Given the results of recent research, it now looks like a good time to seek a healthier understanding of sugar and how it impacts on cocktails. Clair Warner reports

Mary Poppins was a drug dealer... at least that’s what you could conclude from current media scares. She wasn’t trying to make the medicine go down, but subliminally advertising one of the most highly addictive substances in the world.

Forget cocaine and heroin, sugar is being touted as the stealth killer invading our bodies and clogging up our arteries.

Today more than ever, we are well aware of the risks associated with consuming an excess of sugar in solid form and no one can truly argue that a diet rich in confectionery is a fast track to health and wellness. However, new research shows that liquid sugar may be especially harmful, since the sugar in beverages is often very concentrated and it’s easy to consume large quantities of liquid sugar without feeling full.

Unfortunately, any consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages carries a heavy risk, increasing our propensity for diabetes or metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a large waistline, to name just a few. The stats are pretty worrying:

  • Some 184,000 deaths worldwide can be attributed to sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)

  • 70% of women who drank more than one SSB a week were overweight, compared with just 47% of women who drank less than one a week

  • 83% greater risk of diabetes was seen in women who had one SSB a month compared with those who had less than one per month

  • 30g-50g of sugar (roughly 10 teaspoons) and about 50 calories is what you’re slurping when you pop open a 12-ounce (35cl) can of soda

  • 15lbs is the amount of weight you could gain a year if you had one soda a day without cutting calories elsewhere (Yang Q & doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013)

Consider that in one can of cola there are almost as many grams of sugar as there are in a glass of apple juice, and you can begin to see how easy it is to drink your daily allowance before you leave the house. One of the major issues with consumption of liquid sugar is that your brain does not ‘see’ it in the same way as it does for solid food, meaning that drinking sugar will not elicit the same feelings of fullness as you would get from eating food with a similar calorie density. Meaning you’re just as likely to drink your soda AND eat your cake.

Sinister effects

Aside from weight gain and lethargy, there are other more sinister effects to be aware of. Drinking soda every day is one thing, but the consumption of a glass of seemingly innocuous orange juice has additional dangers. The bottom line is this: when we eat whole fruit, we’re also eating the fibrous structures that are bound to the sugar molecules (in fruit this is called fructose), meaning that it takes time and effort to get through that apple, orange or guava. This gives the liver the time it needs to slowly metabolise the sugar contained within the fruit, ensuring that the liver does not get overloaded and store the excess as fat (think overloaded liver, think your own internal fois gras). However, drinking your morning OJ is the equivalent to eating lots of fruit quickly and without the helpful fibre to slow the absorption of the fructose down. Plus, who really only drinks just one glass of juice?

As bartenders, we often give thanks and praise to our miracle livers which seem to have the regenerative powers of Wolverine. However, as bartenders we need to be aware that our livers are not only processing all of that Fernet. The overconsumption of sugar in liquid form has a huge impact on the liver, and in particular fructose, since the liver is the only organ that metabolise this molecule in any meaningful amount. Which brings me on to agave syrup. Agave is up to 90% fructose, is highly concentrated and directed directly to the liver. For me, agave syrup (not agave distilled spirits) is to be avoided as if my liver depended on it. I love a Tommy’s, but I love my liver much more.

So, how should we be tackling this ‘sweet poison’? It would be unrealistic to suggest that all sugar is removed from our food and drink supply, not to mention our cocktails. Sugar is OK to enjoy in moderation, and foods that we recognise as being indulgent should be thought of as an occasional treat and consumed on special occasions. After all, a birthday without cake is just a boring meeting.

However, as bar professionals we should take steps to ensure we’re responsibly sweetening, just as much as we adhere to responsible service of alcohol guidelines. Sugar is toxic, addictive and damaging and liquid sugar, particularly fructose, is treated by the body in many of the same ways as alcohol.

So, here are five sweet tips to get you started:

1. Can you simply reduce the amount you are using in your cocktails? Many of the classic recipes were created using spirits that perhaps required additional sweetening or smoothing out. Today there is a plethora of brilliant spirits at our disposal, so consider whether the standard recipes need to apply.

2. Today we understand that dietary fats are not as harmful as we initially thought and they can do wonders for adding the mouthfeel that is lost when you reduce the amount of sugar in a drink. Try fat-washing with coconut, avocado or macadamia nut for flavour and mouthfeel.

3. Bring back the blender. When fruit is blended, it retains the fibre which will facilitate the safe removal of fructose from your body.

4. Spice it up. Sweet spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla all help to increase the perception of sweetness on the palate. So reduce the amount of sugar by adding a hint of sweet spice, or make your simple syrup work harder for you by infusing with these spices and using less.

5. The colour of the drink can play a part in how sweet it tastes. Many studies have found the colour of drinks, or even the colour of the drinking vessel, can have an impact on perceived sweetness. Blue is found to reduce the perception of sweetness in coffee – a win for Jacob Briars.

Finally, there is, of course, the sugar ‘alternative’ such as artificial (eg aspartame) and natural (eg stevia) sweeteners. In cocktails, the results are dubious at best, and downright undrinkable at worst. Also, many of the sweeteners being used today still have a way to go to prove that they won’t carry their own deleterious health issues in the future. For me, sucrose is by far the best sugar to use in mixed drinks, but we need to have a greater understanding of the impact that it can have on our health, much in the same way as we respect the nature of the alcohol we serve.