Sugar Free Version:
You can also make this bread very successfully omitting the 75g (3oz) of caster sugar and ensuring that the bananas are very, very ripe and it’s equally as delicious.

Debbie Shaw’s Figgy Flapjacks


It is almost impossible to find a flapjack without tons of butter, golden syrup and sugar in it. This is my healthier version of the flapjack with vastly reduced sugar and butter content but it does need a little golden syrup for binding.


Makes 25 bars


Tin size – 19cm x 30cm or 11 ½ x 7 ½ inches

175g (6oz) of porridge oats
50g (2oz) butter
2 scant tablespoons of golden syrup
1 ½ oz light brown sugar
2 tablespoons of honey
25g (1oz) sunflower seeds
25g (1oz) pumpkin seeds
25g (1oz) toasted sesame seeds
150g (5oz) of figs, roughly chopped
25g (1oz) apricots, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°/Gas Mark 4.

Blend the figs in a food processor with 5 tablespoons boiling water to make a paste. Line the base of the tin with parchment paper and oil the sides with sunflower oil. Heat the butter, brown sugar, honey and golden syrup in a medium-sized pot until melted and add the other ingredients. Mix the fig mixture with the other dry ingredients and add to the melted sugars and butter. Stir thoroughly and place in the lined tin. Press firmly into the tin with a palette knife and bake for 30 minutes until lightly golden brown. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in a tin or airtight container.



Debbie Shaw’s Medjool Date and Coconut Rounds


This is a no-cook, egg-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan cookie that takes minutes to make.



Makes 25


½ small ripe banana, mashed (optional)
225g (8oz) Medjool dates, stoned
250g (9oz) of whole almonds
1 heaped tablespoon of raw cocoa powder
1/4 scant teaspoon of vanilla extract
110g (4oz) desiccated coconut


Whiz the almonds in the food processor until they are the size of breadcrumbs. Add the raw cocoa powder and pulse. Add the banana (if using), vanilla, and dates and blend to a paste. Shape the mixture into a log with your hands and roll in the desiccated coconut. Cut into rounds or roll into truffle-sized balls and roll in desiccated coconut and give them as presents.



Debbie Shaw’s Kiddies Crispy Party Buns


These fun buns are a great way to get essential fats and B-vitamins into kids and they are pretty tasty too. The protein in the seeds prevents a sudden blood sugar rise that some sugary treats cause which make kids hyper!


Makes 20-24 depending on size


3oz (75g) 60% dark chocolate, melted

2 1/2oz (62g) puffed wholegrain brown rice or puffed quinoa (available from Health Food Shops)
3  1/2oz (82g) pumpkin seeds
1oz (25g) sunflower seeds
1oz (25g) toasted sesame seeds
1oz (25g) flaked almonds, broken up
1 tablespoon maple syrup


Melt the chocolate and add all of the other ingredients stirring well to coat. Place in paper cases, press down gently and allow to set. If you are in a hurry, pop them in the freezer for 5 minutes and they set quickly.


Wild and Free Food

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

For those who like to be on the cutting edge, you may be interested to know that watercress is the new rocket! Chefs are going crazy for it and using it in all kinds of recipes. But in reality there’s not much new under the sun. There are references to watercress – the original hydroponic vegetable – in many early Irish manuscripts. It formed part of the diet of hermits and holy men who valued its special properties, which we now know include significant amounts of iron, calcium, folic acid, vitamins A and C. Watercress is brilliant for detox – the mustard oils boost and regulate the liver’s enzymes. Its beta carotene and vitamin A are good for healthy skin and eyes, and watercress is naturally low in calories and fat. Gram for gram, watercress has more iron than spinach, more vitamin C than oranges and more calcium than full-cream milk.

Watercress grows naturally in rivers and drains all around Ireland. When you’re looking for it in the wild, make sure the watercress you pick comes from a pure water source with constantly running water. Avoid water drained from fields that are grazed, especially by sheep, which may infest the plant with the liver fluke parasite. Look for darker leaves, which signify older plants and deliver more peppery flavour. Watercress often grows side by side with a plant called fool’s watercress (Apium nodiflorum), which is sometimes referred to as wild celery but it isn’t, even though it is part of the parsley and celery family. It has small green flowers, whereas watercress has small white flowers. With watercress, the top leaf is the biggest and they decrease in size as you go down the stem; with fools watercress, it’s the reverse. When the watercress begins to form little white flowers the leaves elongate.

Hot Tips

Alternative Sugars from Natural Sources

Brown rice syrup, date syrup, maple syrup, honey and agave syrup are all available from health food stores.  XyloBrit or Xylitol is a refined sugar made using fruit or Birch tree extracts. You can use this as a 1:1 direct replacement for refined white caster sugar in baking. The Tate and Lyle brand, which is a blend of caster sugar and stevia, can be also used as a 1:1 direct substitute for refined caster sugar in baking. This is available in powder, liquid and dried herb form from good health food stores. Another good way to naturally sweeten baked goods without using refined sugar, is to add dried dates, dried figs or overripe bananas, whizzed in a food processor with a little boiling water to make a sweet paste. Other dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, cranberries, apricots etc.) also add sweetness to cakes and muffins.

Debbie Shaw

Debbie will be presenting more healthy recipes in her “Feel Good Food – Let’s Cook” course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School on Mon 21st July 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. This one day course offers fresh, simple and seasonal recipes for energy, vitality and optimal health. The morning cookery demonstration is followed by an opportunity to cook some of Debbie’s tasty recipes in the kitchens. Debbie Shaw is a chef and Nutritionist and runs “Apple A Day Nutrition” (Mobile tel: +353 (086) 785 5868, email:

The booking office is now open for the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine 16th-18th May. There’s an incredible line-up again this year international food heroes such as René Redzepi, Diana Kennedy, Simon Hopkinson, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. There will be a cocktail of wine and drinks experts, Irish participants will include talented chefs Ross Lewis, Paul Flynn and Clodagh McKenna. Some events are already fully subscribed so check out the website or call the Box Office (open Monday to Friday 10am-5pm) on 021 4645777.


Hospitality and business course “Being ‘the best’ takes time, dedication and an absolute commitment to raising standards, every day. It is an infinite journey and it’s what separates the best from the quickly forgotten.” says Georgina Campbell who is teaming up with business mentoring company Conor Kenny and Associates to run the Hospitality Business Development Programme, over a 4 month period from Tuesday 11th February to Thursday 29th May. The programme was created by people who are immersed in the industry and the practical workshops will drive and accelerate growth.  or call Linda Halpin – 01 663-3685 for bookings.





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