I understand that a lot of people are only now beginning their journey of understanding the role of sugar in our diets so I thought I might lay out some information to make it all a bit clearer (in case you haven’t seen the film or read the book or even if you have and it still seems overwhelming).
Recently, the World Health Organization recommended that for optimal health we should restrict our added ‘free sugar’ intake to just 25 grams or 6 teaspoons a day. But what exactly does this mean?
The simple rule is:
SUGARS naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and dairy are OKAY but SUGARS removed from their original source and ADDED to foods, we need to be wary of.
‘Free Sugars’ are those sugars that are removed from their original source and ADDED to foods usually as a sweetener or as a preservative for longer shelf life. They are also sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
There are estimated to now be at least 60 different names for these ‘free sugars’ as you can see here:
When reading a label, its important to check the ingredients list and look out for any sugars listed above. Often SUGAR will be on the list but companies are getting cheeky and are using other names like ‘evaporated cane juice’ or ‘organic palm sugar’ as a disguise and to avoid the word SUGAR. These are still an added ‘free sugar’ and usually contain the sugar molecule FRUCTOSE as a sweetener.
Fructose is what makes foods sweet. It is one half of table sugar and its why most of us have a sweet tooth.
Fructose is found in whole foods like fruit (and a small amount in vegetables), but when it comes to impact on our health, there is a big difference between when we eat it in fruit as opposed to it being a ‘free sugar’. Fructose in fruit is encased in fibre which hugely affects its metabolism in our bodies. The fibre helps to slow down the absorption and so it doesn’t get fast, direct access to the liver like it does when it is ‘free’.
As I experienced, when it is able to access the liver very quickly, there is no regulation process for it (because it was so rare in nature when we were evolving) so it rapidly gets turned into fat. This process is greatly effected and halted when the fructose is absorbed with the fibre of the fruit.
That is why we absolutely endorse eating fruit but agree with the WHO that when this sugar is ‘removed’ from its natural casing, it has a very different effect (i.e. juices, concentrates, syrups etc.)
This also goes for sugar cane. Sugar cane juice only makes up about 10% of the plant and if you ate it straight from the plant, you would also chew the stalk, getting some fibre to slow down absorption. In reality, what we do is extract this cane juice from its fibrous home then refine it until it becomes a fine white crystal.
If you are reading a label for plain milk you will notice it has a fair bit of sugar in it. This is the naturally occurring sugar lactose, not the ‘free sugars’ the World Health Organization is talking about. Flavoured milks however, are different – they have lactose plus added sugar.
This also applies to yoghurt. The naturally occurring lactose in yoghurt is around 1 teaspoon per 100 grams, so any more sugar than that is going to be the added sugar that the WHO is referring to. Check the ingredients list and look for those cheeky names mentioned above just to be sure.
This is a good example – it is a low fat fruit flavoured yoghurt. Let’s break it down.
The label says there are 19 grams of sugar per serving size of 170 grams. First, we check the ingredients and see the cheeky name for sugar ‘evaporated cane juice’ plus ‘fruit and vegetable juice concentrate’. As there are added sugars, let’s work out how many teaspoons of sugar has been added.
To do this, we divide 19 grams by 4 (as there is 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon). There is over 4 – closer to 5 – teaspoons of sugar. As mentioned above, we know that 1 teaspoon per 100 grams is lactose, which means that in 170 grams there will be 1.7 teaspoons of the naturally occurring sugar lactose.
This means 5 teaspoons in total minus the 1.7 teaspoons of lactose leaves 3.3 – there are over 3 teaspoons of added or ‘free sugars’ in this yoghurt. That is half the daily recommended WHO limit.
If you are going for a yoghurt, I would suggest a plain greek yoghurt and add your own whole fruit, if needed.
This is another area to look out for as we can often get a very high level of concentrated sugar in dried fruits.
I did an experiment in the film that didn’t make the cut that shows it very clearly. I counted out a box of sultanas and discovered there are around 90 in a box. (Note: a box of sultanas is easy to consume in one hit.) I then tried to eat 90 grapes (a sultana before the water is removed) in one go, and only got to about 25 before the fibre/water combination told my body that I was full. It didn’t allow me to access all that sugar. But once we remove the water, the structure changes and we can get a huge hit of concentrated sugar straight to our system. As we are now discovering, we simply aren’t designed to deal with that load.
A final point to remember with all these new discoveries about sugar is to be kind to yourself. Some products may have a little bit of sugar in them and that is okay. Try to avoid being extreme if you can.
Experts I have spoken to suggest that anything under 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams is okay to keep in the pantry. You might eventually cut back on these foods, but as a start, be kind to yourself and take the gentle approach.
I hope this helps.