- Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN
Sugar: Facts vs Fake News
Updated: Apr 14
There has been a LOT of talk in the past few years demonizing sugar. And before that LOTS of talk demonizing fats. I'm not going to go into how this all started, mostly because so many others have done it so well. My favorite nutrition news guru, #nutritionwonk, debunked "The Sugar Conspiracy" article published in The Guardian a couple years ago, arguing that there was never a sugar conspiracy to begin with - quite humorous. But also well-researched and a great read. And if you're not quite caught up, one nutrition researcher several decades ago claimed dietary fat was to blame for heart disease and another blamed sugar. The fat guy won the publicity war and for years we blamed fat for all the deaths, when in fact, is was sugar all along! Silly us. (Just to be clear, it has not been proven it was sugar all along. Highly refined vegetable oils and trans fats are pretty clearly a big problem too.)
As religion, politics, and now our food and health theories become more polarized, I wonder why. Are we so bored we must find things to fight about? Today we have the paleo and keto folks arguing with the plant-based-whole-food folks about who's diet will kill you and who's will save your life. While this fight is fascinating, annoying, and certainly complicated, I'd like to clear up a little bit about sugar, and in particular ADDED SUGAR.
What is added sugar?
Sugars - mostly glucose and it's derivatives - are added to foods as they are processed and prepared. This is done for flavor, color, texture, and shelf stability. While a little of this in your diet is just fine, the problem we have in this country is that many people get a bit too much of their intake from added sugar through sugar-sweetened beverages and sweet baked goods. Excessive intake of refined starches (white bread, white pasta) doesn't help either.
The FDA recently informed us they will be changing the nutrition facts label. They are removing from the label a couple nutrients that most of us get enough of without trying too hard, like vitamin A and C, and adding nutrients we don't generally get enough of, like potassium and vitamin D. They're also adding a line under "Total Sugars" that says "Added Sugar", which is
sugar(s) added to the product, or that which is not naturally found in the ingredients.
This does not include naturally occurring sugars like lactose (from dairy) or fructose (from fruits). This is great news - both for the public and for health professionals. It is however, a tad confusing, is pissing off some food industry folks, and will not be required until 2020. Here's a link to a great 20 minute radio bit about the controversy.
We find refined sugar in all sorts of hidden places, some more obvious than others:
bottled beverages like soda, tea, fruit juice
bottled salad dressings and marinades
bottled and canned sauces
crackers and bread
granola bars, dried fruits
The amount of added sugar listed on the label will now include total grams of any sugar that is used to sweeten the food, including concentrated fruit and vegetable juice, honey, and agave. You're correct - these are not created equal! Refined table sugar has no redeeming qualities, the others do. In order to distinguish between added "refined" sugar and added "natural" sugar, the FDA is adding a little symbol (that looks like a cross...?) next to the naturally sweet ingredient, such as orange juice, in the ingredient list. So while this is a tad confusing, I generally support it. Sugar is a confusing topic, which has been proven to be even more true lately.
Here's a pic of the old and the new label.
To clarify the natural vs refined sugar labeling debacle, here's a snippet from an article in U.S News, written by registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix.
"You may also notice that foods like honey, maple syrup and cranberry products
that meet the FDA definition of added sugar but are still pure products (as opposed
to those containing extra table sugar) may contain a cross-like symbol on the label
and statement on the back detailing exactly what "added sugars" means."
What about natural sugars? Can I eat those?
Natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables, legumes, and milk are not a public health concern, and nor should they be yours - unless you have lactose intolerance. Plant foods are the only place we get magical phytonutrients like anthocyanins, carotenoids, and fiber.
Entirely cutting out added sugar is not something that I think is a good idea for most people. Birthday cake and ice cream once in a while are too important for happiness. If it isn't clear yet, I stand firmly behind consuming whole food carbohydrate sources very regularly - whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes. Carbohydrates are an important part of life and the best source of energy we've got.