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.