You probably already know that too much sugar is bad for you. Not only it does it make you fat and causes dental decay, but it also destroys your gut, liver, tendons and skin; it ages you, makes you weaker and more prone to illness. If you need a quick recap on the dark side of sugar, check our old blog post here.
You might be thinking this does not relate to you because you don’t eat sweets, and when you get the occasional craving, you reach for the sugar-free options.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but most processed foods contain some added sugar, including the savoury ones (some jerky for example is 25% sugar!). And as for the sugar-free, low fat and diet options, those are equally bad for your gut and overall health. Don‘t fall victim to sneaky food labelling, and learn to distinguish the sweet lies from the bitter truth here.
Even the big health organisations, often sponsored and influenced by large processed foods corporations, are now urging us to reduce sugar consumption.
The American Heart Association, the American Academy of Paediatrics and the World Health Organization all recommend limiting sugar intake to less than 10% of the total energy intake for adults and children, noting that a further reduction of 5% would provide additional health benefits. This doesn’t mean you should stop eating fruits (which come with fibre). The issue here is the added sugar, not the natural sources.
The sweetest of all sugars
So how do you know what to avoid and how much is too much? Food labelling can be very confusing when it comes to sugar, and marketing experts keep coming up with a plethora of healthy-sounding names for added sugar. We call this the Health Halo Effect. The truth is that most processed foods contain sugar in some form, especially fructose, to improve flavour, texture, shelf life, or other properties. It’s because fructose is the sweetest of all sugars.
There’s a limit on how much fructose our body can uptake in one day. Unlike glucose, fructose is mainly metabolised in the liver. When the liver gets overloaded with fructose, it starts converting it into fat, and that’s how you can end up with a non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Without going into too much detail, fructose overload is considered to be a driver of many diseases such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, kidney disease, insulin resistance and Diabetes 2, just to name a few. Since it causes inflammation, it can also be a contributing factor to developing cancer.
Furthermore, daily fructose excess damages your gut, alters your gene expression and induces leptin resistance. Leptin is an appetite-regulating hormone, and if you become leptin resistant, you will never feel full, which is one of the main reasons people overeat and become overweight and obese.
Don’t get fooled by food marketing. Just because something is organic and made with loads of dates, honey or coconut sugar, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good to eat every day. Most healthy-sounding added sugars are half fructose, the same as ordinary table sugar.
All our snacks are around 5g of sugar per 100g (5%) or lower. And hey guess what, we use a bit of maple syrup (68% sugar, but also has some other great health benefits) in our collagen bars but a little bit of sugar is fine, that's why you should check the 100g column for sugar content. Read more about how to read food labels.
Added sugars ranked by percentage of fructose:
- Agave nectar 70-80%
- High fructose corn syrup 55%
- Table sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar 50%
- Molasses 49%
- Dates 48%
- Coconut sugar/syrup/nectar 38-48%
- Honey 40%
Ok, sugars are out of the picture. But how about non-caloric additives that taste sweet but contain no fructose? The health facts are even grimmer.
Artificial sweeteners are not real food. They are made in a chemical laboratory, and our bodies don’t recognise them as food. They are toxins that damage your gut and can make you fat and sick despite containing zero calories.
For example, research indicates that saccharine, sucralose and aspartame damage the gut barrier and induce glucose intolerance more than glucose because they alter the composition and function of the gut microbiota. Saccharine proved to be the worst in this regard.
What does it mean? Consuming too much of these sweeteners can make you fat, destroy your gut and give you Diabetes 2. Even without the calories.
Do you have to give up all sweetness in your life?
Absolutely not! Eat whole fruit and keep sugary treats for special occasions.
Although fruits contain fructose, they are also high in fibre and other beneficial micronutrients, which we need for optimal health. Just stick to whole fruits. For example, you need 3-4 oranges to make one standard cup of juice. That’s a lot of sugar, and you won’t feel full from it. If you ate four oranges in one go, you would be stuffed. That’s because whole fruits contain fibre, which you need for your gut health and juicing takes all the fibre out.
When looking for a healthy sweet treat, look at the food labels and choose products containing no artificial sweeteners and no more than 10% sugar, or, even better, closer to 5%. You can have one serving every day. Keep in mind that most protein balls and bliss balls are date-based, therefore high in fructose. Enjoy these occasionally as any cake or pastry.
And, if you have a sweet tooth, you can actually change your palate. Go low sugar for 2 weeks and you'll have reset what tastes sweet to you. Test yourself on 85% cacao chocolate! If 85% is too bitter, chances are your palate needs a reset.
Co-founder, Nutritionist, Exercise Physiologist
Debras, C., Chazelas, E., Srour, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Julia, C., Zelek, L., Agaësse, C., Druesne-Pecollo, N., Galan, P., Hercberg, S., Latino-Martel, P., Deschasaux, M., & Touvier, M. (2020). Total and added sugar intakes, sugar types, and cancer risk: results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 112(5), 1267–1279. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa246
Hannou, S. A., Haslam, D. E., McKeown, N. M., & Herman, M. A. (2018). Fructose metabolism and metabolic disease. The Journal of clinical investigation, 128(2), 545–555. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI96702
Jensen, T., Abdelmalek, M. F., Sullivan, S., Nadeau, K. J., Green, M., Roncal, C., Nakagawa, T., Kuwabara, M., Sato, Y., Kang, D. H., Tolan, D. R., Sanchez-Lozada, L. G., Rosen, H. R., Lanaspa, M. A., Diehl, A. M., & Johnson, R. J. (2018). Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of hepatology, 68(5), 1063–1075. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhep.2018.01.019
Sun, S. Z., & Empie, M. W. (2012). Fructose metabolism in humans - what isotopic tracer studies tell us. Nutrition & metabolism, 9(1), 89. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-9-89
Paglia L. (2019). The sweet danger of added sugars. European journal of paediatric dentistry, 20(2), 89. https://doi.org/10.23804/ejpd.2019.20.02.01
Tappy L. (2018). Fructose-containing caloric sweeteners as a cause of obesity and metabolic disorders. The Journal of experimental biology, 221(Pt Suppl 1), jeb164202. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.164202