By now the knowledge that over-eating sugar is a bad thing for our bodies has reached pretty much everyone. Yet we don’t seem to be able to kick the habit. Why is it so difficult?
There are many reasons for this, but here are my top three reasons:
Affordable and popular. Sugar and simple starches (that are converted to sugar in the body) are among the cheapest ingredients. This makes their use economical for many food companies. Sugar makes food more popular with the consumer – it seem to be deeply rooted into humans physiology and psychology to like sugar, as it is a quick energy source. So even well-meaning food companies know that they get punished by consumers if they reduce the sugar in their products. The only other solution being pursued is to substitute sweeteners for the sugar, which does not seem to solve the fundamental health problems.
Fiber malnourishment. What makes things worse is that while increasing sugar intake, we have also reduced our fiber consumption. That combination is deadly. For every 10g less fiber consumed per day, we increase our risk of dying by ca. 10%. And across much of the world, people consume at least 10 g a day less than we should. Fiber also helps absorb sugar and reduce its impact on our metabolism. I have introduced the idea of a sugar-to-fiber ratio rather than looking only at sugar, because it is this ratio that determines the healthiness of foods and drinks. In my upcoming book (Fiber for Life) I argue that adding fiber, rather than reducing sugar is the strategy we should follow.
Daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Camouflage. Since most consumers these days are aware of the health risks involved with a high sugar intake, many food producers find ways to camouflage the sugar and continue to enjoy increased growth. There is really only one way to be sincere about sugar and that is to call it what it is. Traditionally, there have been three ways of adding sugar to sweeten things: 1) fruit, which has the added benefit of also adding fiber, 2) honey – everyone knows that it contains sugar (some may include maple syrup here too), and 3) you guessed it, sugar. From a biological, chemical and energy density perspective, sugar is sugar. Brown, red, blue, organic or green does not matter. Syrup, nectar, molasses etc. are concentrated sugar. They are natural substances, but natural doesn’t equal healthy. Remember that even Botox, snake venom, cyanide, and uranium are natural substances.
Calling sugar by any other name, in my mind, is trying to fool the consumer. Below, a few examples of strategies I have encountered on consumer packaging:
Strategy 1 – Make it sound like a “good” sugar. Associate sugar with words and ingredients that sound attractive and useful
Often the origin is used as a credential such as organic, natural, clean … (e.g., organic raw sugar, brown rice sugar). At other times, consumer trust in fruits and plants is used to make you drop your guard (e.g., maple sugar, beetroot sugar, apple butter), or suggest to you that an attractive process has been used to make the product (e.g., malted rice).
Strategy 2 – Sweet, but pretend that it is not really sugar
Use of words that suggest sweetness such as nectar, juice, syrup (e.g., agave nectar, dehydrated sugar cane juice), “natural fruit extracts”, or my favourite, coconut blossom nectar. It just sound so nice, but does the same job as table sugar of pushing your insulin levels to olympic heights.
Strategy 3 – Make it sound exotic, or not at all like sugar
Use exotic words that have nothing to do with sugar or that are unknown, such as sorghum, turbinado, demerara, muscovado, jaggery, molasses, mizuame. The list and manufacturers fantasy is endless. Many sweeteners also fall in this category.
Strategy 4 – Call it something complicated
Using scientific or complex words such as dextrose, maltodextrin (as opposed to dextrin which is a fiber) makes it sound like it is important, and the hope is that you just read on and ignore it.
Strategy 5 – Hiding behind brand names (likely illegal)
Use a product name for an ingredient to avoid writing that it is sugar, or using ingredients sweetened by a subcontractor, but ignore reporting it. I have seen this done for example with fruit purees (with added sugar) that then are not mentioned on the final label. Same is true for juices, various types of milk powder, natural fruit extracts and syrups. This is illegal in many jurisdictions, as it should be, but I see it happen all the time. I generally contact the manufacturer and give them a chance to correct their “error”. This trend can even be seen in the fiber space, where some ingredient manufacturers sell various ingredients under “fiber” and market its pre-biotic credentials, but a simple taste test of the product tells you that it is partially made of sugar (fiber should not be sweet at all, only sugar is). The reason is that a lot of these products are heavily degraded fiber or starches. I find this troubling because it undermines efforts to increase true fiber in human nutrition and leads to potential underreporting of sugar content.
So there you have it. It is hard to defend against all these strategies. Good news is that you do have three allies to help you out. Your eyes, your tongue and your gut. Look at the nutrition panel, if the ratio of sugar-to-fiber is lower than 4:1 you’re in healthy territory. Fruit, for example, is roughly 4:1 and is healthy with a large body of evidence backing up my claim. Anything higher than 4:1 (many snacks are 20:1) should only be consumed at your own risk. And finally, put your tongue to good use: if it is pretty sweet, it is full of sugar (or sweetener) no matter if people or the package tell you otherwise.
This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.
1 Adam Drewnowski, Julie A. Mennella, Susan L. Johnson, and France Bellisle (2012) Sweetness and Food Preference; J Nutr. Jun; 142(6): 1142S–1148S.
2 For a review see Francisco Javier Ruiz-Ojeda, Julio Plaza-Díaz, Maria Jose Sáez-Lara, Angel Gil (2019) Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 10, Issue suppl_1, January 2019, Pages S31–S48
3 Yang, Y., Zhao, L. G., Wu, Q.J., Ma X., Xiang Y. B. (2015), Association between dietary fibre and lower risk of all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies; Am J Epidemiol, 181 (2): 83–91.
4 For example see these two meta analyses: Schwingshackl L, Schwedhelm C, Hoffmann G, Lampousi AM, Knüppel S, Iqbal K, Bechthold A, Schlesinger S, Boeing H. (2017), Food groups and risk of all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr.; Jun;105(6):1462-1473. Wang Xia, Ouyang Yingying, Liu Jun, Zhu Minmin, Zhao Gang, Bao Wei et al. (2014), Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies BMJ ; 349 :g4490
5 The human tongue can detect sugar at levels as low as 0.05%. So if something tastes as sweet as an apple then there is about 10% sugar in it. So just compare things to the sweetness of a typical fruit and compare that to what is written on the package. If the package says 6% sugar, but it tastes like an apple, then they are lying or are incompetent in determining their nutritional values.