Take sugar scares with a pinch of salt

In defence of sugar

When I arrived at Queen Elizabeth College in 1979, it was seven years after Professor John Yudkin, a former professor of nutrition at the same college, had published his seminal book Pure, White and Deadly. His theory that sugar was evil and the root cause of many modern-day health problems including obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes had already fallen out of favour with the nutrition community and fat was the new bad boy on the block. In order to produce low-fat foods, manufacturers had to replace fat with something else and all too often that was sugar. Some 43 years later it seems we have now come full circle: fat is OK but sugar is back in the crosshairs. Is sugar really as evil as the headlines would have us believe? It’s true that sugar contains empty calories which can contribute to obesity and it is, without doubt, bad news for our teeth. Add to this the fact that most of us eat somewhat more than we should (and some of us eat a hell of a lot more than we should) and it might seem hard to defend sugar — but, curiously, that’s often what I find myself doing these days.

Are all sugars equal?

You don’t need to have a degree in nutrition to know that there is a huge difference between the sugar that you might spoon into your tea or coffee or sprinkle over your breakfast cereal and the natural sugars in a banana or a glass of 100 per cent pure orange juice. So why do so many of the reports that I’ve read in newspapers in recent months suggest that they are exactly the same thing, and that sugar in all forms needs to be banished from our diet? Part of the problem is that issues around nutrition are never black and white: one of the first things I was taught at university is that there is no such thing as healthy and unhealthy foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets. Although in terms of their chemical structure sugars are a homogenous group, from a nutritional point of view not all sugars are equal. It’s also important to remember that we eat food, not nutrients: looking at one nutrient, in this case sugars, without considering what else a food brings to the diet is a mistake. In taking this approach there’s a real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


One of the food groups that I feel has been unfairly vilified in this recent witch hunt against sugar is fruit juice. Contrary to what many people believe, 100 per cent fruit juice contains no added sugar, only the sugar that is naturally present in the fruit from which it is made — but what it also contains is a host of other nutrients which can make a positive contribution to the diet and particularly so for certain population groups like young people and the elderly. A small glass of pure orange juice is an excellent source of vitamin C and while it’s true that vitamin C deficiency isn’t a common problem in the UK, low iron stores are, especially in certain groups like young children and women. A report on iron and health published by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition revealed that between 25 and 34 per cent of UK children between the ages of 18 months and four-and-a-half years had evidence of low iron stores in their bodies, and the same was true of 24 per cent of 15- to 18-year-old girls, 16 per cent of girls between ten and 24 years and 13 per cent of women aged between 35 and 49. Iron from foods such as cereals, nuts and eggs is not very well absorbed by the body — studies suggest that only between 5 and 15 per cent of iron present in foods such as these is absorbed into the body — but vitamin C can enhance the absorption of iron from these foods, so having a small glass of fruit juice with a bowl of cereal or a piece of toast at breakfast offers a nutritional benefit over and above the vitamin C it contains. In addition to vitamin C, orange juice is a source of folate, a B vitamin which is important for a healthy immune system and is particularly important or women in the first few months of pregnancy. It also provides the mineral potassium, which will help maintain a normal blood pressure, and a whole host of phytochemicals including the flavonoid hesperidin which emerging research suggests may play role in helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. Let’s not forget that a small glass of pure fruit juice will count as one of the recommended five a day — and hand on heart, how many of us can honestly say we reach our five a day?

The many faces of sugar

There’s no doubt that many people are confused about sugar, particularly when it comes to the subject of what counts as sugar. Many books, magazines and blogs written by celebrities and self-styled nutrition gurus talk about the dangers associated with sugar and provide us with handy tips to help us eliminate it from our diet — while at the same time assuring us that we can have our cake and eat it if we replace sugar with honey or something like agave syrup, which they say are natural and better for us. The truth is that both honey and agave syrup are just sugar in a different form, and what does ‘natural’ mean anyway? Opium, which is derived from poppies, is natural but that doesn’t mean that it is healthy. Agave syrup, which is often claimed to be better for us because it’s ‘less refined’, is extracted from the leaves of the agave cactus is much the same way that sugar is extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane.


How much is too much?

A recently published report from the World Health Organisation recommends that free sugars should account for no more than 10 per cent of our energy intake, and recommends reducing sugars to no more than 5 per cent of energy if possible. ‘Free sugar’ means any sugar that is added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus that naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It does not include sugar naturally present in milk or whole fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, determining how much free sugar a food contains is tricky because food labels only give information about total sugar, so it is impossible to tell how much free sugar a food contains. Foods like plain yogurt which contain natural sugar in the form of lactose, which falls outside of the category of free sugars, can still have an amber traffic light on the front of pack. The bottom line is that we all know deep down that too much sugar is not good for us, but fortunately it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. If we focus our efforts on cutting back on empty calorie sugars, such as that added to tea and coffee, and keep foods such as cakes, biscuits and confectionery as treats rather than a regular part of our diet, and if food manufacturers play their part by reducing sugar in foods packaged foods, life can, indeed, be sweet.

  • Richard Eldritch

    Sugar is fine for the wealthy and sophisticated who dine at Jamies restruants but the poor saps who shop at Asda can’t be trusted with it, so we must make them poorer still by taxing them untill they jolly well know their place. Where would the peasents be if they didn’t have middle class sophisticates telling them how to live their lives?

    • Sunset66

      Well if food companies do everything in their power to disguise how much sugar and salt they put in their products what are we supposed to do
      Let children eat foods with 8 times the recommended level of salt and sugar

      Ah you righties defend the right of companies to destroy the life of our children
      M&S soup was more salty than sea water. Breakfast cereal had eight times the recommended level of sugar for a child

      • Richard Eldritch

        Piffle! All sugar and salt is clearly listed and labeled. Does anyone believe that sugar puffs are made from yoghurt and tofu? No no, it won’t do. Jamie may be a tea totalling muslie muncher but he has 300,000,000 to ease the pain.If poor people wanna get fat as an escape from having sod all then fair enough I say. I loathe puritan preachers like Oliver. He’s smug twat who has long needed a good slap.

        • Sunset66

          If you understand food labelling on this country you are one of the few
          What justification can any company have for putting excessive sugar and salt in their products. They talk about portion sizes which bear no relation to real life
          “Smug twat ” the charm

          Are we really going to let our children become seriously obese with all the costs that then result
          Or are we going to encourage them to reform
          Remember the days you got a gift in cereal packets you would probably want to give away 5 cigarettes in the packet

          • Richard Eldritch

            The Justification? Easy, It makes food taste better. Saint Jamies recipes are stuffed with salt and sugar. If even his food needs it how much more so processed food? The fact is people like the salt and sugar. For the record they aren’t “Our children” they’re their parents children and “We” need to mind our own buisness.

          • Sunset66

            Congratulations moron post of the day

          • Richard Eldritch

            Thank you! Now if you’ll excuse me I have some delicious Asda Chicken Boona to attend to washed down with a nice fizzy beverage. Enjoy your hair shirt and over arching sense of superiority!

          • Sunset66

            God luck with your delicious nutritious meal
            I suppose you add lead to your petrol, don’t wear a seat belt, drive a car without an mot , go to a non qualified doctor when you don’t feel well

            Jamie Oliver paid himself £30m last year how about you .

          • Richard Eldritch

            Oh I don’t judge myself by income but I do very little work and am handsomely paid. I’m a gentleman of leisure really. As for the other issues; Yes, sometimes, sometimes, and sometimes. Now you really must excuse me while I go for a delicious cigarette to wash down my tasty dinner. Later I may even have unprotected intercourse with my lovely wife. I’m guessing Jamie will be wasting his time at the gym or saving the refugees. TTFN!

          • Sunset66

            The bit about your wife was unnecessary . You probably want to ignore the traffic lights on the way home too

          • Richard Eldritch

            Oh I’ve gone through a few red lights in my time. You should try it, It’s stimulating though It sounds like you’re hiding under the bed in case the sugar kills you to death. Live a little and don’t allow bossy prats like Oliver to tell you how to live your life (or mine for that matter)

          • Sunset66

            Okay off down the pub

          • Richard Eldritch

            Enjoy your glass of mineral water!

          • Sunset66

            Still water. Filtered through rock
            Steady its powerful stuff

          • Richard Eldritch

            Ha! Nah really enjoy!

        • Georgina anne

          Sound a bit jealous there .he made his money from nothing so he’s getting something right

          • Richard Eldritch

            I have no issue with him being successfull, I just don’t recognise his right to finger wag and patronise.

      • Cobbett

        The answer is simple – don’t eat processed/factory foods.

    • BenguluruHuduga

      How did you evolve to your current state from about 2-3 million years ago all without sugar ?

      • Richard Eldritch

        Booze mainly.

  • smoke me a kipper

    Within ten years there will be a sugar tax

    • Isaiah 2:4

      There is no tax on sugar already, no VAT? What is wrong with these Whitehall people? Don’t we have a £100bn yearly deficit hole to plug?

  • Augustus

    I think you’ll find that eating too much sugar has always been considered bad for you, even in less affluent and consumer driven times. How many people buying yogurt, for example, actually buy and consume plain yogurt without adding any sugar (which is the only really healthy way to eat it), or buy flavoured yogurts which can contain umpteen grams of added sugar? Considering the vast choice of such products people must think that they are still healthy because anything to do with yogurt must be healthy. There must be thousands of manufactured products which contain far too much added sugar aimed at seducing the mainly young and gullible families into buying them.

  • Alex Moss

    Would it be more accurate to say that fructose, imbibed in high quantities with no fibre is unhealthy?

  • Sean L

    There’s no reason why processed foods with added sugar shouldn’t incur additional tax; apart from the fact that we pay far too much tax already, a huge proportion of which is squandered. But why should we contribute a fifth of the price of our shoes, socks and underpants to the government, and at least a third of our earnings, yet nothing at all on nutritionally negative, rip off sugar loaded junk food? Yet the guy from the Adam Smith Centre is on here defending the food industry. He’d do well to go back to what the great economist had to say about men in the same trade not getting together without the conversation ending in a conspiracy against the public. Because that’s what the processed food industry is for the most part, an enormous scam exploiting our native weakness for sweet things.

  • malcolm

    You say “we’re in danger of letting the baby out with the bathwater?”. Where’s the baby? None of the nutritional benefits you describe require sugar to be present. Why use Orange Juice to get vitamin C to help absorb iron when there’s loads more in Peppers or Kale? These little babies are not so sweet but much healthier.

  • Callipygian

    ‘Issues around’ is an idiom I particularly dislike. Now even English people are doing it. Yuck! What does it mean, anyway?

    In a certain way, I take the point: claims that sugar is toxic (just as wine is ‘toxic’) are clearly disingenuous (anything is toxic if you have the wrong dose, including water, without which we die). But the fact is that sugar (sucrose is half glucose and half fructose) is chemically the same regardless of how it is ‘delivered’ to the body. Drinking orange juice instead of eating an orange is bound to lead to insulin spikes and raise the risk of fat storage. Ingesting lots of sugary fruits, unless you are very young or an athlete, is bound to lead to fat gain. Sorry.

  • Love Club

    I have replaced refined sugar with honey but its still sugar. The only way to move forward is to change the way you shop. I buy my meat from a farm. I don’t buy pre made sauces or prepared meals If you make it yourself you know what’s in it . I always have refused to buy/eat anything with low fat on the label (don’t trust what they have replaced the fat with). My son is 18yrs old He carries no extra weight and had a 100% attendance record at school and now college. I had a letter from the education system saying he was too thin and would be prone to illness and added a low fat diet sheet in with the letter So the government education system proved they don’t check the facts and have people who show signs of a lack of education advising us. Everything in moderation means you can eat most things as long as you don’t eat too much of it. (and it hasn’t been tapered with)