Payback time: the sugar epidemic in snapshots

A project by a Spanish photographer uses high-quality images to hit back at food corporations and combat obesity 

Shopping list in hand, I walk (or run, depending on the day) around the supermarket checking out nutrition tables before I put anything in my trolley. The shelves are vast, visually polluted. The letters are tiny. It’s so confusing that I almost give up. I try to read the obvious. But not even the obvious is accessible when the other side (the food industry and regulatory bodies) won’t reveal what is actually inside the packaging. So I look for sugar content, for another obvious reason: illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and obesity, which leads to high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.

“He shoots, he scores!” I think. In a split second, however, I realize I’ve shot over the bar and my opponents have thrashed me. The rival line-up leaves me in no doubt: corn syrup; lactose, barley malt syrup, glucose and fructose; dextrose, maltose, corn syrup and barley malt syrup; maltodextrin and sucrose. Nectars, invert sugar, confectioner’s sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, white/refined sugar, syrup/molasses and sugarcane juice flesh out the list. These names are adept at demoralizing shoppers in a game that seeks to hide the fact that they are all one thing: sugar.

Trying to fight against the fact that there are never enough hours in the day and the food industry’s labels places consumers in a complicated situation. Thank goodness there are people ready to strike back and provide ammunition to the weaker side. The Spanish photographer Antonio Rodríguez Estrada is one of them. With an interesting background, he is the founder of the photo website SinAzucar (Sugar-free), a project that discloses the amount of sugar hidden in foods, even those sold as 0%, for which we tend to pay more.

Born in Madrid, Antonio is 45 years old and has been photographing since he was 15. He learned how to handle cameras through everyday experiences and related courses. He turned professional and started to make a living by photographing a range of products, as well as models for their portfolios. Despite the Spaniard’s diverse academic experience (he studied computer engineering at university), he never gave up photography.

Passionate about healthy living, Are, as he is better known in Spain, got involved in CrossFit five years ago. He chose this type of physical exercise because it is done “in more of a group environment”. He enrolled in sport nutrition courses, for which he obtained a number of certificates. The combination of two passions, photography and health, led to the publication of an image for the first time on 1 October 2016, when he decided to post on social networks a photo of a crème brûlée together with its equivalent in sugar, which was 155 grams. Not everybody liked it. “I lost followers”, he confessed.

Losing followers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter wasn’t a problem. On the contrary, the crème brûlée was only the beginning. The fallout from the post led to the creation of SinAzucar. “When I started looking at labels, I discovered that many of the products I previously thought were healthy contained a lot of sugar, and one of the causes of the current obesity epidemic is the abuse of industrialized products in our daily diet. I wanted to help inform people about this, particularly when I found out how many illnesses are linked to such products”, said Antonio.

Basically, the idea is to photograph the product using the same visual language employed by the industry to sell. “A clear photo, careful lighting, attractive finish, visual impact. The aim is to reach as many people as possible through social networks”, explained the photographer.

The work is educational. With the help of nutritionists and other health professionals, Antonio decided to feature sugar lumps (cubes weighing 4 grams each) to illustrate the “hidden sugar”, in other words, not the sugar that we spoon directly into our coffee or our home-made cake mix. The aim of the project is to reveal exactly how much sugar is packaged by the industry with nutrition tables full of strange ingredients, the things we are unable to read and interpret correctly in everyday life because of the abundance (intentional?) of uncommon names and visual confusion.

Other fundamental issues also dealt with are the nutritional values provided in the tables, since they refer to specific quantities of the product and not the entire pack. Each label features a specific portion in grams and frequently contains a reference to how much sugar it contains. It you eat more than the portion indicated, you have to calculate the amount of nutrients separately. SinAzucar provides the overall value.

Leading brands are always used to increase the impact of the alerts, and the information used by the website comes from the labels produced by the products’ own manufacturers. Initially, the photos focused on items containing large amounts of sugar, such as soft drinks, until the photographer realized that the most surprising foods, from a negative point of view, were those in which sugar was an unexpected ingredient, for example, tomato sauce, salad dressing and baby yoghurts.

There was a positive impact on the Internet, according to an enthusiastic Antonio. On average, he receives 50 messages a day, from comments praising and criticizing his work to comments from people who are simply unsure what to eat at mealtimes. “The Internet became a way of getting partners who form a network to share and exchange. In Spain, SinAzucar is viewed by millions of people and it is succeeding in getting the issue dealt with in the traditional media, by newspapers, radio stations and television channels,” he claimed.

The initiative currently has 222,000 followers on Facebook, 152,000 on Instagram and 53,000 on Twitter. In spite of this, it does not have any sponsors. “All those working on the project are volunteers. We don’t have any kind of financial support. It’s a voluntary initiative,” stressed its creator.

From cinemas to children’s sleep: nightmare

You go to see a film with your family. To fully enjoy the experience, you buy sweet popcorn and soft drinks all round for a full-on sugar rush. According to the photos on SinAzucar, a typical extra-large Coca-Cola contains approximately 20 sugar lumps or 79.5 grams, far more than the maximum daily amount recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is 50 grams. Did you forget to include the popcorn? 50% of it is sugar. “That makes 40 sugar lumps and then, when you leave the cinema, you go to Burger King to eat again, because the amount of sugar you consumed in the cinema has led to a reduction in your blood sugar level and hypoglycaemia,” maintained Are.

There’s still time to pop into Starbucks for a coffee. After all, the kids are hyper and you need some energy until their bedtime. A cup of coffee and almost 20 sugar lumps (80 grams) more will keep you going. And there’s no escape: if you opt for an energy drink, such as a can of Red Bull, you’ll be imbibing 13 sugar lumps.

Once you get home, the children can’t go to bed without a glass of milk. They want chocolate milk. You give in and, if the chocolate powder is Nesquik, by Nestlé, you’ll be scooping it out of a package containing 75.7% sugar.

You’re still not in bed. The baby, who was with the grandparents during the trip to the cinema, is the most restless and hasn’t got off to sleep. “He must be hungry,” thinks his dad. He opens the fridge and takes out a small plastic pot of ‘natural’ yoghurt for babies, by Nestlé. The pot may be small, but it’s chock-full of sugar. It’s enough to ensure that his youngest goes to bed with 9 grams (two-and-a-half lumps) more sugar in his little body.

Not even the ready-made herbal teas for children to ensure a good night’s sleep are let off the hook. A bad example is Blevit Sueño, manufactured by Ordesa, a mega-company based in the Spanish region of Catalonia that sells ‘nutritional complements’ for children and adults. 40 grams of the product (the recommended amount for an eight-year-old) contain 38 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 9.5 sugar lumps. In other words, just to get off to sleep, the child needs almost the entire daily recommended amount of sugar.

Have a good night, if you manage to get to sleep.

“Mild” pressure

Antonio Estrada Rodríguez said that he had experienced industry pressure, but the majority had been “mild”. “Some companies contacted me, but in a friendly way, to tell me that the product I had photographed was not representative of their entire portfolio. They even ask me to withdraw their product from my website, but it’s a subtle presence and they tread carefully”, he revealed.

However, the photographer stated that one of the cases did not involve mild pressure. The heavy-handed approach was used in February 2017 by the juice company Zumosol, which felt under attack when an image of Veggies Zumosol (a juice supposedly made out of vegetables and fruit) was published next to seven sugar lumps, or 28 grams.

Lawyers demanded that SinAzucar remove the photo. They sent a document giving Antonio three days to take down the image and publish a text “dictated by them, word for word, basically saying that their products were really healthy.” Antonio reacted. He refused to let them put words in his mouth. “Three minutes after receiving the document, I published it just as I had received it on social networks.”

The photo was shared many times, sparking debates about the product. Articles in the press dealt with the composition of Veggie Zumosol. “Had Zumosol not done anything, it would have been just another photo but, because of its attitude, it appeared in national newspapers and people began to say ‘Hey, look, these juices aren’t actually that healthy.’”

Zumosol, a Spanish company and the second biggest in the juice sector in Spain, was acquired in 2013 by Toksöz Group, a holding established in Turkey and operational in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. Antonio’s photo of the Veggies juice was never withdrawn.

Science + ultra-processed foods, again

Antonio R. Estrada is a man with plenty of experience. As a photographer and athlete, he travels widely. He is well acquainted with all the countries he visits. He had no qualms about saying that Coca-Cola sponsors numerous nutrition events (what a surprise!) in Spain. “To a certain extent, that can condition scientific publications, of course,” he said.

Estrada observed that it was also common to find products manufactured by food corporations featuring marks from health bodies guaranteeing “how healthy they are without them actually being healthy.” Such organizations receive money in exchange for endorsing the quality of the products.

The photographer noted that, in Catalonia, a public health body recently distributed a kind of healthy eating guide sponsored by Danone. In the publication, mainly targeted at parents, advertisements were disguised as institutional texts. “In the pages on healthy eating targeting parents, there were products that had nothing particularly to do with children. The brand and the advertisements were featured,” he recalled.

According to Antonio, neither nutrition-related events nor food advertising are sufficiently regulated in Spain. He knows what he is talking about. One of the main products in the Catalan publication was Actimel, a fermented milk product, which, as well as the traditional dairy ingredients in yoghurt, contains a specific bacterial culture exclusive to Danone, the probiotic L. Casei Danone, as well as vitamins D and B6, forming a compound, which, according to the manufacturer, has an effect on the intestinal flora and improves the immune system, among other miracles. However, if you think that a 100-gram bottle of this contains 11.5 grams of sugar (thus 11.5% of the overall nutritional composition), it is hard to believe that it delivers everything it promises.

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