The Not-So-Sweet Truth about Added Sugar

In Thriving in the 21st Century, Dr. Jaffe notes, “You are sweet enough as you are; there is no need to add simple empty calorie sugar. Processed sugar provides empty calories that make you gain weight, crave more sugar, cultivate a bigger population of unhealthy gut bacteria, and sleep poorly. You are free to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruits and berries that are in season (and grown organically, or better yet, biodynamically), because the fiber in fruits slows sugar uptake into the body and improves digestion.”

A brand-new study out of the UK​​ this week underscores just how right Dr. Jaffe has been all along, and gives us yet another reason to avoid processed sugar. Study authors found an association between eating a lot of “free” sugars and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

So what exactly are free sugars? In the UK, “free” sugars are defined as those that have been added to any food in any form during processing, all sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes and similar products in which the structure has been broken down; all sugars in drinks (except for dairy-based drinks); and lactose and galactose added as ingredients.”

This is very similar to what we call “added sugars” in the US, which the FDA recently required be called out on every nutrition label. “Added sugars include sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. They do not include naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables.”

The FDA recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories consumed, since a variety of studies in the past 10 years have suggested stronger and stronger evidence that sugars are not only pro-inflammatory, but also seem to increase risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and may increase triglyceride levels. The American Heart Association recommends consuming even less; 6% of daily calories for women and 9% for men.

The recent study was undertaken to better understand the associations between various dietary carbohydrates and cardiovascular disease risk. The researchers did not find an association between total carbohydrates consumed and cardiovascular disease. But, when they delved into the specific types of carbohydrates consumed, they found some interesting and clear associations:

  • Those who ate more free sugar had an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
  • Those who ate more fiber had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • When whole-grain starch was substituted for refined grain starch, the risk of cardiovascular disease decreased.
  • When free sugar was replaced with non-free sugar, the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke decreased.
  • Finally, free sugar intake increased blood triglycerides across the board.

This study supports the fact that all carbohydrates are not the same, and that we should pay closer attention to the type of food we put into our bodies.

Using Nutrition Labels

While we may be aware that there is added sugar in sugary drinks, candy and cookies, it may be less obvious that breads, crackers, cereals, flavored yogurt, and condiments also contain added sugar.

The current nutrition label on every product you buy will clue you into the hidden added “free” sugar it contains. You can see on the sample label from the FDA, that this sample product contains 23 grams of added sugars, which is equal to 46% of the recommended daily value. These numbers add up quickly, and you may be surprised by how much hidden sugar you are actually consuming. You can also see if your chosen food contains helpful dietary fiber. The revamped nutrition label can be a useful tool in raising awareness so you can make any needed dietary changes.

Nature’s pHarmacy Principles

That brings us back to Dr. Jaffe’s recommendations on how to use the principles of Nature’s pHarmacy to decrease disease risk and “add years to life and life to years:” Review our deep dive into the Twelve Nature’s pHarmacy Principles to Eat By, Part 1 and Part 2. Most importantly, eat a whole variety of whole foods in a whole variety of healthier ways.

  • Instead of sugary drinks and fruit juices, choose water infused with organic/biodynamic berries, lime, mint, cucumber, or an assortment of your favorite fruits.
  • Instead of store-bought ketchup, relish, and peanut butter (which have added sugars), try making your own oil-free salsa, tahini, kimchi, sauerkraut, hummus, guacamole, and nut butters as condiments.
  • Instead of store-bought pasta sauces, consider making your own from scratch with fresh, organic ingredients.
  • Instead of ending your meal with cookies, cakes, and pies, finish with organic, fresh in-season fruit, instead.

Eating whole fruit rather than extracting its juices will give you the added fiber needed to aid digestion and slow the absorption of naturally occurring fruit sugars into the body.

The bottom line is that scientific research is uncovering more each year about the toxic effects of added sugars on our health, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke can now be added to the list. We recommend becoming more vigilant in decreasing the amount of added sugar in your diet and following the “Nature’s pHarmacy principles to Eat By” mentioned above, drinking at least 8oz of mineral-rich water eight times a day, keeping stress to a minimum, and  getting plenty of exercise and restorative sleep.