Think fat and sugar are the enemy? The things that replace them might be even worse

There used to be certain things you could count on, almost anywhere you went in the world.

Things like the simple pleasure that comes with an ice-cold bottle of cola on a hot road trip through Mexico. Or the restorative properties of a Big Mac on a challenging day after a rigorous beer hop through a great European city.

To us, internationally available fast food and drink brands are the same the world over, even if your quarter-pounder is called a “Four Ounce Beefburger” or a “Quart de livre” (as it is in Taiwan and Quebec, respectively). The truth is, though, there are subtle differences between fast food staples in different parts of the world, something recently exposed in the Worldwide McDonald’s Index, a report released by NiceRx, an online pharmaceutical company.

And it turns out a lot of McFoods in Canada are more “calorific” than almost anywhere else in the world. A medium fries in Ottawa clocks in at 350, a full 62 calories more than in Mexico City. A Saskatoon Big Mac has a calorie count of 570, which is 174 calories more than that same menu item in Tel Aviv.

And this isn’t just about burgers and fries, since soda is different in different countries, too. A few years back, Action on Sugar discovered that a Sprite in Thailand contains 47 grams of added sugar, compared with 19 grams found in that same beverage in Austria, results that it published in its International Drinks Data survey.

So what gives? Well, it might be a complicated mix of factors, including both cultural differences and the price of ingredients from region to region. The Tel Aviv/Saskatoon Big Mac discrepancy, for example, is easily explained, since the Big Macs there are kosher and therefore aren’t topped with cheese.

That was an easy one. The others are harder to pin down, especially since, according to Mark Schatzker, author of “The Dorito Effect,” there’s a lot more to these numbers than meets the eye.

“Everybody shares those articles about things like how, say, a Starbucks hot chocolate has more calories than McDonald’s,” said Schatzker, who just released “The End of Craving,” a book that offers new ideas about the causes of obesity. “So there’s always this pressure on companies to bring the calorie count down. Fat and sugar replacers are often how they do it.”

This isn’t just about whipped cream. Take the dramatic difference in sugar levels in the case of that can of Sprite. It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that Austrians have a different palate than elsewhere. Or you might imagine that regulatory boards, aware of health problems linked to added sugars, have won a battle and convinced local soda producers to cut the sugar.

It’s more complicated than that, said Schatzker, who tracked down the nutritional facts about that particular soda for me. Although the Austrian Sprite contains only 19 grams of sugar, it also contains artificial sweeteners. Neither of us have tasted it, but it’s possible it’s just as sweet on the palate as the one in Thailand.

I’m surprised. I thought artificial sweeteners were only found in “diet” versions of pop. If you can’t tell, though, does it even matter? Isn’t less sugar a win, no matter how we get there? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of new research suggesting that it might matter — a lot.

“There’s a growing body of research on something called ‘nutritional mismatch,’” Schatzker said. “It’s being carried out by Dana Small at Yale, who found that when the ‘sweet signal’ that our brains get from eating sugar matches the number of calories, our bodies are better at metabolizing the food or drink,” he said.

Our brains are very good, it turns out, at calculating how much of a thing we’re eating, just by looking at, smelling and tasting a thing. And the suggestion here is that this mental calculation might be communicated to our digestive system to help it know what to do.

“If it’s not matched, things seem to fall apart,” said Schatzker. “The calories don’t get metabolized properly and it can lead to insulin resistance and that kind of thing.”

The idea is that if the body is expecting roughly 500 calories from, say, a hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and then only gets 250 because the topping is full of fat and sugar replacers, our bodies start to get confused.

“Everybody assumes lower calories and less sugar is better, but research suggests this is not necessarily the case,” he continued.

Schatzker says navigating the food environment requires an ever-increasing amount of knowledge, given the additives and technological refinements of basic ingredients — to a point that it’s unreasonable to expect almost anyone but a food scientist to understand what they’re eating.

“From my point of view, looking at the ingredients and the calories for the amount of sugar and fat is just total chaos now,” he said. “And if you start to become a zealot when it comes to calories, you might be making an even worse choice.”

So maybe it doesn’t matter what the fast-food indexes and world sugar levels tell us, unless our takeaway is that it’s time to cut way back on ultra-processed foods, no matter what the calorie count might be.

It looks like it’s time to add nutritional labels to the long list of things we just can’t count on anymore.

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