Nutrition: Why sugar, not fat, is your real enemy

Jane McClenaghan

Jane McClenaghan

Jane writes a nutrition column for The Irish News. She has a passion for good food and her philosophy is one of balance – simple, effective and practical changes that can fit into anyone’s lifestyle.

Biscuits can be high in sugar - and have you ever met anyone who stops at one?
Biscuits can be high in sugar - and have you ever met anyone who stops at one? Biscuits can be high in sugar - and have you ever met anyone who stops at one?

WHEN you look at food labels, what is the first thing you look at? Is it calories, fat, sugar or salt? Do you take account of the protein and fibre content? I would hazard a guess that for most people, it is calories and fat that are the biggest concern.

If I had one wish for this column, it would be to turn this on its head and get people to become much more aware of how much sugar they are eating and a little more confident about getting more good quality fat into their diet.

:: Low fat vs low sugar

Despite the diet industry’s claims that fat makes us fat, nutritional science is disproving this fact. Fat leaves us feeling satiated, helps balance our hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin) and provides us with essential omega 3 and 6, and vitamins A, D, E and K. If we eat a low-fat diet, we are at risk of becoming low in these essential nutrients, feeling hungry all the time, craving sugary stuff and feeling a bit crap.

Compare the nutritional value of fat to that of sugar. Both provide us with calories, but not all calories have the same impact on our waistline. Fat leaves us satiated, but sugar leaves us wanting more. Sugar provides us with empty calories – energy and nothing else. It makes us fat – and most of eat far too much of the stuff.

:: Traffic light system

As a quick and easy guide, we often trust the front of the packaging for a snapshot of what is in the pack. This front of pack nutritional information is voluntary, but most supermarkets and food manufacturers show a version of the traffic light labelling system that lists the calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. Sometimes these are colour coded, but often not.

The concern I have with this type of labelling is that it is based on the manufacturers’ suggested portion size, which is not usually what the average consumer consumes.

Take McVitie's Jaffa Cakes as an example. According to the pack, a portion size is one jaffa cake. Have you ever met anyone who stops at one? For most breakfast cereals – the recommended portion size is 45g. When asked to measure out their usual portion size into a cereal bowl, people in my nutrition workshops usually pour around 100g – over twice (and sometimes three times) the suggested serving suggestion.

For most people, the traffic light system does not correlate to what they are actually eating. That is why I suggest ignoring what’s on the front of the pack and taking a closer look at the nutritional information panel on the back.

:: Take a closer look

Be wary of terms like 'reduced sugar', 'no added sugar', 'less sugar' – they all sound good, but if a food is really low sugar, it has to state the term 'low sugar' on the label. All the rest are marketing terms.

Rather than get confused with food labels, it is best to keep things simple. Check the sugar content per 100g. A low sugar food contains 5g or less per 100g, and high sugar is 22.5g per 100g or more.

I recently picked up a pack of biscuits from one of the main diet pushers in the land and noticed that they contain a whopping 40g sugar per 100g, despite numerous claims on the packaging about each bar containing just 71kcals, low in 'points' and low calorie.

If we could change a few of the foods in our trolley to opt for a lower sugar content, it would go a long way in helping us with weight management