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Myth Busting Series Pt 1 – Sugar
Well, it has been a hot minute since I put pen to paper as it were, and what better way to ease myself back into article writing than with the completely neutral, uncontentious subject of debunking nutrition myths. Nutrition is a subject guaranteed to create debate, with everyone from your doctor to your best friend having an opinion, not to mention all of the online ‘guru’s and ‘wellness influencers’ determined to convince you that carbs are the enemy, gluten is positively deadly and sugar is probably the reason your wife left you.
Before we get going, I would like to take a minute to recognise that, for some people, the next few articles might be a little… uncomfortable at times. This is because what we eat and why we eat is a complex and personal subject. Think about it- some people choose not to eat particular foods for ethical or religious reasons, some for health concerns and some may have complex psychological issues around food. Remember all those times you were told to clear your plate before being allowed to get down from the table? Of course, a very understandable comment when we think of a post-war generation for whom food had been both scarce and expensive, however it isn’t too much of a hop, skip and a jump to make a connection between this and over-eating in later life. There is also a frankly overwhelming amount of misinformation and questionable marketing that has led to many foods and food groups becoming demonised in the public eye. So, as you go on to read these articles know that it is okay for new information to feel uncomfortable at times, but that ultimately as we break down these myths we are allowing ourselves freedom from arbitrary food rules and the judgement from our peers each time we opt for chips instead of a side salad.
I encourage you to be kind to yourself if it gets uncomfortable and to sit with those feelings and explore where they have come from. I’ll also link some excellent resources at the bottom for anyone seeking a little extra support or understanding.
Did somebody say cake? Within the first half hour or so of meeting me it quickly becomes clear that I like food, and more specifically, I love anything sweet. Cakes, chocolates, chewy sweets and my ultimate in food snobbery and adoration – Patisserie. A old school friend is a patisserie chef and I covet her Instagram account more times than I care to admit.
And whilst you may not have quite the same level of interest in sweet things as I, in fact you might be one of those strange creatures that says things like ‘oh pudding? I’d much rather a starter and a main… I don’t really have a sweet tooth, truth be told’ – I can quite happily assure you that your brain and body LOVE sugar. Let’s dive into the nitty gritty and I’ll explain why your body is a bit of a fiend for sugar.
Sugar is one of the three types of carbohydrate; sugar, starch and fibre. Now, in the same way we can break down the different types of carbs, we can also break down the types of sugar we have – I’ll keep this relatively simple or else we’re going to have a full-blown chemistry lesson on our hands and I don’t own anything with an elbow patch.
Monosaccharides or ‘Simple’ Sugars – ‘mono’ meaning one ‘Saccharides’ meaning ‘sugar’
Disaccharides or ‘Compound’ Sugars – these are two monosaccharides bound by a glyosidic bond
• Sucrose – (glucose & fructose)
• Lactose – (glucose & galactose)
• Maltose – (glucose & glucose)
Now, if you can think back to high school biology, you’ll remember that glucose is the fuel for all our cells and is also made during photosynthesis i.e. all plants contain glucose. That’s why your body is a big fan of sugar- glucose is the chemical fuelling it! And even if you didn’t consume ANY sugar at all (which is exceptionally hard to do and I wouldn’t recommend it) your body would just turn whatever food you consume into glucose anyway.
And that’s as far as I am taking you down that rabbit hole, because, whilst there is a lot more information that could be learned it isn’t super necessary for the point of this article.
Sugar and spice and all things… nice?! Now, you may have heard the term ‘refined sugar’, perhaps in the context of ‘refined sugar free’ whilst browsing the supermarket aisle or scrolling websites for recipes. ‘Refined’ sugar is what we know as regular white table sugar, y’know – the stuff you couldn’t buy in quick enough when you had builders in. White sugar is a disaccharide, sucrose to be specific. When we consume ‘regular’ sugar, our body breaks it down into its component monosaccharides – fructose and glucose. The glucose is sent off to fuel our cells and the fructose is used for certain organ functions, with any surplus being stored as fat. (FYI a surplus of any food group will be stored as fat).
Now, we all know that sugar is certainly something that our western culture consumes a staggering amount of (approx. 2 million tonnes per year!) and could do with reducing significantly for a variety of health reasons that we’re all well aware of at this point so I won’t lament the subject any more. However, regular sugar has been demonised as a monstrosity that causes people to gasp when I’m seen putting a measly half teaspoon in my morning tea and in recent years the market has been flooded with a host of alternatives to sugar: date syrup, agave, honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup and so on.
There is a rather insidious, pervasive trend of marketing these products as a ‘healthier & more nutritious’ alternative to regular sugar. Suddenly we’re encouraged to use date paste in our baking, agave instead of demerara on our porridge and I think the Canadian economy is booming from the amount of maple syrup we consume. We are told that regular sugar is bad for us and that if we truly care about our health we must buy and use these alternatives. But who is telling us this? Where is this messaging come from? Is it Government guidelines such as the ‘5 A Day’ campaign? Is it health care professionals? Is it based on scientific research into refined sugar? That would be a hard ‘no’. Refined sugar, in terms of health, means very little. Nothing, I’d dare say. The act of refining is simply the process a sugar beet or cane goes through to produce sugar. The message that refined sugar is bad for us, is coming from industry. Celebrities are paid to endorse a product and we are convinced by clever, repetitive marketing and labelling that these products are worth the extra price tag.
And what a price tag! 250g of coconut sugar is £7 whereas 1kg of white sugar is just 69p. Call me cynical but I think the reason industry is so keen to have us believe that regular sugar is bad for us is something to do with their profit margin, as opposed to concern over our health.
‘Nectar’ not ‘Sugar’, ‘Crystallised’ not ‘processed’ or ‘refined’
And here’s the kicker. The so called ‘alternatives to sugar’ are sugar! Honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup all contain glucose and fructose. Just the same as regular old white sugar. Your body breaks the glyosidic bond between the glucose and fructose molecules just the same as it does with regular sugar. Your body can’t tell whether a glucose molecule has come from a teaspoon of coconut sugar or white sugar. It just knows it has glucose available to use. It really doesn’t care that you paid a heftier price tag for it.
A sugar alternative with 93.1g of sugars…
But what about all those extra nutrients Steff? Yes, these alternatives do contain a marginal amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) but not in any significant amount per gram to outweigh the huge amount of sugar you’d be consuming in order to get a decent dose. For example there’s 1.7mg of iron per 100g of coconut sugar compared to the 2.7g of iron per 100g of spinach. I think we all know that 100g of sugar, whether it’s regular white sugar or coconut is not exactly #health. As much as we might not like it, 100g of spinach is far more beneficial to our health than 100g of coconut sugar.
So… now what? Now that we know that these alternatives are not really the beaming light of sugar salvation that their manufacturers wish they were, we can decide whether to use them based on a few simple questions; Do you like how they taste? Do they work as well as regular sugar in your recipes? And a pretty important one – can you afford them? If you answer yes to these questions then great, you do you! But if you’ve been spending a small fortune on a product you don’t really like, that turns your cakes into a gloopy mess… then maybe pick up a packet of Silverspoon next time?
And as far as the actual guidelines regarding sugar intake, it is ‘Free Sugars’ that we need to be aware of monitoring. Free sugars are essentially any sugar that is not bound within a cell wall, for example any sugar that can be added into foods, syrups as well as fruit juice (as the process of juicing breaks the sugar away from the cell.) The guidelines are no more than 30g of free sugars for adults, 24g for children 7yrs-10yrs and 19g for children 4yrs- 6yrs.
We do not need to worry about sugars from whole foods such as fruit, as the sugar is contained within the cell, meaning our bodies have to put in a bit of oomph in order to break it down, plus when we eat fruit we truly do get a whole host of other benefits such as vitamins, minerals and fibre.
So there you have it! Go forth and enjoy your 30g of free sugar however you wish!