Irn-Bru and the problem with sugar

Irn-Bru, a soft drink produced in Scotland, was slammed in media recently because they’d changed the recipe from using sugar to using sweetener instead, and people didn’t like that.

Sugar is being increasingly realised as being the root of an obesity epidemic, so “food” producers are having to think carefully about if they use it. This is a problem for popular things such as soft drinks and snacks. Irn-Bru decided to swap the sugar in their drink but people didn’t like it for two particular reasons: 1) they could taste the difference, and 2) they had no choice other than to drink it or not (some people have stocked up on the old variety, but they are just delaying the inevitable).

Other reasons might be concerns about the sweeteners used instead: Acesulfame K and Aspartame.

Personally I’m not a fan of Irn-Bru; I must have tried it once a long time ago but I’m not a soft-drink drinker. However I can immediately appreciate that changing the original Irn-Bru would be a problem; they should done what other producers have done and have kept the original as Irn-Bru Classic, and produced a sugar-free variety. Any sugar tax, or general incentive to switch to the so-called healthier option could have been reflected in their respective prices. Perhaps a change in production line wasn’t financially viable for the company to do this.

The problem with sugar-free options, which is particularly noticable with soft drinks but perhaps increasingly with foods too, is that the sugar is swapped for sweeteners, which when you do a quick bit of research (googling) you discover that those sweeteners (and there are a variety of different ones) can have their problems too.

I discovered this issue, or rather, a side-issue, when I bought some sugar-free baked beans which my local supermarket had on offer.

I usually buy the supermarket’s own ones, although not the cheapest because like the canned tomatoes or chicken soup I also buy they seem to have an unpleasant “tang” to them. But these Heinz ones were on offer at the same price, in both their original and this new sweetened variety, so I took the plunge and gave them a try, and looked into the sweetener used.

From this point I should add that my sense of taste isn’t so good and I have been gradually cutting down on my sugar intake, such as reducing the number of spoonfuls I put in my hot drinks to the point of sometimes (depending on the drink) not having any sugar at all. I also opted for honey for a while but aside from some nutritional benefit over sugar, isn’t a good choice.

This is where the problem with “artificially” sweetening things comes in, (by artificially I mean by not using sugar, but using something else which might be labeled as natural but isn’t our normal sugar).

Why do food manufacturer’s insist on sweetening our food for us? I can appreciate that a can or bottle of soft drink is produced to a particular flavour (or sweetness) to the preference of a majority and it wouldn’t be convenient or practical for consumers to have to add their own sweetener to this (although, why not?) But why with food? Often with processed food there is a high amount of salt too, but there is a thing called “table salt” and we can use this to add to our meals ourselves if we so wish. But why not with sugar?

The problem with added sugar or other sweeteners is that these foods or drinks are flavoured to the manufacturer’s liking, based on taste tests. The sweetness of things makes me question who the taste-testers are. Not all palates are the same; I think younger people will typically have a sweeter tooth, and given two things to choose from, the sweeter one will likely taste the “nicest”. Therefore, it can leave those of us who have been cutting down on sugar, and cutting out sweet snacks feeling like other things now taste too sweet.

The almost-alarming thing is that often these sweeteners (such as Steviol Glycosides used in those baked beans or Acesulfame K in Irn-Bru) are much sweeter (or higher up the GI scale as I understand it). Therefore, manufacturers could effectively creep up the sweetness level of their products over time, causing consumers to crave more and more sweet things, which I’m guessing (based on addictive tendencies) would generally lead one to find any old (and unhealthy) sugary snack to curb an appetite, while unwittingly fueling a health issue.

I have similar observances regarding the use of e-cigarettes and vaping to replace actual smoking; part of the initial habit is replaced, but part of the addictive tendencies are maintained and also encouraged (the flavourings and the different gadgets becoming fashionable in some circles).


  1. This is an issue which infuriates me. OK I’m lucky that I’ve always been underweight, but when manufacturers change things in a take it or leave it way you have no choice but to give up something you’ve always enjoyed. It happened recently with Danish pastries we buy as an occasional treat from the supermarket bakery (so they have no list of ingredients). They tasted unusually odd, not nice. Half an hour later my burning red face told me why – it is likely they now contain Aspartame.

    • Wow, that’s beyond irritating. If I had such a reaction that clearly came from a particular thing I was used to eating that I noticed had changed I’d most likely write to the supermarket.

      Being slim also, others often assume I can “eat what I like” but increasingly I’ve noticed sensitivities to things, especially sugar and sweet things since I started to actively cut down.

  2. Totally agree with this. My partner has a real thing about artificial sweeteners; wholefood varieties tend to use things like apple juice, though this is of course more expensive. But you are quite right; we just need to cut the whole thing down to a minimum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s