Sugar is the devil, we’re told on an almost daily basis. Numerous studies have unearthed alarming findings on the sheer amounts of the stuff lurking in our favourite foods, while excess consumption has been linked to plenty of nasty health issues, too. Everything from dental decay to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
But among all this knowledge and awareness of sugar – obviously a good thing – potentially harmful misconceptions can grow. Here are some myths that well and truly need busting – and what better time to do so than Sugar Awareness Week?
Myth #1. Fruit is bad for you because it contains sugar.
“I try to avoid fruit, because of the sugar” is something US-based registered dietitian Carrie Dennett often hears from clients – an issue, because most people don’t actually eat enough fruit and veg. In the UK, we should be eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day. But most of us are lucky if we get that in a week.
There’s an idea that ‘all sugar is created equal,’ says Dennett, who runs Nutrition By Carrie, “but that’s not exactly true”. Context is key.
“To some extent, sugar is sugar, but when you look at the broader context, there’s a big difference between ‘natural’ sugar that comes in a fibre-rich, nutrient-rich ‘package’, and ‘added sugar’ that comes in a ‘package’ that contains few nutrients, and may also contain excess sodium and low-quality fats, as with many highly-processed snack foods,” she explains.
Dennett explains that when eating a piece of whole fruit, our digestive system has to break down all the fibre surrounding the sugar before we absorb it, “so it’s not going to just spike our blood sugar”.
Eat your fruit with a meal, or with some protein and fat from nuts or cheese as part of a snack, and you’ll digest it even slower, she adds. “Even a small glass of 100% fruit juice, consumed as part of a meal once a day or less, is fine.”
Myth #2. Honey is automatically healthy.
Sorry to break this to you as you’re slathering honey across your porridge, but honey’s health benefits are non-proven, says Katharine Jenner, campaign director for Action on Sugar and a registered public health nutritionist.
“Honey has a ‘health halo’ surrounding it, so that although it is incredibly sweet, people erroneously think it doesn’t count as ‘added sugar’ in the same way that, say, table sugar does,” says Jenner. But Public Health England defines honey as an added sugar. As Jenner says: “Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
Bahee Van de Bor, a specialist paediatric dietitian and British Dietetic Association (BDA) spokesperson, says even though some types of sugars like honey contain antioxidants or other nutrients, you’d need to consume a large quantity to benefit. “This sadly would negate any potential proposed benefits of consuming the organic variety of sugar,” she explains.
If you are caught in the dilemma of whether to have sugar or honey on your porridge, the latter is probably slightly better, but there’s not much in it.
As nutritionist Keith Kantor explains: “Sugar is sugar. And honey is (mostly) sugar. But if you’re choosing between the two from a health perspective, err on the side of the sticky stuff.”
Myth #3. You should try and quit sugar completely.
Moderation is everything when it comes to diet, and that includes in the realms of sugar. It’s widely agreed that added sugars – sugars which are added to foods, either by us or manufacturers – aren’t good for us.
“That doesn’t mean that if eating less is good for us, that eating none is better,” stresses Dennett. “I see this disturbing idea online, in books and in the media that we can ‘disease-proof’ ourselves, that if we eat perfectly that we will enjoy perfect health.
“I think sugar avoidance is part of that. The fact is that many factors contribute to health, and nutrition is only one part of that. There’s a big difference between eating or drinking large quantities of sugary foods and beverages – perhaps mindlessly, perhaps as a desperate grab for an energy boost or some stress relief – and mindfully enjoying a portion of a thoughtfully chosen dessert or other sweet treat in the context of a balanced, nutritious diet.”
Myth #4. Fruit juice is good for you.
When buying those massive cartons of juice from the supermarket that go past their best in the space of a week, it can be tempting to chug the lot in the space of a few days. And that’s a really bad idea. Juice provides some vitamins, but it also contains ‘free sugars’.
As Action on Sugar’s Katharine Jenner explains: “Whole fruit is good for you. So are vegetables. You do not need to worry about the sugars in whole fruit or vegetables. However, when fruit is processed (ie. juiced), the cellulose structure containing sugar breaks down and becomes ‘free’ of its fibrous cell – hence we call these ‘free sugars’ – and becomes as harmful as any other added sugar.”
This goes for fruit and vegetable juices, concentrates, smoothies, purées, pastes, powders and extruded fruit and vegetable products such as kid’s fruit snacks, says Jenner.
BDA spokesperson Bahee Van de Bor suggests it’s always better to eat your fruit whole. Once it’s juiced, she says, you can end up consuming far more fruit than you intended or realised. “The fibre in whole pieces of fruit also helps you to recognise when you are full,” she adds.
Myth #5. Cartoons on kids’ food mean it’s healthy.
Nope, sorry. Parents should be really aware that fun cartoon packaging doesn’t give a nutritional green-light for products to be given to kids.
“It is widely assumed by parents and grandparents that if packaging is designed to appeal to children – such as cartoons, mascots, characters – that they are somehow ‘approved for use’ by children,” says Jenner.
Yet half of over 500 food and drink products using cartoon animations on pack are so high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt, they couldn’t even be advertised on TV during kids programmes, an Action on Sugar report found.
“There are no regulations, restrictions or even watchdogs to control what manufacturers put on their packaging, which is why we are calling for a ban on cartoons on unhealthy foods,” she adds.
Myth #6. ‘No added sugar’ means it’s healthy.
Not necessarily, says Van de Bor. Look closely at the ingredients list at the back of food product packaging. It’s important to be mindful that ‘natural’ free sugars may have been used instead. These can include fruit juice concentrate; honey; syrups like date, agave or maple; fructose or coconut sugar.
Scientific names such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose are also types of added sugar or free sugars, “but many people don’t realise that these words actually mean sugar”, she adds. So keep an eye out for them.
Myth #7. All sugars are terrible.
Not everything is doom and gloom – there are better sugars out there. Naturally occurring sugars found in whole fruit, vegetables and milk-based products are not considered harmful for health, says Action on Sugar, although they still contain calories.