Spotlight on sugar
If you’re anything like us, you probably love sugar. And it’s certainly hard to avoid it now that it’s added to pretty much every food product going.
It’s been demonised a lot recently, however.
But is it inherently bad? Like most things, it depends on the detail. Carry on reading to discover the good and bad types and how to tell the difference.
There are several different types of “pure” sugars. Anything that ends in “-ose” is typically one, like lactose in milk. But the most commonly known are sucrose (a complex sugar), glucose and fructose (both simple sugars). Sucrose is the technical name for table sugar, and what “sugar” as an ingredient refers to.
Lots of other ingredients contain enough pure sugar to be treated as sugars too, however. These are things like syrups, fruit juice concentrates and honey. Yes, some of them can have some other nutritional benefits. But agave nectar is as much as 90% fructose for instance , which doesn’t leave much room for anything else!
And ultimately all sugars (including sucrose) break down into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed directly by the body.
This process is the same whether the sugar is natural, unrefined, refined or man-made.
Glucose is absorbed most quickly, raising blood sugar levels. It’s used immediately as energy, or stored as glycogen for later use.
Fructose raises blood sugar more slowly, and has to be converted to glucose (by the liver or intestines ) before it can be used as energy.
What happens if we eat too much?
For most people, some kinds of sugar are probably fine however much you eat. And glucose is the body’s preferred source of energy, so very important.
And other kinds are probably fine in moderation. But problems arise when we eat too much of them, especially fructose (if we eat more than the body can easily convert to glucose, the excess is turned into cholesterol and fat).
What do we need to look out for?
The key thing is whether the sugar is from a whole food (which are relatively unprocessed), a processed food, or has just been added as an ingredient.
This determines how the sugar is processed by our bodies.
– Whole foods
There are lots of different whole foods, such as nuts, pulses and grains. But fruit and veg are the ones that are highest in sugar. Most experts agree that you should eat as much of them as possible though.
That’s because they’re packed with a wide range of nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. And when all the nutrients are bound together, the sugar isn’t a problem – the body’s used to dealing with this so isn’t overwhelmed by it.
Find out more about the power of whole foods in this post.
Is there a difference between whole fruit and veg?
We wouldn’t worry too much about it, but there are a few reasons why veg are probably better than fruit from a sugar perspective:
Fruit is typically much higher in fructose (and glucose) than veg, which is mainly sucrose.
Dates are roughly half fructose and half glucose, for instance, but carrots are as little as 13% fructose and at least 43% sucrose.
This means that the sugar in carrots is likely to be absorbed much more slowly than the sugar in dates.
This makes a lot of fruits high FODMAP, which can cause or exacerbate IBS in some people. Indeed, fructans (a collection of fructose molecules) are increasingly seen as responsible for the symptoms typically associated with gluten sensitivity .
Veg are usually higher in fibre than fruit, further slowing the absorption of the natural sugars.
The NHS believes dried fruit can increase the risk of tooth decay.
“the NHS recommends only eating dried fruit as part of a meal rather than as a snack”
– Processed foods (including smoothies & juices)
Processed foods are ones where the bonds between the nutrients in whole foods have been broken. And specifically the ones between sugar and fibre. Sometimes nutrients have been removed completely.
When the bonds have been broken, the sugar becomes “free”, which can overwhelm the body and cause a range of problems.
How about an example?
The easiest way of highlighting the issue is by comparing apple slices to apple juice and apple smoothie.
Blood sugar levels increase after consuming all three types of apple. This then prompts the release of insulin, which converts the sugar to energy straight away or converts it to glycogen for later use. In the case of the apple slices, blood sugar quickly returns to a normal level. But drinking apple juice or smoothie prompts the release of too much insulin and results in a hypoglycemic dip. This is a reduction in blood sugar below normal levels, which can lead to over-eating and the side-effects associated with it. The effect was attributed to the lack of fibre in the juice, and the destruction of the fibre / sugar bond in the smoothie.
Such erratic blood sugar movements are particularly problematic for people that are already diabetic.
But studies indicate no ill effects on diabetics from eating whole fruits .
What does it mean?
Because the naturally occurring sugars in juices and smoothies are considered to be “free” , the NHS recommends limiting them to 150ml a day. And it only allows them to be considered as one of your five a day irrespective of their size .
Action on Sugar doesn’t want them to be considered as portions of fruit or veg at all!
It’s worth noting that purees and the date paste used in most fruit-based snack bars are considered to be “free” too.
So even though a lot of products like fruit juices only contain natural sugars, they’re generally not as good for you as you may think.
– Added sugars
Added sugars like syrups, fruit juice concentrates, honey and agave nectar are also free sugars. But they’re typically worse than those naturally occurring in things like fruit juices.
That’s because products with free sugars are often natural sources of other nutrients such as vitamins, whereas products with added sugars often aren’t.
Added sugars are found in a lot of processed food products, including savoury products like crisps.
Are unrefined ones better than refined ones?
In a word, rarely…
Blackstrap molasses and date sugar do have nutritional benefits , but in most cases there’s little benefit to using natural / unrefined added sugars over refined ones.
How much should we eat?
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends no more than 19g (4-6 year olds) to 30g (11+) a day of free sugars . This is equivalent to 5% of suggested daily calorie intakes.
“the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends no more than 19g (4-6 year olds) to 30g (11+) a day of free sugars”
Likewise the NHS recommends only eating products with free sugars occasionally, or not at all .
How much do we eat?
Most people typically consume at least twice as much free sugar as recommended. And it’s closer to three times as much for some children / teenagers . No wonder we’ve got an increasing obesity problem!
“most people typically consume at least twice as much free sugar as recommended”
Why so much?
Free sugars can have functional benefits in terms of binding ingredients together and extending shelf-life. But it’s probably not lost on food manufacturers that they can be addictive  (especially fructose) and increase our appetite . Both of which would increase demand for their high sugar products…
So it’s often in manufacturer’s interests to add some sugars into their products somehow.
Our increasingly hectic lives also play a part too though. With increasing demands on our time, highly processed foods are often the most convenient options.
And by adding a superfood or two, or saying “zero fat”, we often perceive them to be healthier than they really are.
Fruit juices and smoothies are a good example of this. Yes they contain lots of vitamins and minerals, but a typical 250ml bottle also has almost an entire day’s recommendation of free sugar.
What can we do about it?
The simplest thing is just to swap processed foods for whole foods like an actual apple.
Where that’s not possible:
Look for options with no or limited free / added sugars, and plenty of whole food fibre.
Don’t focus too much on overall sugar content.
Some snack bars make a big deal about being lower sugar than others, for instance. But that’s not a good thing if they’re comparing free sugars to whole food ones.
A bar that’s 40% sugar from whole raisins is probably much better than one that’s 30% sugar from things like agave nectar and brown rice syrup. So always check the label!
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Look for foods where the carbs to fibre ratio is max five to one.
As mentioned in our post on whole food, experts suggest this as a good way of identifying less-processed options that typically take the body longer to break down, giving it plenty of time to deal properly with the sugar.
What about sweeteners?
In the move to reduce sugar content, manufacturers often turn to sweeteners, but these typically have their own problems:
Unnatural ones like aspartame, for instance, have been linked to a variety of side effects.
And natural ones like sorbitol and xylitol aren’t well absorbed by the body so can cause digestive issues.
Natural erythritol is better digested and may even have some antioxidant properties though .
Whilst potentially harmless, however, studies show that because sweeteners are calorie free, they don’t suppress hunger. So you may end up eating more of the product containing them than otherwise. They also maintain your dependency on all things sweet , which probably isn’t a good thing.
How does this relate to vedge?
Made from c.60-70% whole foods, and with no free sugars (apart from in Twisted Tomato, because of the ketchup) or sweeteners (or other additives), vedge bars are a great way to help reduce your free sugar intake without sacrificing taste or convenience.
High in whole food fibre (the main macronutrient we don’t eat enough of).
Have a carb to whole food fibre ratio (ignoring added chicory root fibre in some flavours) of 4.2 to 1 or less (compared to nine for most date-based bars or fruit leathers, most of whose sugar is free).
Two of your five a day and a good source of vitamins.
p.s. no-one we know is perfect, and certainly not us. Despite doing all the research and writing this post, we still need a free sugar fix occasionally and don’t feel bad about having a smoothie once in a while. We think the key is to make it count! So try to avoid free sugars in products that really don’t need them, like snack bars. But do treat yourself to high quality ice cream and chocolate when you feel the need!
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