The suggestion that honey, syrups and fruit juices are nutritionally better than refined white sugar is misleading. By Jennifer Bowden.
My daily paper recently published a mandarin cake recipe under the headline "Guilt-Free and Sweet As". It came from a book that is allegedly "full of decadent and tempting desserts without the guilt, as she has eliminated the refined sugar". The cake contains 125ml of light olive oil, 220g of almond meal and 180ml of honey, presumably in place of butter, flour and white sugar respectively. What is the nutritional breakdown of this recipe? It seems like deceptive advertising.
In recent years, the belief that non-refined sugar sources are nutritionally better than refined forms has gained considerable ground. Indeed, a Swiss study found simply adding the word "fruit" to "sugar" on a breakfast cereal label resulted in people rating it as healthier. But that doesn't alter the fact that one serving of this mandarin cake contains three-quarters of the World Health Organisation's sugar-intake recommendations for a 24-hour day.
The WHO recommends limiting free sugars to less than 10 per cent of total energy intake (about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day) to reduce the risk of dental caries and non-communicable illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Further health benefits may be gained by reducing consumption to less than 5 per cent of energy intake, or about six teaspoons of free sugar.
Free sugars are defined as all monosaccharides (eg, glucose and fructose) and disaccharides, such as refined white table sugar (sucrose) added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
The recipe creator has used honey instead of refined white sugar in the cake. Although honey has a lower glycaemic-index rating than white sugar (ie, it raises blood-sugar levels less than white sugar), it is still a free sugar. Per serving, the cake contains about 36g of sugar, almost all of which is free sugar from the honey and mandarin juice. One slice therefore contains more than nine teaspoons of sugar.
On the plus side, by replacing the butter, the cake has a healthier profile of fats, thanks to the monounsaturated fats from the olive oil. The almond meal also contains fat, protein, micronutrients and some helpful fibre, which is a nutritional step up from white flour.
However, for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers, this type of cake can be problematic. Both the honey and almond meal contain short-chain carbohydrates that are rapidly fermented and poorly absorbed, so they may exacerbate IBS symptoms.
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Although this cake contains more micronutrients, a better fat profile and a generous amount of fibre, it is still a high-sugar food and should be eaten within a balanced diet. I agree the blurb is overreaching the nutritional mark and sadly playing on a dysfunctional relationship with food by using the phrase "guilt-free".
I take real issue with marketers using the phrase "guilt-free" about food. Healthy eating is about more than just eating "healthy" or "nutritious" foods; it is also about having a healthy relationship with food. When we feel guilt or shame about our food choices, this is the antithesis of what we should be aiming to achieve. Undoubtedly, the use of the phrase "guilt-free" is aimed at connecting to these pathological feelings when, instead, we should be trying to remove them.
Research has found that feelings of guilt and anxiety towards food are common among people who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. This type of message is also likely to negatively connect with people who struggle with disordered eating.
If you want a piece of that cake, then eat it guilt-free. Eat anything you like guilt-free, because as an adult with an interest in nutrition (you're reading this column, after all), you are undoubtedly capable of making decisions about how to balance your eating to maintain a healthy lifestyle.