The explosion in healthy food bloggers, chefs and cookbook authors has been particularly noticeable in the past few years, with virtuous superstars such as Deliciously Ella topping the cookbook bestseller lists. It’s easier than ever to get your hands on a healthy recipe, healthy breakfast bar or healthy dessert.
However when you start digging a little deeper into the world of healthy eating… are things as wholesome as they seem?
The definition of what constitutes a “healthy diet” seems to be constantly in a state of flux. One minute, eggs are deemed to be deadly little balls of cholesterol, the next they are lauded as a miracle food, filled with good fats and wonderful vitamins. The same has happened with fat in general, which has gone from being the pariah of the food world, to a mainstay in popular paleo and low carbohydrate diets.
The government seems at times almost schizophrenic when it comes to nutritional guidelines, issuing contradictory information every few years. However there is one area upon which there is almost unanimous agreement; that too much sugar is rather bad for you.
Research undertaken by the universities of Reading and Cambridge in 2015 found a direct link between elevated sugar consumption and obesity. Links have also been made between sugar consumption and type two diabetes, kidney disease and even cardiovascular disease.
Reducing your sugar intake therefore seems a very healthy thing to do. NHS guidelines on sugar state that “The government recommends that free or added sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day. That's a maximum of 30g of added sugar a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.” I have to say that during my research for this piece, I came across a number of sources which recommend even lower levels, with many arguing for a 21g daily limit.
You would therefore reasonably expect that any food marketed as “healthy” would take into account the increasing concerns surrounding sugar and that the term would only be applied to foods which fell into the “low” sugar category - 5g of total sugars or less per 100g.
Now I am someone who likes to think that they make a real effort to eat well. This means that I do look out for foods that have been branded as "healthy" when I'm shopping.
I'm especially fond of snack bars, as they are a great way of curbing hunger pangs and eating on the go. One of the brands I really love is NAKD, mainly because they have very few ingredients and contain "natural" ingredients and flavourings.
Recently I took a closer look at these bars and realised that despite being marketed as healthy, one single NAKD Cocoa Orange bar contains 13.6 grams of sugar, which is 45% of your daily recommended allowance. Despite the sugar coming from the natural sugars found in dates, this still seems unreasonably high from something which is marketed as a "guilt free chocolate bar." To compare, a standard two bar KitKat has 10.8g of sugar.
Slightly perturbed by this realization, I decided to look at the other snack bars on the market to see if those which were similarly marketed as being the “healthy choice" The results were very similar, with many bars also containing significant amounts of sugar. It must be noted however that it was often difficult to tell from labeling whether these sugars were naturally occurring in the main ingredients, or were added.
The obvious answer for anyone worried about the sugar content in commercially made snack bars would be to have a go at making your own. This way you can be in complete control of what goes into each portion!
To get yourself started, you might try and google a couple of recipes for things such as “healthy brownies” or “healthy granola bars.” There will be an astounding number of results come up, however you will probably go for a recipe that is listed on the first page of results, because you are a statistical conformist.
The series of events described above is exactly the course of action I decided to take after my sugar epiphany. However as I started browsing recipes from well-known health bloggers, I realised that whilst there is no mention of ordinary refined sugar, there seemed to be a hell of a lot of maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave nectar, honey and dates.
In fact, when you tot up the amounts in certain recipes, the grams of sugar per portion are comparable to the bars listed above. There is also the added fact that many of these ingredients are quite expensive and beyond the budget of those on lower incomes, but that's a different blog post...
Now debate is ongoing over whether natural sugars are metabolized differently to refined sugars, however there is little doubt that eating too much natural sugar along with added sugar is bad for you. I'm sure there are other benefits from using whole foods and unrefined sugars, such as added vitamins and fiber. However in my opinion, a healthy diet needs to be one that seriously reduces sugar consumption in all forms.
My concern with these recipes is that people will not factor in these natural sugars into their daily allowance, simply by assuming that what they are making is comes under the "healthy" banner.
I have also been guilty in the past of scoffing down 10 "healthy" brownies, because in my mind, they were supposed to be good for me and therefore I could eat as many as I wanted! Whilst this is nobody's fault but my own, there is a lot of marketing around which promotes indulging on copious amounts "healthy" treats. Instagram has thousands of pictures showing plates filled to the brim with raw cookies, avocado chocolate moose and all kinds of "healthy" sweet snacks and desserts.
The fact is though that too much of anything is bad for you, especially when you are consuming large proportions of your recommended daily sugar intake without even realizing it!
The term “healthy” is obviously problematic when it comes to the food industry. There seems to be little regulation surrounding its use and there are concerns that consumers simply trust the marketing behind the brand, rather than looking closely at the facts on the label.
The hidden sugars in healthy products are a testament to the contradictory messages we get from a government which will issue consumption guidelines, but refuses to regulate an industry which seems to ignore them.
This post was originally written for the YOAF March edition, however some amendments to the original text have been made for this blog.