Sugar wars ... fruit and soft drink can not be compared.

Sugar wars ... fruit and soft drink can not be compared.

An article in the Sunday papers this morning got me so incensed I had to put fingers to keyboard and have this discussion with you. The article had a big picture of an apple and a typical kids lunch box. It went on to espouse the evils of sugar and list all the things we should not be putting in the lunchbox… lollies and other sugar-laden, nutrient poor foods I agree wholeheartedly with, but then it said fruit.

It included fresh and dried fruit as well as fruit juice. The latter I completely agree with for reasons we’ll get to, and dried fruit is up for debate with some better than others, but fresh whole fruit? Seriously have we reached such an “all sugar is evil” state of mind that we think too many apples is the reason our kids are getting fat?!

I love the science of nutrition. I’m passionate about inspiring people to eat well, feed our kids well and recognise that the way we eat, along with the way we move, sleep, manage stress and make other good lifestyle choices, affects the way we feel, look and perform.  I’m also glad there is so much (mostly) healthy debate and controversy over some aspects of nutrition.

There is much we are still learning. Nutrition is a young science and one where we have much to learn. But what drives me crazy is when common sense goes out the window and some aspect of nutritional science is exploited to such an extent that the big picture is completely lost. This is what has happened to the sugar debate. So let’s get a few things clear.

First up it’s nonsense to talk about sugar as being the root of all our health problems. We cannot talk about sugar as a singular compound in the same way that we can’t lump fat together, or carbs for that matter. Sugars are simply the single or double saccharides that are found in foods, mostly plant foods.

One sugar, glucose, is also what runs in our bloodstream as a key fuel for the body. The brain in particular uses about a quarter of the total body’s glucose use, despite being only two percent of the total body weight.

Glucose in the blood is vital… if it drops too low you would pass out and eventually die if glucose could not be ‘found’. It’s worth remembering that when we talk about sugar. We need it as a prime fuel in the body, along with fat. So what about sugar in foods?

Well there is no doubt that excess added sugars are contributing to obesity and many chronic health problems we face in this country. But added refined sugars are not the same as sugars naturally present in foods. In interpreting them as so we are making all the same mistakes we made when we entered the low fat era. We opted for low fat foods and forgot about healthy fats and whole foods.

With the proposition that fruits are bad because they contain sugar, we are doing the same thing. Sugars in fruit are bound up in cell walls along with fibre, nutrients and phytochemicals including antioxidants. Our bodies have to work fairly hard to break these cells down, release the nutrients and sugars and then absorb them. This is a very different scenario to eating a lolly or drinking a soft drink – a dose of sugar without any nutrients or fibre whatsoever. To put them in the same basket is quite frankly ludicrous.

At a conference today a speaker put up a slide of a can of cola and a mango asking which has more sugar. They actually have about the same although he said a mango had more – but that’s beside the point. Are we seriously at the stage of thinking a whole fruit straight from the tree is as bad or worse for us than a can of soft drink?  

The argument is also to do with the particular type of sugar – fructose. From research we know that fructose in excess is bad news. In fact although saturated fat has dominated the nutrition headlines for a long time, high fructose diets can be just as bad. Fructose is indeed found in fruit. But it’s a gross simplification to make the jump that therefore fruit is bad for us.

We can handle fructose in appropriate amounts; indeed fructose has always been a part of our diet. The studies looking at fructose do not use whole fruits. They are looking at added refined sugar (half of sucrose is fructose) and high fructose corn syrup used in the US as a bulk sweetener.

In these instances massive amounts of fructose enter the body without any of the fibre, nutrients and phytochemicals alongside as they are with fruit. They are absorbed far more quickly and also contribute dramatically to excess energy. These are energy-dense foods and drinks. Fruit is not. Such foods have low satiety ratings. Fruit when eaten whole has a high satiety rating.

Extract the sugar from the fruit and lose some of the nutritional benefits and the impact is very different. Fruit juice therefore I am not a fan of. Certainly take that out of the lunchbox and the fridge at home for that matter. A little to sweeten a vegetable juice is the most I would use it, if at all.

Dried fruits also concentrate the sugars present and as a result are more energy dense and easy to over-consume. A few however also concentrate antioxidants, are low GI and fibre rich, so remain a valuable nutritious option, especially when you do feel like something sweet. My favourite are prunes.

So let’s put our common sense hats on please. We are struggling with obesity in our country because we eat too many energy-dense, highly palatable foods and we don’t move enough.

The main culprits are modern processed refined foods, including refined carb-rich foods. (Note that white flour can be just as bad for us as sugar). Let’s concentrate on cutting down or cutting out some or all of these. We are not fat because we are eating too many apples.

Fruit consumed whole gives us fibre, nutrients, phytochemicals and a wealth of research supports their consumption. Keep your eye on the big nutrition picture and let fruit be the sweet treat of choice.  

Read more about raising a healthy family on Dr Joanna's website.