Getting fresh

Kirsty Fairbairn.
Kirsty Fairbairn
Ever the pragmatist, I observe the sugar story with much interest, writes Kirsty Fairbairn.

There are many interpretations of the "no sugar" movement, and different ways in which members of the community decide to manage their sugar intake. I am glad that sugar is getting attention, and we do need to be taking note of where it finds its way into our food supply, and how.

Lately I have been somewhat concerned to hear of a few instances where fruit consumption is discouraged due to its sugar content. I am not convinced this is necessary, particularly for fresh raw fruit.

The form in which sugars enter your diet is really important. In the case of fruit, the fibre that forms the fruit cell wall helps slow the digestion and absorption of the sugars present in it. Importantly, that sugar source comes packaged with lots of other really valuable nutrients, along with the aforementioned fibre, folate, vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals. Dietary fibre intake is a major issue for New Zealanders. The last adult nutrition survey (ANS) found that we consumed just 19.6g per day, compared with a recommended adequate intake of 25g (females) and 30g (males) a day. Eating enough dietary fibre has been shown time and again to protect our bowel health, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes by improving blood fat and glucose levels. Bread is the major source of dietary fibre in our diets, followed by vegetables (potatoes/kumara/taro) and then fruit.

Given their wide-ranging health benefits, we should be aiming to bump up our fibre intake by eating a lot more fruit and vegetables, so that instead they become the major source of dietary fibre in our diets. That simple change would have a significant impact on our health.

Contrast that 19.6g/day of fibre in our diets with the whopping medians of 120g of total sugars consumed by males, and 96g consumed by females, and it is easy to see that the carbohydrates we eat are a bit out of whack. Most of the sugars we consumed in the ANS came from sucrose, the same type of sugar as the white, raw or brown cane sugar that we might cook with (males consumed a median daily intake of 55g, females 42g). If only our fibre intake was that high!

The main sources of sucrose were sugar and sweets, non-alcoholic beverages, fruit and cakes and muffins. This is why the microscope has been firmly placed over sugar, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages, and also because sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages have been aggressively marketed to our children. Those foods contribute little other nutrients to our diet, and should not feature in our diet as much as they do.

To see fruit victimised as a source of sugar at the expense of the fibre and other nutrients it contains bothers me. Admittedly, dried fruit has a higher sugar content by weight, because the water has been taken out of it. You could eat a few more dried apricots than you could fresh apricots (although I know which I prefer). Fruit juices are often a law unto themselves. With my cynic’s hat on, one of my personal favourite taglines from front-of-pack labelling is the old "Made from real fruit" line. Where? And exactly how much "real fruit" is left in the product? It is quite likely that somewhere down a lengthy production line, a piece of real fruit featured in some form. Hunt for that "real fruit" in the ingredients list. Maybe it will be there at the end of the list as a fruit extract, or fruit leather, or a concentrated fruit juice, or not at all.

Dried fruit, freeze-dried fruit, fruit leathers, fruit juices, fruit balls and other fruit-based products are plentiful. Depending on the amount of processing involved, some of these fruit products will have other nutrients with them; others won’t. When deciding whether, and how much, of these products you consume, consider whether the fibre is still present as the fruit cell wall, and how many pieces of fruit you are going to be eating. Equate it to whole pieces of raw fruit: would you really sit down and eat 10 pieces of that fruit in one go? Stick to raw-equivalent portion sizes, or add small quantities to other nourishing meals,  such as breakfast, lunch or dinner for a little lift, and you will probably be OK. Sit down and finish a packet and there is a good chance you have eaten more than you need. And hope that your gut forgives you, especially in the case of apricots and prunes!

Sugar also features naturally in other nutrient-dense foods, such as milk and some vegetables. The next time you are comparing foods at the supermarket, look at the nutrition information panel (NIP) in tandem with the ingredients list. The NIP will tell you how much sugar is in that food, but it won’t necessarily separate out the sugars present naturally in fruit or milk from the sugar added in the form of cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Check that the serve size quoted on the NIP is realistic, and compare between brands or similar products by using the per-100g or per-100ml column for sugar content.

A natural muesli with some sultanas will have a higher sugar content due to the sultanas, so read the ingredients list, too. The ingredients are listed from the largest quantity to the smallest. The further down that list any sucrose,  high-fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin is, the better. The above table lists the different types or forms of sugar that could feature as added sugars in the ingredients list. If you see none of these, or they are way down the end of the list, maybe its OK to choose that product.

This exercise can be applied to all kinds of foods in the supermarket, from yoghurts and dairy foods to muesli bars and sauces and almost everything in between.

- Dr Kirsty Fairbairn is a health, wellness and sports dietitian at Invigorate Nutrition (, based at Eclipse Health, Wellness and Performance, Hanover St, Dunedin.


Sugar high

Different types or forms of added sugars on ingredients lists.

Agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, invert sugar, organic sugar, barley malt extract, fructose, juice extract, palm sugar, brown rice syrup, glucose, lactose, sucrose, corn syrup, golden syrup, maltodextrin, sugar, demerara,  high-fructose corn syrup, maltose syrup, dextrose, honey, molasses and treacle.

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