May 17, 2010

The search for sugar-free

I am sorry if this blog is becoming too health focussed or sounds like one of those anti-establishment green ones...but I have to talk about sugar..

Around the time I started avoiding milk, actually a few weeks prior to that, I had also stopped taking sugar with coffee etc.

Again, this was not driven by any particular health concern - I had actually checked for diabetes (blood sugar) a month or two prior to that and it turned out ok. I am not over-weight or otherwise unhealthy. As Donal Rumsfeld put it so elegantly, I am one of those guys that simply does not know what he is going to die of.

Still I had always felt no particular interest in adding lots of sugar to drinks. This was the case for as long as I can remember.

I had also read a lot about the harmful effects of sugar on our body, about how the 'industry' gets us addicted to sugar and develop a sweet tooth that stays for life and troubles us, about how there is anyway sugar (glucose/sucrose) in so much of what we eat even without adding it as sugar and so on...

So why not try and avoid it?

I would say it was quite inconvenient not because of the craving for sugar, but because this is something so hard to avoid as an ordinary shopper or diner or drinker. I don't know about God but sugar is everywhere and anywhere.

I divide my time between Singapore and India and I will talk more about Singapore because it is easy to avoid anything if you are in India.

Firstly all of the drinks that I used to enjoy - Soya bean, Green tea, Fruit juice cans etc., were loaded with sugar. It was a revelation when I started reading the labels. Often they had more than 5-7 tsp of sugar each without even counting the sugar already in the fruit.

Finding sugar free versions of them was tough if not impossible. I could only find one - Pokka Green tea brewed without sugar. Most others had 'reduced sugar' versions that were still full of sugar. I am not a big fan of Coke, Pepsi etc., so it did not matter that Coke Zero, Diet Coke etc., were available easily.

For all the rest (Chinese tea, Green Jasmine tea, fruit juice, soya bean) I had to get them fresh from hawker stalls where you can ask for sugar-free versions. Strangely, in Singapore hawker stalls, they add sugar even to sugary fruit like papaya when they juice it for you. You have to tell them not to. Now, I sincerely hope it is sugar syrup they are adding, not some synthetic (and more harmful but cheap) stuff like HF Corn syrup...but it is good to ask for a drink without 'it' whatever it is.

While it is easy to drink fruit juice without sugar, drinking soya milk takes some practice and may be particularly hard or even impossible if you have sweet tooth. Thankfully I don't so it was hard but do-able.

As for hot coffee, tea etc., it is easy enough because they are anyway added later. But if you are adding condensed milk remember that it has tons of sugar already. Anyway, I started avoiding milk soon enough so that takes care of that...

Some 'conveniences' are also out of the door - such as those three-in-one's you mix with hot water and consume. Because one of the three is sugar. The other is usually cream or non-dairy creamer which in turn has many artificial stuff.

One ready benefit I can state - my appetite for decent breakfast is much better since I do not load up with milk and sugar in the name of drinking coffee early in the morning. Secondly my weight is in control and has even dropped by 2kg or so, without any cutting down on other stuff I like...

Talking of stuff I like, I should clarify I have kept my balance - I have not avoided sweets like chocolate or Indian sweets etc., because of this no-sugar policy and I continue to enjoy them, of course in small quantities.

It is just that avoiding added sugar where it adds no value gives you extra room to indulge in sugar where it is a must....may be that is one good way to encourage and get ourselves into that habit.

Cricket - sports, fun, obsession or national disgrace?

There is a saying in Tamil (my mother tongue)...if you exceed limits even nectar becomes poison...I am sure similar sayings can be found in other cultures and languages.

Indian media's obsession with cricket has reached ridiculous heights.

I am not referring the disgraceful IPL saga that has been unfolding in the recent weeks and occupying bulk of real estate in our newspapers and TV...IPL itself is a classic example of how quantity can triumph over quality and how a nation of poor can bestow super-rich status on a few selected individuals who are already super-rich anyway, just because there are so many of us...

As we all know, England won the recent T20 world cup and India could not make it beyond last eight. Let us look at news coverage (website, not print editions):

Note: The finals were played yesterday between England and Australia. India DID NOT play, even in the semi-finals..

  • Guardian, a leading daily in UK which won the cup, did not feature it on front page. The only sports coverage that made it was Webber winning Monaco Grand Prix..
  • I could not find it on the front pages of Timeonline, another leading UK newspaper.
  • It was not the main Sports news item either on the website of Sydney Morning Herald, the leading daily from the runner-up nation Australia.
  • Nor did it feature on the main page of the Melbourne based Age, which had several other sports related items featured on front page.
  • Times of India, Indian Express, even The Hindu - ALL of them had it on their Top Stories Section, front page or otherwise prominently featured. Hindustan Times had nothing but T20 coverage on its sports section of the front page!

Now, let us stop for a moment and think - has this gone too far? Don't we or our newspapers have anything better to do or talk about?

Have we ended up in a situation where the sports has come to be dominated by shady businessmen, politicians, movie-stars (all of whom have tons of money and want even more of that)? Are we feeding this insatiable monster through our own irrational obsession with this game?

Have we turned a gentleman's game into a money-bag's game?

It is yet another matter altogether that a game that requires cool weather, lots of space and lots of time, all of which are in scarce supply (except of course to our Bollywood stars) in a place like India ends up occupying so much mind-share and ad budgets and dollar flows...

Isn't it funny that this game which sucks out so much productivity has come to be dominated by politics and Bollywood?

Is this what the great Tamil poet Bharathi referred to as 'when will our fetish for slavery end?' way back in the 1920s?

May 9, 2010

Milk or no milk?

It is impossible to read health columns of newspapers or dedicated health magazines or websites without coming across some food item we consume on a daily basis criticised for its harmful effects on human health. If one were to list out all of them, even ignoring the fringe ones, and strictly follow the ban list, it would be hard to eat anything save a few that we surely don't want to eat.

But it does not pay to simply ignore these warnings and just carry on because sometimes they are true and sometimes we realise too late.

Like in all other matters, it is better to exercise discretion and have a healthy level of skepticism without being cynical or without becoming too naive and sway with every passing wind.

I was quite impressed by the arguments in favor of a milk-free diet and have decided to avoid milk for the last few months. I do not have lactose intolerance and have been drinking milk and milk beverages since birth.

But these arguments appeared valid:

  • Every animal has milk designed by nature for its own young - cow's milk is designed for the digestion and growing needs of baby cows, not humans.
  • Most westerners (and nowadays that also includes most affluent people even in poor countries, that includes people like us) get enough protein and calcium anyway through other means.
  • A high protein diet, particularly rich in animal protein (that includes milk) actually depletes bone calcium - this has been validated by very respectable doctors and studies.
  • Americans have some of the highest levels of bone disease and bone fractures in old age despite drinking lots and lots of milk in comparison with other people.
  • Even cows dont drink milk beyond the first few months of their life and they only eat green vegetables. Same goes for elephants..
The key question is, how far do these arguments apply to Indians who, affluent or not, do not eat as much meat as westerners and hence do not have this protein overload problem? Hence if they give up milk are they giving up a cheap and valuable source of both protein and calcium?

I don't know. But I have played it safe by doing two things - not giving up on yoghurt or curd, a standard staple of Indian food and taking calcium supplements.

But no latte's and no hot milk or Milo etc.

I am also happy I am making a very small contribution to keeping milk prices low for those that need them, keep methane emissions low, alleviate the sufferings of cows that are now treated as machines in food factories. Actually a lot worse than machines.

And I should say I don't miss milk - I can appreciate the flavor and taste of tea and coffee much better these days and also restrict calorie intake without sacrificing taste, at least taste as defined by myself for me.

You can read the anti-milk propaganda website for more details...but I for one, am convinced.