Dietitian explains the hidden sugars in popular health foods

Dietitian explains the hidden sugars in popular health foods

Do you fall easily for labels such as “no added sugar” or “natural sugars only”? Dietitian Millie Padula explains why you need to look a little more closely at the ingredients list and nutrition information panel.

The health food ‘revolution’ of recent years has proven Australians’ desire for more natural, nutritious foods. However, many products touted as ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ aren’t always what they seem.

Even all-natural products and those labelled as ‘no added sugar’ can still have huge amounts of natural sugar, a prime culprit for spiking and crashing our blood levels and leaving us feeling worse than before.

It’s important to be wary of the claims made by some health food products, as natural does not always equal healthy or nutrient-dense. Instead, the truth can only be found in the ingredients list and nutrition information panel, not the claims on the front.

So, let’s take a step back.

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The reality of natural and artificial sugars

When we consume natural sugars (fructose and lactose) found in whole fruits and dairy products, we are also consuming vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. As a general consensus, nutrition professionals favour natural sugars in comparison to the added sugars we find in discretionary foods, as these are often energy-dense and nutrient-poor.

If we isolate the sugar component, natural and added varieties are chemically exactly the same. This means that the effect of consuming table sugar (sucrose) and fructose alone would be identical within the body. This is really important to remember when we are making informed decisions about the foods we choose to buy and eat.

To help gain perspective on how much sugar we should include in our diets, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends consuming no more than 24g of sugar per day for optimal health. This equates to 6 tsp per day, which may sound like a lot but it adds up very quickly.

While most of us are aware that wholefood sources such as vegetables, wholegrains, lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds are low in sugar, the confusion comes about with packaged ‘health-foods’, the types saturating the health food aisle of the supermarket.

When it comes to buying ‘health-foods’, here are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Sugar has over 60 different names

Just as you were familiarising yourself with sucrose, lactose and fructose, you now have to be wary of 57 other names for sugar. Companies and manufacturers will often add less familiar names into the ingredients list to trick you into believing that the product has no added sugars, which plainly is very clever marketing.

To help translate the jargon, and as a general rule, if you locate ‘syrup’ or a word ending in ‘-ose’, this is a pretty definite indication that the ingredient is a type of sugar. The most commonly used are glucose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup and golden syrup.

2. The colour and type of sugar make no difference to its nutritional value

At the end of the day, sugar is sugar. Whether it’s brown, white, raw, derived from a coconut or a piece of fruit, per tablespoon they all contain the same amount of calories.

You may have heard that certain sugars have higher micronutrient values than others, and while this is true, the amount of sugar you would need to consume to receive any benefit from those nutrients would be excessive. Consuming large quantities of sugar may also put you at risk of certain conditions like diabetes.

Micronutrients are important, but aim to get them from whole food sources, rather than from a sugar-packed, not-so-healthy bliss ball.

3. The word ‘natural’ does not suggest ‘healthy’

When it comes to food labelling laws, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) are the governing body who determine these. It is difficult for FSANZ to initiate a law for use of the word ‘natural’ because everything that is packaged has essentially been processed and is therefore no longer a ‘product of the earth’.

This makes ‘natural’ an unregulated term and gives voluntary permission for any company to display it on their product, even confectionery brands. The next time you see the word natural, check the nutrition information panel and ingredients list to make an educated choice about your purchase. Remember, natural does not mean low sugar, low fat, or low in calories.

4. ‘No added sugar’ does not mean ‘low sugar’

The claim ‘no added sugar’ indicates that no sugar has been added during processing or packaging. So while a product contains no added sugar, it may still be high in natural sugars. If you look at the label of an orange juice that contains nothing but oranges and utilises the ‘no added sugar’ claim, a 250ml serving size still contains 19g of total sugar!

The same goes for bliss balls, protein bars, granolas and mueslis that contain dried fruit such as dates, apples and apricots. These companies may not add sugars during processing which entitles them to use the claim, yet they still contain high amounts of natural sugar from the fruit. As a rule of thumb, always look at the nutrition information panel if you’re unsure and try to choose foods with less than 10g of sugar per 100g.

5. Dig a little deeper!

As a dietitian, aside from basing your diet around wholefoods, I always recommend establishing your ‘packaged’ food choices on what you find in the nutrition information panel and on the ingredients list (found on the side of the back of a packet) as opposed to what you read on the front.

This is not about demonising sugar, it’s important to remember that there is a place for all foods in our diet – high in sugar or not, this is moreover about being educated rather than fooled by sneaky marketing tactics.

Millie Padula is an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist and the resident dietitian at KOJA. See more of Millie’s articles on, @kojahealth or follow her @dietitianedition.

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