War on Added Sugar? I’m a Diplomat, Not a Soldier.

Executive Summary

You know what sucks about having an unnatural, irrational and insatiable curiosity about physical health, mental health and physiology? People who know that about you start apologizing to you when it comes to their perceived bad habits such as eating stuff with added sugar.

I could be walking down the street and see a neighbor eating a sundae from Dairy Godmother and he’ll sheepishly tell me he knows he shouldn’t. Or I’ll be setting up a dinner date with some old friends and they’ll ask my permission to go somewhere that has good beer. Or I’ll serve bacon at a party and people who know I avoid pork think I’m a hypocrite.

And I’m like,

“Dude!”

(because I really talk that way).

“Dude! You tell me that you read my blog.”

Or

“Dude! You’ve complimented me on the inclusive nature of The Karma Sense Eating Plan”

(which you can purchase at this link secure in the knowledge that you’ll laugh, learn, and support charities that fight poverty and hunger).

Or

“Dude! You’ve downloaded my eBook Lose Fat. Fast!” 

(which you can access for free by entering your email address in the pop-up that appears in the lower left of your browser window).

And I say “Dude!” even when I’m talking to a non-Dude but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that by now, people who follow my advice for being healthier and happier should know that I am not a militant who believes you can force a healthy lifestyle on others.

There are no “bad” foods. There’s only food you should eat more of and food you should eat less of (there are also things that are passed off as food but really aren’t food so you should never eat them. I’m talking about you, trans fats).

I may be passionate about food but I’m also quite neutral.

And all of this applies to the recommendations for sugar in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This post explores what the new guidelines say about sugar. I started the series at the behest of readers (they’re always behesting) and haven’t stopped because to date no readers have behested “uncle!”

You can read more in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans series here. But first, I feel the need to demonstrate that neutrality is one of my long-standing traits. It’s not some sneaky kind of Kunf Fu I use to subtly convince you to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Ambassador Davey H

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been known for my ability to see both sides. Here is what my friend Mike said in my high school yearbook.

An Added Sugar Diplomat from an Early Age

“Dave, The only one I know that can just sit back, take it all in and not give a damn about who does what. It’s tough to stay neutral but it’s worth it if you can always be that way.”

Now the truth of the matter is this wasn’t me taking it all in and staying neutral. This was me being oblivious to any conflict going on in the first place. But the point is, when it comes to disagreement, I like to explore all points of view. Let’s take the War on Sugar, for example.

The War on Added Sugar, For Example

Somewhere during my childhood (which carries on to this day), this war began and I was oblivious.

Where Did The Added Sugar Go?
Where Did The Sugar Go?

Most recently, the battle is less subtle. There are long-form attacks on the evils of sugar and the calculated behavior of Big Food and the Healthcare Industrial Complex. This article in The Guardian is a great example. There is the oft-cited yet sadly misguided (hey, that rhymes) Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes that claims calories aren’t the problem, carbs and the insulin response is the problem. And most confusing is the constant barrage of nonsense we hear of what form of sugar is best. Examples you may have heard:

  1. Eat honey and maple syrup instead of white sugar. They’re full of antioxidants. If you’re eating enough honey and maple syrup to get the benefit of those antioxidants, you have other problems to worry about.
  2. The high fructose content in High Fructose Corn Syrup (HCFS) causes all sorts of health problems. Fructose taxes the liver which can lead to other health issues if you eat too much. But, the real problem with HCFS is, thanks to government corn subsidies, it’s a cheap way to make bad food edible. Big Food would have a shareholder revolt if they didn’t include it in their ingredient lists.
  3. Agave syrup has a low glycemic index (GI) therefore, it’s preferable over other types of sugar. The GI is mostly bullcrap. If you don’t know what the GI is, congratulations for not wasting valuable brain real estate. And if you’re worried about the fructose in HCFS, agave syrup has 55% more fructose than HCFS.

It may come as a surprise, given how critical I’ve been about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans but they offer the most measured advice on how we should consume sugar.

“Healthy eating patterns limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day. This recommendation is a target to help the public achieve a healthy eating pattern, which means meeting nutrient and food group needs through nutrient-dense food and beverage choices and staying within calorie limits. When added sugars in foods and beverages exceed 10 percent of calories, a healthy eating pattern may be difficult to achieve.”

Granted that paragraph is so poorly worded you’d think I wrote it. But, after parsing the above, you now know that by “measured advice”, I mean the guidelines expect you to measure added sugar as a percentage of daily calories. How the heck is anyone supposed to do that? More on that part of the advice later.

The best takeaway for the excerpt above is that the guidelines don’t say sugar is bad because it’s unhealthful. In fact, the guidelines include this incredibly complex statement:

The limit on calories from added sugars is not a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) set by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

What this all means is that neither the government nor the medical establishment is recommending you stop eating sugar because it causes disease. They’re saying limit how much you eat because sugar laden foods have empty calories and it would be better to get your calories from foods that actually contain nutrition.

So the real question is, how does one respond to this advice?

How To Respond to the Advice Regarding Added Sugar in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Nutrition Facts are of Limited Help

The biggest sources of added sugar in the American diet are processed foods and sweetened beverages. Unfortunately, the packaging of these products don’t give you much of a hint. At one point the FDA proposed that added sugar be called out on the Nutrition Facts label of processed foods but Big Food complained that this information would be confusing to the consumer. To be fair, research into the new label confirmed this claim. To be unfair, that research was sponsored by the International Food Information Council, an organization that is funded by Coca-Cola, General Mills and the usual suspects of the Big Food syndicate.

Here is a sample of the proposed labels:

Added Sugar Nutrition Facts

Version S, on the left is the current Nutrition Facts label which does not include an entry for Added Sugars. The other two versions are variations of the Added Sugar theme. Do you find these new version confusing? Are they more confusing than getting no information on Added Sugar when you’re trying to follow advice to reduce Added Sugar?

Learn How to Interpret Ingredient Lists

For now we’ll have to figure out a way to honor the sound recommendation of restricting added sugar to about 10 percent of total calories with limited other information. The best way to navigate around that constraint is to read the ingredients of the products you buy and look for all the code words for sugar. The Karma Sense Eating Plan includes a table for the many names that are used. I’ve updated that table with some additions below:

Agave Nectar/Syrup Fructose Maltodextrin
Blackstrap Molasses Fruit Juice (Concentrate) Maltose
Brown Rice Syrup Glucose Maple Syrup
Brown Sugar Granulated Beet Sugar Molasses
Coconut Sugar Granulated Cane Sugar Palm Sugar
Corn Syrup High Fructose Corn Syrup Raw Organic Cane
Date Sugar Honey Sucrose
Dextrose Hydrolized Starch Sugar
Evaporated Cane Syrup Invert Sugar/Inverted Sugar Syrup Sugar Beets

Remember, ingredient lists are in the order of quantity. There is more of whatever appears sooner in the list than there is of what appears later. But if ingredient number 4, 5, and 6 of a 20 ingredient list consists of some combination of the sugar equivalents in the table, there is probably a crapload of added sugar.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s true High Fructose Corn Syrup is not the moral or nutritional equivalent of Blackstrap Molasses. Some of the sweeteners on the list are more cringe-worthy than others. But if you’re limiting your added sugar, you won’t be eating enough of the extra crappy stuff to make a difference. If you’re eating enough added sugar for the extra antioxidants in honey or extra fiber in dates to make a huge difference, you probably have other health problems that these wonders of nature won’t help.

The Bottom Line on Added Sugar

The bottom line is, that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans make a sensible recommendation about added sugar. Our eating environment, however, makes following those recommendations a chore. Do what you can, dude. I won’t judge.

The next post in this series will look at fake sugar or what the guidelines call “low-calorie sweeteners.” I wonder if I’ll be as diplomatic about those.

 

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