Tag Archives: sugar in food

The Upshot Or: What WHO Won’t Tell You

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.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 16

It’s funny, but the more I want to define “sugar-free,” the more elusive the concept becomes. It reminds me of the time in college when my roommate and I went to the local co-op. We were both delighted to find local milk in returnable glass bottles, but when the time came to buy more milk, she said, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just get milk at the regular store and pour it into the glass bottle?” Turns out, while I had been enamored of the environmentally-responsible aspect of using a returnable glass bottle, she had been enjoying the fact that the glass bottle was pretty. Lesson learned: the end does not necessarily define the means.

So it is with “sugar-free”: a term which may seem self-explanatory, but it’s definition may all depend on how you got there. You may be surprised to learn that often “sugar-free” does not, in fact, actually indicate an item or recipe that is free-of-sugar.

Let me give you a for-instance. A few days ago I started looking for recipes that might aid our family in our year without sugar- in particular recipes which might have a dessert-y feel to them. However, when you google “no sugar dessert recipes” you get everything from recipes containing agave, molasses, honey, or apple juice to recipes calling for your favorite “sugar substitute,” (Splenda, Sweet N’ Low, etc.) to those which call for “only” a tablespoon of sugar. So defining “sugar-free” is going to depend a lot on your reason for avoiding sugar in the first place. Are you avoiding sugar due to: diabetes? Trying to lose weight? Just generally trying to be more healthy?

As it turns out, our society is so sugar-saturated that the majority of “no-sugar” recipes I found… have sugar in them, or at least artificial sweeteners. Here’s an idea: how about including no sweeteners at all? But I’m being intentionally naïve, because the whole point of plastering the words “no-sugar” on a product/recipe is code for “but it’s still sweet– amazing!!”

Similarly, we all know when we peruse the aisles of the supermarket not to pick up the items labeled “sugar-free” unless we like consuming chemicals which cause a high percentage of laboratory rats to become amnesiac lepers with terrible foot odor. In restaurants, for maximum clarity, instead of asking for “sugar-free” anything, I say this: “I’m not eating sugar. I was wondering if the pickled beef tongue has any form of sugar as an ingredient?” which is about as clear as I can be.

On a related note, it finally occurred to me today to do a search to see if a project such as ours had been done before. And, like so many things involving sugar, the answer is a resounding yes, but no. I admit I trembled a bit when, after googling “year of no sugar” an entire page came up of seemingly similar bloggers who had gotten there before me- years before in some cases. But then I looked closer and was pleased to see that there are some very key differences.

For one thing, every no-sugar blog I found excluded only “man-made” or refined sugars such as white sugar, artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup. One blog entitled “my years without sugar” (myyearwithout.blogspot.com) lists 100% fruit juice, molasses and pure maple syrup as some of her favorite natural sweeteners. Another at healthylifestyleforu.com described savoring oatmeal raisin cookies containing honey and molasses.

For another thing, every blogger I found was going it alone- no baby, children or husbands on board. In our case, it’s our whole family, all four of us, which does indeed give me nightmares that I am torturing our children and giving them future eating complexes and therapy fodder, thanks for asking. But it seemed pretty much useless to me to do anything otherwise- we are a family, we eat as a family. If we can’t do this together- and if we can still remains to be seen- then that’s a more valuable insight to me than anything I could ever do successfully all by myself.

So I have to say, the fact that our project is forging, perhaps, some new ground makes me feel pretty good. Alone. But good.

A Year of No Sugar: Post 7

Here’s one for you: how is a DRY CLEAN ONLY tag like sugar? (This inspirational metaphor came to me after I discovered this morning I had shrunken my favorite winter hat in the wash after failing to read the tag.) Answer: precisely the moment you make the assumption it isn’t there, is when it will be. Call it Murphy’s Law of Hats and Sausages if you will.

You see, Friday night I had grand plans of trying out a new soup recipe, so I headed with the kids in tow to the store with a shopping list that read:

  • 3 oz. Spinach
  • 8 oz. Tortellini
  • 1 lb. Sausages
  • milk

I was feeling optimistic about cooking more meals from “scratch” and thereby avoiding the sugar issue altogether.

Silly me. Although the spinach and milk posed no problem, I was in for a surprise at the refrigerated pasta products section as package after package of tortellini revealed the presence of sugar thirteen or fourteen ingredients down. Strike one. Fortunately, I was delighted to find that the small bags of cheese tortellini by the dried pasta section would work.

Next, wandering by the seafood section the kids clamored for one of our favorite treats: smoked salmon. Because I’ve been feeling like the sugar drill sargent of late, any edible indulgence that doesn’t involve sugar is suddenly very, very attractive. Buuuuuuut- can you guess? Oh yes, our favorite brand of smoked salmon let us down in the sugar department. Luckily the brand next hook over would do.

On to the sausages. And you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? You wouldn’t think it’d be hard, but try finding supermarket sausages without sugar, I dare you. By this time I was pulling my hair out in large fistfuls wondering if we’d be reduced to eating dirt sandwiches for the next twelve months. What have I gotten us into? I wondered. It was at this moment I found a package of sweet sausages which listed in the ingredients dried apples and fruit juice.

Now, making rules for our project thus far has involved splitting quite a few hairs and the fruit juice issue has been a big one. As Dr. Lustig points out in his lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth, fruit juice is sugar- and without the fiber of the originating fruit it is every bit as detrimental as the other forms of sugar we know and love. Our rule regarding fruit juice has therefore become this: no products containing fruit juice unless they contain actual fruit as well. Therefore we have been able to buy Polaner All-Fruit Jam with which to flavor our yogurt, as well as fruit sauces, fruit leather and fruit gummi-like snacks for the kids to take in their lunches. It felt like a bit of a stretch, but technically the sausages did have both fruit pieces and fruit juice- so the sausages went into my basket with a sigh of relief.

Phew! I was deeply grateful catastrophe would be averted for yet another night. That night as I prepared the soup I realized I will have to revamp my definition of “convenience foods” to include virtually anything that has a list of ingredients. Nonetheless, despite everything, we had done it. Tonight we would eat, a nice, interesting, and fairly homemade meal- with no sugar.

I went to pour in the six cups of organic chicken broth I have stored by the box in our pantry, when a terrible thought occurred to me. I stopped. No. Couldn’t be. But what if….? Cautiously, as if defusing an explosive, I turned the box over to check the ingredient list: Organic Chicken Broth… Organic Chicken Flavor… Natural Chicken Flavor… Organic Evaporated Cane Juice- DAMN!


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