We know refined sugar is not great for our health, but how does it affect the health of the planet? What about naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables? Where are the 'hidden' sugars? Step 3 of 30 Days to Change Your Diet Sustainably is all about refined sugar and sweeteners and there is more to this topic than you might expect.
What are the consequences of sugar for the health of the planet and our health?
Whilst sugar is by no means the equivalent of cyanide or directly toxic, added sugar is a major health problem at a population level because of overconsumption and it affects the climate by the ways it is produced. Way too many people eat way too much added sugar, which then increases the calorie intake to the point of excess. When you displace food and calorie sources that are nourishing and healthy, it potentially has directly detrimental effects apart from leading to an excess intake of calories as it displaces other foods and energy sources, that have net positive effects on health.
The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of total calories as added sugar and suggests:
“A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day [for an average adult] would provide additional health benefits.”
Unfortunately, far too many people do not even stay below the suggested maximum of 10 % of total calories, and very few manage that ideal of no more than 5 % of calories from added sugar. In Denmark, about 60% of toddlers and children consume too much added sugar; approx. 40 % of Danish adults consume too much added sugar.
What about naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables?
Naturally occurring sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables should not be feared. At a population level, there is no indication of a problem. In fact, we see quite the opposite. Fruits and vegetables are associated with vastly increased health when you consume at least 600 grams or 6 servings a day.
The only exceptions are in people who get digestive upset from the sugars in fruits and vegetables or people with diabetes and other serious issues with blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, where clinical measurements and results show improvement if naturally occurring sugars are omitted or restricted.
In terms of environmental impact, the burden of growing sugar cane and sugar beets and their subsequent processing have serious consequences. Growing them takes up land and requires water, energy for farming and potential fertilizers and pesticides.
“The cultivation and processing of sugar produce environmental impacts through the loss of natural habitats, intensive use of water, heavy use of agrochemicals, discharge and runoff of polluted effluent and air pollution. This leads to the degradation of wildlife, soil, air and water where sugar is produced and of downstream ecosystems.” - World Wide Fund For Nature
Added sugar is not necessary for maintaining good health, so cutting it out of your diet or decreasing the amount consumed drastically, might benefit the environment, because you help reduce the use of land for production of crops, that technically speaking are not necessary for human health, to fulfill nutritional needs or are necessary for human survival.
So where are the ‘hidden’ sugars?
Some manufacturers add sugar to their products for it to taste better thereby increasing sales. You can take a closer look at the products in your fridge and pantry for added sugar. Products like salad dressings, yoghurt, instant oatmeal, sports drinks, granola, muesli, frozen meals, protein bars, breakfast cereal, bread, BQQ sauce, tomato sauce, fruit juice, tomato sauce tend to contain sugar.
Becoming aware of our sugar intake can help decrease it, so through the course of a day or a week, you can make a list of the foods with added sugar you eat to gain an overview and try to replace some of it with sugar-free versions.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with things that are naturally sweet like fruits, berries and “sweet” spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, liquorice powder, nutmeg and cloves.
It is not about avoiding sweetness, but about getting sweetness in a healthy way. To start you off, we have two delicious recipes here for you to soothe your sweet tooth without added sugar.
Sliced fruit with liquorice-ginger sprinkle
Now your liquorice fetish can actually lead you to health rather than being detrimental to health.
2 for a scrumptious dessert
How to use
As a snack, dessert or sweet treat.
The liquorice-ginger powder keeps close to indefinitely if stored in a dry place. You can add a very small amount of chilli or cayenne pepper if you like really strong and spicy liquorice. And you can, in fact, use any type of sliced fruit to dip in the liquorice-ginger mixture.
Fresh fruit and/or berries, sliced into chunks or bitesize pieces
2 tbs of organic powdered liquorice extract
1 tbs of organic ground dried ginger
How to prepare
Slice fruit and/or berries
Mix liquorice extract and ginger.
Either sprinkle the fruit with the liquorice-ginger mixture or serve the fruits on a platter with the liquorice-ginger mixture in small bowls, for people to dip the fruit in.
Healthy soft ice
You can have your soft ice without “assaulting” your metabolism or physiology. No added sugar, but lots of sweetness, fibre, phytochemicals and nutrients. This soft ice is so healthy, it is not a matter of whether you can have it occasionally, but rather a matter of why you have not had your portion today. It is dairy-free, has no added sugar and no eggs.
How to use
As a dessert! Or mixed with plain yoghurt for a delicious brunch. You can leave out the banana or replace it with mango. If you want extra sweetness, consider adding some dried pitted dates or apricots. You can use any other nut oil instead of flaxseed oil, such as walnut oil, almond oil, hazelnut oil or coconut oil. The frozen berries can be completely or partially replaced with frozen watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, mango or pears. Consider sprinkling with almonds and raisins turned in pure cocoa powder and cinnamon.
Should ideally be eaten right after preparation. But the soft ice will keep for a few hours if refrigerated or in the freezer. But do not freeze it all the way through, or you will get crystallization of the rater.
Kitchen gear needed
Your food processor. Do not try making this in a blender. The glass is too narrow, as there is very little liquid in the soft ice.
300 gr or 11 oz frozen berries (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries or a mixture)
1 banana, peeled
2-3 tbs cold-pressed unrefined flaxseed oil
a sprinkle of vanilla powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
finely grated rind and freshly pressed juice of 1 organic orange or lemon
How to prepare
Put all the ingredients in the large bowl of a food processor fitted with a cutting knife and process for a minute or two, until you have soft ice.