April 20, 2015 § 5 Comments
I can’t be sure, but I have this vague idea that once upon a time people ate food. Just food. They didn’t talk about it in terms of calories, or grams, or “free sugars” or “percentages of energy intake.” They talked about it in terms of food.
And to a certain degree I think it would be kind of nice to get back to this idea that food is for eating, not for counting, or measuring, or hiding in the bottom of our sock drawer, or whatever the latest medical advice is. I don’t know if you’ve noticed? But it seems the Era of Nutritional Advice is not exactly doing us a whole heck of a lot of good.
Of course the oft-noted irony is that despite the fact that we are all inundated with recommendations from every conceivable source about what we eat, and how we eat it; we are less healthy than ever. We have epidemics of things our grandparents considered extremely rare- like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease- as well as things we’ve unwittingly invented- like metabolic syndrome. Worst of all, this generation of children is the first on record predicted to live shorter lives than their parents.
In the wake of the World Health Organization’s recent nutritional recommendations I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of nutritional advice, and where it gets us. When the WHO advises people- as it did a few weeks ago- to try to limit their “free sugars” to “5% of total energy intake,” I know the twelve or thirteen people who actually paid attention to that report probably wanted to claw hysterically at their refrigerator doors and scream: “WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN???”
I’m here to tell you that, as a person who’s spent the last several years thinking about, writing about, and generally obsessing over the impacts of sugar on our health, I don’t know what the recommendation means- not instinctively, anyway. So, besides the physicians and nutritionists, who the heck does?
Practically nobody. Instead, the highly motivated among us (read: fanatical) sit down and try to figure it out with pencil and paper and a few good internet searches. Upon further research we learn that an average adult diet might consist of about 500 grams of food per day. This would mean that 5% of an average “total energy intake” would be 25 grams. Which, if we know that 4 grams equals about one teaspoon of sugar, would translate to roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Of course, this is wildly nonspecific— do I eat 500 grams of food per day? Do you? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?— but unless we want to wander around describing every last mouthful we ingest to a computer app, or invent an implant that will automatically count it all up for us and display the information on our wrist or forehead or something- broad generalizations will have to do.
But here’s some practical info that these generalizations translate into, that the groups like the WHO or the Department of Health and Human Services won’t- can’t– come out and tell you in so many words: effectively the new recommendation means don’t drink soda or juice. Why? Because:
– a 12 oz can of Coke= 10 tsp sugar
– a 20 oz bottle of Coke= 16 tsp sugar
– a 15 oz Naked juice smoothie= 17 tsp sugar
See? If, as we’ve just figured out, the average adult recommendation is not more than 6 tsp sugar per day, than have one can of soda and already the alarms are going off: you’ve had nearly two days worth of sugar right there, not including anything else you might eat or drink that day. Have a larger soda or a “healthy” juice smoothie? And that alarm becomes a blaring siren: that’s nearly three days worth of sugar.
Hopefully by now people are starting to get the message that there’s a scary amount of sneaky sugar hiding in virtually every product for sale in our supermarkets… in our bread, in our chicken broth, in our mayonnaise… and so on. Two pieces of bread might contain one tsp sugar, a serving of chicken broth might contain ¼ tsp sugar, a tablespoon of mayo less than that. Certainly we need to be mindful of how all these small sources of sugar add up throughout the course of our day. Yet, as you can see, none of these sources can hold a candle to the blast of sugar that your system receives when you drink just one juice or soda.
So if the WHO were to recommend the biggest, simplest, most practical step people could take in the reduction of dietary sugar and improvement of their long-term health? Clearly, it would be to stop drinking soda and juice.
But OhMyGod can you imagine the mess the World Health Organization would be in for if they started telling people not to drink juice or soda anymore? Previous attempts to stem the sugar tide— such as banning the bucket soda or taxing sugar-sweetened beverages— have resulted in such indignant histrionics that you’d think Mountain Dew had been mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. So what would outright telling people just how bad for them their favorite drinks are do? I’m pretty sure all-freaking-heck would break loose. Panic in the streets… mass hysteria… dogs and cats living together…
But it could be worth it. I know it sounds impossible now, but if soda and juice were relegated to the category of Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, (along with doctor-recommended cigarettes, parachute pants, and deep fried butter on a stick) maybe it would mean that we could all stop with the calorie/gram/percentage-counting madness— all of which obfuscates more than it clarifies— and instead of having a “dietary energy intake” we could just go back to what I like to call: “eating food.” And be healthier in the bargain.
A crazy idea, but it just might work.
February 27, 2015 § 5 Comments
In case you were wondering, once your family has gone to all the trouble of eating for a year without added sugar, the world does not go away. People still ply your kid with armloads of sugar from every conceivable direction. Bowls of well-intentioned free candy turn up in the strangest places: The hairdresser’s. The bank. The dry cleaner. The Farmer’s Market, for crying out loud.
And just in case that fact had escaped my notice, I’d have become aware of it whenever I wanted to wash one of Ilsa’s jackets or coats, because like a little mouse thinking of winter, she squirrels away the free lollipops and Hershey’s kisses and Lifesavers in her many pockets.
Here’s the funny thing though: they stay in her pocket. And just in case you think I’m suffering from an acute case of Mom Deluding Herself Bigtime, here’s another interesting fact: all that candy masquerading as Valentines that the kids exchanged in school two weeks ago? Ilsa’s not inconsiderable portion thereof is still sitting in our kitchen cupboard, untouched. It’s in good company, because it sits on top of the candy she’s received at various birthday parties and Christmas. At the very bottom of the pile is her large sack of Halloween candy: also largely untouched. This is, mind you, on the very bottom shelf of the cupboard, well within my kids’ reach.
Now, did I say “largely untouched”? Yes. Ilsa and Greta have each had, I’d estimate, about three to four pieces of their Halloween candy since they collected it four months ago. As if to drive the point home still further, one child in Ilsa’s fourth grade class who was absent for Valentine’s Day sent home a handful of candy with Ilsa this week so it has yet to officially make its way to the pile in the cupboard. It consists of: three Starbursts, two pieces of bubblegum and a mini package of Whoppers, which have been sitting on the kitchen counter for the last four days, presumably enjoying their solitude.
Now- I’m not going to lie to you. My kids do try out sugary things once in a while, almost as if they are checking to see if they are still there, and whether their mom will turn inside out or grow horns when they do it. I make a concerted effort not to.
And I think that’s as it should be. The world will continue to do what the world does, and my kids have enough information to make these decisions themselves at this point, if anyone does. They know what I think. And I figure the more I belabor the point now, the more it will backfire.
So instead I just quietly hold firm to the things I am in control of: no matter how many times Ilsa tells me she prefers vanilla, I still buy plain yogurt. Dressing up our oatmeal in the morning means adding raisins. “Dessert” in our packed lunches means an apple or an orange. Drink choices are milk or water. Actual, sugar-containing dessert remains a “once every couple of weeks” occasion, and in modest portions.
When the kids go out into the world- as they are doing increasingly as they are growing older, and further away from our official Year of No Sugar- they will make their own decisions about whether to choose sugar in their food or not. Two recent occurrences give me reason to suspect, however, that all is not lost.
Just the other night Greta (who is now nearly 15) and I were out at an event, and she was offered a tall glass of root beer, which she accepted (after a significant sidelong glance at her mom).
After one sip she remarked “it’s SO SWEET!!” and then “It’s REALLY GOOD!!” She proceeded to drink about half of the tall glass. (Later on, she told me, she went back and finished it mainly because grown-ups were still chatting and she was bored.)
Not long afterwards, she interrupted my conversation with some friends to ask if we could go- she was tired. Really tired. She didn’t look well- didn’t look like her normal cheerful self. Amazingly, I failed to put two and two together until we were in the car and Greta did it for me.
“I think it was the soda,” she said. “Too much sugar.”
As for Ilsa, (who is now ten), last week we were lucky enough to play host to a documentary film crew from the popular Middle Eastern show Khawater. For the interview, the affable host Ahmad AlShugairi had requested we have on hand some examples of different high sugar meals and contrast them with no sugar alternatives. I had a lot of fun with this one- we focused on breakfast and I had the bizarro, upside-down experience of trying to find the sugariest yogurts, cereals and pancake mixes on the shelves at my local supermarket.
Consequently, after the interview was over and the crew had left we had all this crazy sugary stuff lying around- including a bowl of Cheerios Protein cereal- which despite being marketed as a healthy cereal for adults, has more sugar then even the sweetest kid cereals (17 grams of sugar per 1 ¼ cup serving. Compare that to Froot Loops, for example, which are 15 grams of sugar for 1 ¼ cup serving). Ilsa was curious: could she eat the bowl we had poured as a prop?
Hmmm. I reminded her it was veeeery sweet, but told her she could if she wanted to. Just as with Greta’s soda, Ilsa liked the cereal A LOT… at first. About halfway through the bowl she remarked that it was awfully sweet. Maybe she wouldn’t finish it after all. And then she said she didn’t feel all that good.
“Yeah, isn’t it amazing what sugar can do when you aren’t used to it?” I said, hopefully offhandedly.
Fast forward to this morning: Ilsa enjoyed- along with her egg and some orange slices- a bowl of her new favorite cereal: Rice Chex. It has 2 grams of sugar per serving. (I think it makes her feel adventurous to have a cereal with a bit of sugar in it somewhere- but appreciates the fact that it doesn’t give her tummy ache.)
Meanwhile, for the last week the rest of the box of Cheerios Protein sits forlornly in our kitchen, untouched. (I kind of feel bad throwing away food- even sugary food- so I’m procrastinating.) I wonder if it’s lonely, but then again, perhaps it will make friends with the Halloween, Christmas, and Valentines Candy. After all, they have a lot in common.
October 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Like a kid who has gone off to college, Year of No Sugar has gone off into the world and is having all kinds of adventures. Sometimes I just get to hear about them, like when my agent calls up to say “Congratulations! YONS is being translated into Chinese!”
Other times, it shows up on our doorstep, like this past Sunday. All day we had a cameraman and interviewer from a Russian television show follow us around, filming us chatting at the Farmer’s Market, shopping at the supermarket, cooking at home.
I was amazed and delighted that 2-3 million Russians are interested to find out about our family and our adventures not eating sugar. And I was dismayed to learn that this is, at least in part, because Americans aren’t the only ones suffering from excess sugar intake. According to our interviewer Sergey, Russians suffer from a holdover mentality of deprivation, (much like Americans who survived the Great Depression I imagine). During the time of the USSR, he told me, it was difficult to find foods that were “tasty.”
“Now, even though things are readily available,” he told me, “When they find something good, the tendency is to always take it- and a lot of it.” For example, he said his wife almost never leaves the house with their five-year-old son without buying him an ice cream- even if he doesn’t ask for it. Sometimes, he says, his son will want the ice cream mainly for the free toy that comes with it.
When questioned about this, Sergey’s wife responded “Don’t take away his fun of being a kid!”
So you see, we Americans don’t have a corner on the unnecessary sugar market, or the unfair marketing to kids market, or even on the parental guilt market either. Unfortunately, despite cultural differences, the language of Too Much Sugar is one more and more countries are becoming are all too fluent in. And the “Western diseases” that come with excess sugar consumption- from diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome to heart disease, hypertension and liver disease- are becoming “Everyone Diseases” instead. The other day I read an article about the epidemic of obesity in Africa. http://www.theguardian.com/society/the-shape-we-are-in-blog/2014/jul/07/obesity-nigeria
You know you have to rethink the problem of obesity when you realize it so easily coexists with malnutrition. Sugar used to be so expensive that one of the diseases it caused (gout) was known as the “rich man’s disease.” Now, sugar is so cheap that poor people around the world are subsisting on it instead of actual food. They are at once malnourished and obese.
So, as Americans export our fantastic way of eating (processed, packaged, fake and fast foods), what happens? In Japan, men’s obesity rates are up by 100%. China now has the second largest number of obese people after the US. In Israel, 50% of adults are overweight. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4491919,00.html
Are you scared yet? Kinda makes you look at that Coke can with your name on it another way, doesn’t it?
But it also makes me understand why it’s not just an American conversation anymore: it’s an Everyone Conversation. The Chinese version of Year of No Sugar will appear next year, (August 31, 2015); and a Hebrew translation is being made for Israeli release, (TBA). Sergey and Egor will be telling our story in Russia, (airs this November). And, in English, there’s now an audio version of the book as well. http://www.amazon.com/Year-No-Sugar-Memoir/dp/B00KSLH9N2/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1412168145 It’s exciting for me to know Year of No Sugar can be perhaps a tiny, little part of trying to push this global pandemic back in the other direction.
So have fun Year of No Sugar! Take good care of yourself. But don’t forget to send me a postcard- you know how I worry.
June 12, 2014 § 9 Comments
Can we talk about chocolate? First of all I’ve discovered that, apparently nothing rhymes with it. According to the unerring wisdom of the Internet, it rhymes with charming words like “slut,” “butt,” “gut” and “mutt.” This is probably why we don’t see any chocolate candy bars with cute rhyming names because they’d have to be something like: “Glutbutt’s Chocolate Nutty Sluts”!
But we all know chocolate doesn’t really rhyme with “nut,” because if it did we’d pronounce it “choc-LUT,” as opposed to “choc-LET.” (My computer goes on to insist that chocolate also rhymes with blanket, beechnut, carrot and zealot. My computer is, apparently, a moron.)
It seems nothing really rhymes with chocolate. Likewise, nothing really can take its place. During our Year of No Sugar I found lots of sugar replacement strategies that worked great, or at least pretty well. I managed to make banana ice cream, shortbread, brownies and coconut cake all of which passed effortlessly for sugar-containing (read: fructose-containing) treats.
But not chocolate. Chocolate, we came to realize during that sugar-free year, was the one thing we simply could not have, or even approximate.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of “Sugar Free,” chocolates on the market to choose from, but in the marketplace “Sugar Free” usually means traditional sugar has been replaced with one of two things:
- fake sugars (Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose which are marketed as Nutrasweet, Equal, Sweet n’ Low, Splenda)
- sugar alcohols (usually Maltitol but also Xylitol, Sorbitol, Isomalt etc.)
Because of reported possible side effects ranging anywhere from gastric distress to infertility and cancer, our family chose to away from both of these categories as well. So “Sugar Free” chocolate was also out.
Instead, we fed our inner chocolate lover with baked goods made with unsweetened cocoa. And those were good, often really quite good. But nothing ever came close to replicating the experience of a bite of actual, snap-when-you-bite, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate. Accordingly, at the end of our Year of No Sugar, when we all chose a special treat to have at midnight- what did I choose? A Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Ahhhh- chocolate at last.
So you can imagine how intrigued I was to find out recently that some friends of ours have recently taken up the pastime of home-chocolate making. Immediately, I wanted to know: could they make chocolate with a non-fructose sweetener? Could one make chocolate with… dextrose??
Now I’ve been down this road before. Similar to chocolate, sugar has some unique, magical properties that can’t always be replicated. Not only does sugar sweeten, but it also preserves, it thickens, it fills, it transforms things from one state to another. Therefore, using an alternative ingredient in sugar’s place may meet one need of the recipe, but not another. Exhibit A: Dextrose Jelly. In my book, Year of No Sugar, I tell the story of how I tried to make Concord Grape Jelly using dextrose in place of sugar, but suffice it to say that (spoiler alert!) I ended up with quite a few jars of an only just passable grape sauce instead.
Nevertheless, in the case of chocolate, my friends Tom and Robin were game to try. So one day recently I arrived at their home armed with my beach-ball-sized, orange, plastic barrel o’ dextrose.
Let me just say right now: making your own chocolate is unbelievably complicated. It’s the kind of thing that’s so convoluted that half-way through you begin to wonder how on earth it ever got invented in the first place. It’s not the kind of thing I would do to relax in my free time at home, any more than I would choose to build a particle accelerator out of matchsticks and used chewing gum in my backyard. But nonetheless this is Tom’s hobby.
Tom began by taking cacao beans he had already roasted and running them through a Champion juicer. Immediately, I was in out of my depth. Tom was talking about “volatiles” and “acetic acid” and “particles below 20 microns.” There was vocabulary, which being a word-person I can handle, but there was also lots of chemistry, which, being a word-person, makes me vaguely nauseous.
I tried to keep up. After grinding, the cacao bean “nibs” are separated from the husks via a complicated winnowing apparatus known as Tom’s hairdryer. Then back into the juicer they go, for a second grinding, which turns the nibs into a cocoa “liquor,” a rich-looking brown paste. The paste then gets ground by another specialized machine- a “melanger”- which refines all the grains down to a smooth consistency.
Then came an important moment- the step in which we would add the dextrose powder in place of sugar. But when we did, Tom was not pleased with whatever was happening in the melanger. He wondered aloud whether the mixture would “seize,” which definitely sounded like a bad thing, and made repeated frowning faces into the revolving mixer.
“It’s behaving very differently,” he said raising an eyebrow. “Well… we’ll see.”
“How does it taste?” Robin asked when he sampled some.
“Not very good,” he said matter-of-factly.
At this point I was quietly fearing for the life of the Dextrose Chocolate, who without warning was now under 24 hour surveillance in the chocolate ICU. Doctor Tom didn’t seem to like its chances for survival, and even if the patient survived, I wondered: what kind of quality of life could it possibly hope for as a chocolate that doesn’t taste good? And who does one contact to administer last rites to a blob of cocoa paste?
It would be awhile before we found out the answers to these questions: the melanging step lasts hours– I came back the next day for the final steps, which included “tempering” the now super-smooth paste by heating it in the microwave to exactly 120 degrees. Once the correct temperature is reached, you quickly reduce the temperature to 81 degrees. This is accomplished by spreading some of the paste on a marble slab and working it back and forth with a spackle thingy. (That’s a technical term.)
Patiently, Tom smoothed the chocolatey blob back and forth like the world’s most delicious wall plaster until he could tell from experience it was ready to “seed” the rest of the batch. Tom was talking about the four different types of butterfat crystals and the fact that the time-length for heating is not linear because of the changing crystal structure. He also said, and I quote, that “chocolate is a non-Newtonian liquid.” If you figure out what this means, please do not tell me.
Then back to the microwave! Are you with me? Now that the correct chemical whatzit had been reached we wanted to reliquify our chocolate to allow for spreading it into the bar molds. After this was accomplished, Tom checked carefully for evidence of any “bloom” which would’ve required the tempering process be done all over again. Incidentally, this is the point at which many chocolate makers kill themselves.
So do you want the good news or the great news? The good news is that the chocolate worked– the consistency was right, the liquid turned into actual, snap-able bars, tempered properly with no bloom and everything. The better news? It’s not only good- it tastes like… chocolate! Real chocolate! After licking one of the spoons used to portion the bars, Greta was fully prepared to arm-wrestle Robin for dibs on the spatula. It was very dark, yes, less sweet, yes. But no weird aftertaste, no “gastric distress.” There’s no fructose in sight and yet- it is nonetheless, undeniably real chocolate.
Who would’ve guessed that chocolate might rhyme with… dextrose? I mean, besides my computer.
May 12, 2014 § 19 Comments
You’d think there’d be a good online reference for all the Sugar Aliases out there, wouldn’t you? One that’d tell you ALL those different names for Sugar-With-A-Capitol-“S”, (which is to say ingredients that contain extracted fructose, ie: the BAD GUY in sugar). And there are some sugar-name lists, but, I’ll venture to say, perhaps none as comprehensive as this one.
One big problem is that many of the Sugar Name lists out there fail to distinguish between sweeteners that contain fructose and those that do not– thereby committing the unforgivable sin of lumping innocent and lovable brown rice syrup in with such metabolic evils as crystalline fructose! (Can you imagine?)
In compiling this new comprehensive list, many of the terms I already knew, but some I had to research further. I hope you appreciate all the articles I had to read with titles like “The Biological Synthesis of Dextran from Dextrins,“ and the fact that I now – against my will- know what a structural isomer is. Yes! I did that for you.
So, (insert trumpet fanfare here) here is my Up-To-The-Minute, Pretty-Much-Alphabetized, Family-Sized LIST of Sugars-to-Watch-Out-For:
PS- Find a new sugar name? Send it to me!! I’ll add it.
THE SUGAR ALPHABET (54 different names and counting)
- Barbados Sugar
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Sugar
- Brownulated Sugar
- Buttered Syrup
- Cane Juice
- Cane Sugar
- Cane Syrup
- Carob Syrup
- Castor/ Caster Sugar
- Confectioners Sugar
- Crystalline Fructose
- Date Sugar
- Demerara Sugar
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Evaporated Cane Syrup
- Evaporated Sugar Cane
- Florida Crystals
- Free Flowing Brown Sugar
- Fructose Crystals
- Fruit Juice
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Glazing Sugar
- Golden Sugar
- Golden Syrup
- Granulated Sugar
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
- Icing Sugar
- Invert Sugar
- King’s Syrup
- Maple Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Powdered Sugar
- Raw Sugar
- Refiners’ Syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Superfine Sugar
- Table Sugar
- Turbinado Sugar
- White Sugar
- Yellow Sugar
Not sugar but if I were you I would also avoid:
Artificial Sugar Substitutes:
- Acesulfame Potassium
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
- Neotame (Nutrasweet)
- Saccharin (Sweet n’ Low)
- Stevia (Truvia)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
The Good News List!
These sound suspicious, but are more or less fine. They aren’t all necessarily health foods mind you, but they are sweetening agents that contain no fructose.
- Barley Malt
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Corn Syrup
- Corn Syrup Solids
- Diastatic Malt
- Ethyl Maltol
- Glucose Solids
- Grape Sugar
- Malt Sugar
- Rice Syrup
Foods to Watch Out For:
You’ll find sugars in the strangest places, once you start to look. Here are some of the surprising, but very common offenders of hidden sugar (fructose):
- Baby Food
- Baby Formula
- Salad Dressing
- Cold Cuts
- Marinades and Sauces
- Smoked Salmon
- Chicken Broth
- Breakfast bars
- Granola bars
- Dried Fruit
Foods That Are Generally Safe from Fructose: (it’s a short list, isn’t it?)
- Non-flavored Pretzels
- Non-flavored Yogurt
- Non-flavored potato chips
May 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Did Julie Kelley find a severed hand in my fridge? Clutching a donut? These questions and more answered in this lovely interview on WCAX TV! Click below to watch interview Part One, Part Two, and for Yet Still More Eve-talking-about-the-“S”-word, click on “Entire Interview” for the full half-hour Q & A.
April 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
A Monday morning dose of Super-Awesome: glowing review of Year of No Sugar in FIRST for Women!!!
From article The 6 Paperbacks We’re Reading Now: “I certainly learned a lot about the benefits of reducing sugar, but the best part was how much I laughed!” – Melissa Sorrells, FIRST associate editor
Pick up the May 12 issue today!