Healthy or Just a Pretty Name? How to Make Sense About Sugar

Recently I sent out an email requesting healthy recipes. (There’s still time to submit yours! Please send them to Susan: susan@jjvirgin.com.) There are rules. For instance: no dairy, soy, gluten, and other potentially high-sensitivity foods. Most people get this, but my other request seemed more confusing: no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving.

My email opened people’s eyes about sugar, and one reader sent the following thoughtful reply:

 

I don’t have a recipe to submit but I just wanted you to know that you really made me think about my sugar intake from your email.

I try very hard not to use white sugar, and use brown sugar and honey whenever possible.  Who knew that a banana had 17-grams of sugar?  When I have them in the house I will eat them like they’re candy.

On the “Important Note About Sugar” paragraph I was blown away because I thought that everything you had listed there was good for you and the best alternative to real sugar.

Thank you for the education!

 

I get a lot of questions from readers and at conferences about sugar. It can be confusing to make sense of the numerous names for sugar or to determine what a serving size is, but hopefully my answers will help clarify things just like my email did for this reader.

Here are the most frequent questions I get about sugars and other sweeteners.

You require 5 grams or less of sugar per serving in your recipe submissions. Why’s that?

Any more than that and you’re risking raising your blood sugar and all its accompanying problems. Five grams is about a teaspoon, so picture a recipe having no more than a level teaspoon per serving. To put that into perspective: a 20-ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar.

How can I understand a label to see how much sugar I’m getting?

Labels list sugar in grams. A good rule of thumb is that 5 grams is about 1 teaspoon. So if a serving has 18 grams, you can picture getting 4-1/2 teaspoons of sugar. Keep in mind this is per serving, and manufacturers are notorious for keeping portion sizes small to give the illusion of less calories, fat, sugar, etc.

How do I become a sugar sleuth and find hidden sugars in my foods?

Manufacturers craftily disguise sugar in many forms. Some of them sound healthy, and others you’d have no idea they were actually sugar. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these 50 – yes, 50! – alternate names for sugar.

  1. Barley malt
  2. Beet sugar
  3. Brown sugar
  4. Buttered syrup
  5. Cane juice crystals
  6. Cane sugar
  7. Caramel
  8. Corn syrup
  9. Corn syrup solids
  10. Confectioner’s sugar
  11. Carob syrup
  12. Castor sugar
  13. Date sugar
  14. Demerara sugar
  15. Dextran
  16. Dextrose
  17. Diastatic malt
  18. Diatase
  19. Ethyl maltol
  20. Fructose
  21. Fruit juice
  22. Fruit juice concentrate
  23. Galactose
  24. Glucose
  25. Glucose solids
  26. Golden sugar
  27. Golden syrup
  28. Grape sugar
  29. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  30. Honey
  31. Icing sugar
  32. Invert sugar
  33. Lactose
  34. Maltodextrin
  35. Maltose
  36. Malt syrup
  37. Maple syrup
  38. Molasses
  39. Muscovado sugar
  40. Panocha
  41. Raw sugar
  42. Refiner’s syrup
  43. Rice syrup
  44. Sorbitol
  45. Sorghum syrup
  46. Sucrose
  47. Sugar
  48. Treacle
  49. Turbinado sugar
  50. Yellow sugar

I can’t possibly keep up with that list! Isn’t there an easier way to detect sugar on a label?

Anything ending in –ose is a sure sugar bet. And, of course, if it has “sugar” in the title… well, duh, it’s sugar even if it’s organic or otherwise sounds healthy.

This still confuses me. What’s the best way to avoid added sugars?

Stick with a whole foods diet with plenty of lean protein, good fats, and leafy green veggies. Most whole foods are low in sugar. There are exceptions like some higher-sugar fruits (which I’ll mention below), but for the most part sticking with a whole foods diet will reduce your sugar intake and eliminate added sugars.

I have a recipe that calls for agave, which my health food store now promotes as the new healthy all-natural sweetener.

Despite the clever marketing, agave is actually worse for you than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which deservedly has a bad rep. Agave certainly sounds healthy, and the word literally means “noble.” What could be so bad? Well, most agave “nectar” or agave “syrup” is simply fructose syrup. In fact, agave can be up to 97% fructose. Worse, heavy processing destroys most of agave’s nutrient value. True, agave has a low glycemic index, but what it does is far worse than raise insulin levels: it can raise your triglyceride levels, trigger inflammation, and otherwise damage your liver. So don’t fall for the agave hype.

What about honey? My friend told me it has health benefits.

The short answer is that sugar is sugar is sugar. Doesn’t matter if it comes from bees or sugarcane: it still breaks down in your body as sugar. Most honey is heavily processed, stripping it of valuable nutrients. My one exception is locally grown organic raw honey, which offers some homeopathic benefits for allergies. If you have immune responses to bits of mold and dust, organic honey can strengthen your immune system and help you handle those things better.  But you only need about a half-teaspoon a day to do the job.

My favorite soft drink just made the switch from high-fructose corn syrup to natural cane sugar. Am I good?

Nope. Granted, cane sugar is probably one step up in the sugar echelon than HFCS. But it’s still sugar, period.

I bought a healthy bottle of green tea that’s naturally sweetened. Should I worry about the sugar?

Again, keep in mind that manufacturers are always looking for ways to make sugar “healthier” and get you to buy their product, especially now that HFCS has gotten a bad rep. Read your label. If it has more than 5 grams of sugar per serving, put it back. Chances are, it does, and chances are you’ll drink more than one serving.

I’ve read that fruit can have a lot of sugar. I thought fruit was healthy?

Fruit has a lot going for it: it’s rich in nutrients and fiber, for instance, and can more healthily satisfy your sweet tooth than a candy bar. But fruit can also pack a lot of sugar. Three ounces of grapes, for instance, have almost 3 teaspoons of sugar. (And let’s face it: you’ll probably eat more than that!) Fruit is also high in fructose. Now, your body can efficiently process a small amount (about 15 grams) of fructose a day. More than that and your liver goes into overdrive, which can spark inflammation and stall fast fat loss. Choose low-glycemic fruits like berries. Three ounces of strawberries, for instance, has about 4 grams of sugar. Portion control is key with fruit.

What about dried fruit?

Dried fruit is basically concentrated sugar. There’s a reason, after all, they call raisins and dates “nature’s candy”: they satisfy your sweet tooth. Steer clear of dried fruit on salad and those dried fruit trail mixes: they add a lot of sugar to otherwise-healthy foods!

Why don’t you allow artificial sweeteners in the recipes? After all, they don’t have any calories.

Surely by now you’ve read about how artificial sweeteners can trigger cravings, make you eat more (and not salmon and broccoli either! We call this calorie dysregulation), and stall fast fat loss. Even though at this point most of the evidence is anecdotal (though more studies are validating it), aspartame and other artificial sweeteners can create numerous symptoms including headaches and fatigue. Hopefully more people are coming around to see these are not “legal” or healthy alternative sweeteners.

So what sweeteners can I use?

My favorite is xylitol, a sugar alcohol that’s derived from birch trees that has a low glycemic index and actually provides some health benefits. You can bake with xylitol, and it doesn’t have the bitter aftertaste some people find with stevia. That’s another option, but skip the ones mixed with sugar alcohols and other additives and look for pure stevia. Xylitol has a few calories per serving, whereas stevia has no calories and can potentially create calorie dysregulation. Both are okay, but xylitol is better.

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Comments

  1. What about monk fruit or lohan fruit? It’s now being touted as the new calorie-free sweetener, now that agave nectar has fallen out of favor.

    • JJ Virgin says:

      I like it. It’s one of those things you don’t want to overeat, but monk fruit doesn’t raise blood sugar, which is good in my book.

  2. The only fat part of me is my stomach and I have been told it is that way because of diabetes.
    I would really like to have a stomach in sinc with the rest of me.. I have to avoid clothes sizes that fit everywhere except my stomach. I am actually a bit depressed because I feel that I never look well
    dressed.

  3. Bev Drattlo says:

    Simple Probiotic Punch
    1 gallon of filtered water
    3/4 cup sugar
    1 packet of starter culture from Body Ecology
    Stir and let culture until DRY when it starts turning to vinegar you are safe but don’t let it go to long 3 to 5 days and cover to keep fruit flies out
    pour off all but 2 cups in another container
    add 2 to 3 lemons and stevia to taste
    in the origional container refill with water add sugar and it will ferment on its own
    you can go 8 ferments before you need a new starter

  4. One of my favorite snacks is a tbsp. of Chia seeds stirred into 1/2 cup or more of unsweetened almond milk, and let it sit for awhile to thicken into a pudding.. Am I okay to stir in a little cocoa powder to give it a little chocolate kick?

  5. Just read your list of sugars. Would Pure Vegetable Glycerin be considered a sugar?? The make is from Heritage Products.

  6. Laura Yrigoyen says:

    What about coconut sugar?

  7. Is raw honey ok on the diet?

  8. Annette says:

    If a processed food such as a protein powder, only has 4 grams of sugar per serving, but the sugar comes from fructose, is this okay to consume? What is the difference between high fructose corn syrup and just fructose?

    I’ve read your book and your three sugar articles and I know you say fructose isn’t that great in one of your other articles- it “raises your cholesterol, increases glycosylated hemoglobin, spikes your blood pressure, and sets you up for insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes… added fructose in packaged foods comes heavily processed, typically from corn (a no-no on The Virgin Diet), with little or no fiber and other nutrients to buffer its negative effects…”

    But what if the fructose doesn’t come from corn and it’s not heavily processed and it’s under 5 grams? is it okay then? thanks for your help!

  9. Can you use Erythritol? It seems to dissolve a bit better and it’s not as “cool” feeling as Xylitol… also it doesn’t seem to cause stomach distress like Xylitol can… I still use and love Xylitol, but prefer Erythritol… just curious on your opinion… also yes, my dog almost died twice from ingesting Xylitol…. please be careful if you have dogs using either one I would suspect.

  10. Diana Wells says:

    Hi,
    Just before I discovered the Virgin Diet I had purchases some Organic Coconut Sugar. I don’t have diabetes but I do have hypoglycemia (since I was a child when everyone thought it was psychosomatic) and have spent a lifetime and a small fortune trying to keep it from becoming diabetes.
    What I have read about Coconut Sugar seems different than your statement that Sugar is Sugar is Sugar.
    I don’t understand why it can’t be used in your plan. How is Coconut Milk OK but not a teaspoon of Coconut Sugar? It is low on the Glycemic Index and is loaded with nutrients. It has 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon and is safe for use by diabetics. I love the taste and don’t get a rush of insulin when I use it. But I am making progress with your diet and don’t want to mess that up as it is the first time in 35 years that I might actually lose this extra 50 lbs. It’s just that I love Coconut anything. I used egg replacer, a half cup of Coconut Sugar and a tsp of Stevia to make two Organic Pumpkin Pies with Pecans on top. They turned out great. Do I need to start the diet over?

  11. Help! My body rejects pea protein and rice protein, causing major intestinal issues. What other protein is there that I could eat for breakfast?

  12. I just started the virgin diet and bought some vegan pea protein powder from a local health food store. I read the label and ingredients and now realize that it contains maltodextrin. It says 2 scoops is one serving and 1 serving contains 3g of sugar…is this protein powder still OK to use or should I look for another one?

  13. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this site. I am hoping to view the same high-grade blog posts by you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own website now ;)

  14. Mary Anne Quigley says:

    What about brown rice syrup in veganaisle?

  15. What about beets? I like a roasted beet and vegetable salad. Should I cut that out now?

  16. I was wondering….I know corn,peanuts and soybeans are forbidden foods but what about if they are organic and non-gmo? Are they allowed then?

    • Jessica, please read the book it is all spelled out there. In short, it is not just the organic/non gmo issues with corn or soybeans. Corn is pro-inflammatory and high glycemic which spikes your blood sugar. Soybeans disrupts your hormones, is bad for your thyroid and it is over processed. As far as peanuts(legume) go, tree nuts are just a better choice. They a very reactive food for many and high risk of aflatoxin mold. which is toxic and provokes a lot of allergies. Please check in on https://www.facebook.com/jjvirginfanclub for more information and questions.

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