Sun, May-26-19, 23:59
From fruit juice to honey, the truth about 'healthy' sugars
From The Telegraph
26 May, 2019
From fruit juice to honey, the truth about 'healthy' sugars
You’ve cut back on booze, sip matcha green tea and haven’t looked at a rasher of bacon for months, but tell the truth: do you have any idea how much sugar you’re consuming? Despite years of dire warnings and the launch of a sugar ‘tax’ on soft drinks last year, we’re still eating far more than the recommended level, and confusion is rife: a 2017 study found Britons eat up to 50 per cent more sugar than they think.
It’s unsurprising, given the mixed messages we continue to receive. Wholesome-looking foods, from cereals to children’s snacks, are marketed as having no ‘refined’ or ‘added’ sugar, despite still having very high overall levels from fruit or sugar alternatives, such as honey. This month, the group Action on Sugar warned that consumers are being misled over the supposed benefits of honeys and syrups which, despite their ‘natural’ image, are no better for us than table sugar.
And though the government still says fruit juice can count towards your five a day, a new US study has found a daily (large) glass may be worse for health than drinking cola or lemonade.
“People do get confused about where sugar comes from and whether some are better than others,” says Bridget Benelam, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. “They either tend to think that ‘natural’ sugars, like honey, are fine, or they’re on the other side and think you shouldn’t have any sugar, not even fruit. As always in nutrition, the truth is shades of grey.”
To recap, the big concern is over ‘free sugars’ – those added to foods or drinks by the manufacturer, or ourselves. It’s free sugars that are associated with tooth decay and excess calorie consumption, ergo weight gain and all its related health woes. There is less concern over naturally occurring sugars, found naturally in fruit, vegetables and milk, as these don’t seem to have the same effects on health and these foods contain other important nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. (However, labels on foods don’t distinguish or clarify where their sugars have come from.)
Public Health England recommends adults and children aged 11 or over consume no more than 30g free sugars, or 7 sugar cubes, per day. The average British adult gets through 57g free sugar a day – the average teenager even more at 67.1g. The main culprit is table sugar, sweets, chocolate and preserves, with soft drinks the second biggest source in our diets, followed by alcohol, then buns and cakes, then fruit juice.
It’s virtually impossible to go on a truly sugar-free diet, and if you’re trying to take a healthy approach to sugar, experts advise looking at the foods you’re eating and taking a common-sense approach.
“I don’t believe in demonising any one nutrient,” says Helen Bond, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “Look at the broader picture: a yogurt might have sugar, but that may come from fruit. Many cereals contain added sugar, but they’re going to provide fibre and wholegrains, too.” She says traffic light labels can be useful – as can looking out for anything with ‘sugar’ among the first two items on its ingredients list.
“The vast majority of our sugar intake comes from foods we all know we shouldn’t have too much of – cakes and biscuits and fizzy drinks and so on,” agrees Benelam.
And is there such a thing as a healthy sugar? “Honey and syrups can have a ‘health halo’, but they really are just sugar – and sugar in a packet is no less ‘natural’,” she says.
Sugar - A User's Guide
Honey Despite various claims about honey containing amino acids, vitamins and minerals, it’s still a free sugar, with the same effects on the body as table sugar, and any additional nutritional benefits remain unproven. “It’s ‘natural’, but then you could say sugar is natural, too, as it comes from sugar cane or beet,” says Helen Bond. It contains three calories per gram, comparable to table sugar’s four calories.
Agave syrup Extracted from a type of cactus, this has become a fashionable product to add to foods and drinks, and to use in baking. Again, though, it’s essentially just sugar, containing about three calories per gram. In fact, liquid sugars like honey, agave syrup and maple syrup can end up giving a double dose of calories, says Helen Bond, because they’re poured or squirted into drinks and foods meaning the quantity is harder to measure.
Fruit juice Manufacturers frequently use fruit juice and puree as a way of sweetening products, such as children’s snacks, and claiming they contain ‘no added sugar’. But some have argued that fruit juices and smoothies are so sugary that they should not count as one of your five a day, and should qualify for the soft drinks sugar levy brought in by the government last year.
When a fruit is juiced, the natural sugars are released from their cells, meaning the fibre is lost and they become the more harmful ‘free’ sugars.
“The sugar content is the same, so they do have the same effect on calorie intake as cola,” says Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University. “The trouble is that there is currently no way to take sugar out of fruit juices. George Osborne chose soft drinks for the sugar tax because he knew reformulation was feasible.”
Bridget Benelam says: “Fruit juice is considered free sugar, but the data we have shows we’re not consuming gallons and gallons of it. So it does still count towards your five a day, but it should be no more than a 150ml glass.”
Date paste Regularly spotted on the ingredients lists of wholesome-looking granolas and cereals, date paste or date syrup again counts as a free sugar, with roughly the same number of calories as table sugar, meaning consumption should be limited. “There may be small amounts of nutrients in things like date syrups and molasses, but we shouldn’t be looking to get our vitamins and minerals from such sugary foods anyway,” says Benelam.
Coconut sugar Sold as an alternative to table sugar, this is made from the sap of the coconut palm, and, it’s often claimed, is not as ‘processed’ and therefore better for you. But metabolically, there’s no difference between this and regular sugar, apart from the price tag. “It’s said to have small amounts of minerals but eating all that sugar will far outweigh any possible benefits,” says dietitian Helen Bond.
Stevia Extracted from the leaves of the Paraguayan stevia plant, this zero calorie, natural sugar substitute has been seized upon by the food and beverages industry – it’s been added to Sprite for several years, lowering the drink’s sugar content by 30 per cent and San Peligrino's flavoured drinks are now made with stevia too. Other drinks-makers have used sweeteners such as aspertame – found in Coke Zero Sugar.
Research published last week in Beverage Daily found sales of such sugarfree drinks have risen, and sales of full sugar beverages have fallen since the introduction of the sugar tax last year. Though the sugar tax currently only applies to soft drinks, confectionery manufacturers are also developing new, healthier recipes – with Cadbury’s set to launch a Dairy Milk bar with 30 per cent less sugar this year, reportedly using extra fibre in place of the sugar, rather than relying on artificial sweeteners.
Some, however, believe the use of sweeteners – even if they are low calorie – serve to normalise a taste for sugary things. “People now expect a heightened sweet taste in what they eat and drink – we’ve forgotten the natural sweetness in foods,” says Helen Bond. “We need to wean the nation off its sweet palate.”