Today, on the BBC, Action on Sugar highlighted the sugar coating on dried fruit snacks. I agree that the coating is an unnecessary addition of sugar and calories, but I am concerned that too much focus on sugar in healthy foods like dried fruit and fruit juice (in the right portion size, of course) could mean we eat less fruit as a nation.
We are already not meeting the government target of 5-a-day, and scaremongering can sometimes cause so much public mistrust, that they end up not listening to good practical and realistic advice from experts like registered dietitians.
Fact 1: Sugar is empty calories
Sugar gives you energy and carbohydrate, but no vitamins or minerals, so it isn’t good for you. It provides 4 kcal/gram, which is the same as a gram of pure starch (like flour), or a gram of pure protein (like egg white). Note that it has less than half the calories of fat (such as oil), which provides 9kcal/g.
Fact 2: Sugar is not the new tobacco
There is no conclusive link between sugar intake and diseases like diabetes, obesity or heart disease (1). The only proven link is sugar can cause dental caries.
I believe that small amounts of sugar as part of a varied diet helps us to enjoy food. A little sweetness in healthy foods can encourage consumption – think of a fortified breakfast cereal which can help children to eat a nutritious breakfast containing whole grains, vitamins and minerals, as well as milk. Or a slice of wholegrain bread with honey.
Similarly, people who don’t like plain yogurt, a healthy source of calcium and quality protein, might enjoy sweetened fruit yogurt.
Fact 3: Fruit juice is not junk food
Fruit juice does contain natural sugars in liquid form, but it comes with nutrients like vitamin C and potassium. This could be important particularly for people on low incomes, as it’s a cheap source of these nutrients.
Fruit juice can’t be put into the same camp as soft drinks that have the same amount of sugar, but don’t provide the added nutritional benefits. Smoothies, which are typically made up of pulped fruit and fruit juice, will also contribute fibre (2). People who drink fruit juice tend to also eat more fruit & veg (3).
It’s easy to over-consume sugar in liquid form, so keeping to 150ml of fruit juice a day (which counts as one of your five a day fruit and veg recommendation), is a sensible portion size. And best to have it with a meal so you reduce the damage to teeth.
The Bottom Line
Stop demonising sugar or fat and let’s talk about food! We eat food not nutrients, so we need to put all this into context. After all, healthy eating is about balance, variety, and enjoyment.
- European Food Safety Authority (2010) Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for carbohydrates and dietary fibre. EFSA Journal 8(3): 1462 [77 pp.]
- Ruxton CHS (2008). Smoothies: one portion or two? Nutrition Bulletin 33, 129-132.
- Gibson, S (2012) Proc Nut Soc 71