Is acrylamide in your toast really going to give you cancer?

Acrylamide has been in the news today, and this might be the understatement of the year. Front page newspaper headlines have been yelling everything from “Brits officially warned off chips” to “Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast could cause cancer” to the marginally more restrained “What is the real cancer risk from eating roast potatoes or toast?” All this has been accompanied by radio interviews with everyone from actual scientists to professional chefs to people keen to share their roast potato recipes. I expect there have been television interviews too – I haven’t had a chance to watch.

Hey, what could be more traditional, or more fun, than a food-health scare in January?

Acrylamide

Acrylamide

Never fear, the Chronicle Flask is here to sort out the science. Let’s get to the facts: what is acrylamide?

It’s actually a rather small molecule, and it falls into a group of substances which chemists call amides. Other well-known amides include paracetamol and penicillin, and nylon is a polyamide – that is, lots of amide molecules joined together. Amide linkages (the CO-NH bit) are a key feature of proteins, which means they appear in all kinds of naturally-occurring substances.

And this is where the food-acrylamide link comes in. Because acrylamide, or prop-2-enamide to give it its official name (the one only ever used by A-level chemistry students), forms when certain foods are cooked.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

Acrylamide occurs naturally in fried, baked, and roasted starchy foods.

It begins with an amino acid called asparagine. If you’re wondering whether, with that name, it has anything to do with asparagus, you’d be on the right track. It was first isolated in the early 1800s from asparagus juice. It turns out to be very common: it’s found in dairy, meat, fish and shellfish, as well as potatoes, nuts, seeds and grains, amongst other things.

This is where the trouble begins. When asparagine is combined with sugars, particularly glucose, and heated, acrylamide is produced. The longer the food is heated for, the more acrylamide forms. This is a particular issue with anything wheat or potato-based thanks to the naturally-occurring sugars those foods also contain – hence all the histrionics over chips, roast potatoes and toast.

How dangerous is acrylamide? The International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified it as a Group 2A carcinogen, or a “probable” carcinogen. This means there’s “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans, but “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. In other words (usually) scientists know the thing in question causes cancer in rats – who’ve generally been fed huge amounts under strictly controlled conditions – but there isn’t any clear evidence that the same link exists in humans. It’s generally considered unethical to lock humans in cages and force feed them acrylamide by the kilo, so it’s tricky to prove.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-22-10-46At this point I will point out that alcoholic beverages are classified as Group 1 carcinogens, which means there is “sufficient evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans. Alcohol definitely causes cancer. If you’re genuinely concerned about your cancer risk, worry less about the roast potatoes in your Sunday roast and more about the glass of wine you’re drinking with them.

But back to acrylamide. In animals, it has been shown to cause tumours. It’s one of those substances which can be absorbed through the skin, and after exposure it spreads around the body, turning up in the blood, unexposed skin, the kidneys, the liver and so on. It’s also been shown to have neurotoxic effects in humans. BUT, the evidence that it causes cancer in humans under normal conditions isn’t conclusive. A meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that “dietary acrylamide is not related to the risk of most common cancers. A modest association for kidney cancer, and for endometrial and ovarian cancers in never smokers only, cannot be excluded.” 

The dose makes the poison is an important principle in toxicology (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

The dose makes the poison (image credit: Lindsay Labahn)

As I so often find myself saying in pieces like this: the dose makes the poison. The people who have suffered neurotoxic effects from acrylamide have been factory workers. In one case in the 1960s a patient was handling 10% solutions of the stuff, and “acknowledged that the acrylamide solution frequently had splashed on his unprotected hands, forearms and face.” The earliest symptom was contact dermatitis, followed by fatigue, weight loss and nerve damage.

Because of these very real risks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have set occupational exposure limits at 0.03 mg/m3 over an eight-hour workday, or 0.00003 g/m3.

Let’s contrast that to the amount of acrylamide found in cooked food. The reason all this fuss erupted today is that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published some work which estimated the amounts of acrylamide people are likely to be exposed to in their everyday diet.

The highest concentrations of acrylamide were found in snacks (potato crisps etc), and they were 360 μg/kg, or 0.00036 g/kg or, since even the most ardent crisp addict doesn’t usually consume their favoured snacks by the kilo, 0.000036 g/100g. (Remember that those occupational limits are based on continuous exposure over an eight-hour period.)

In other words, the amounts in even the most acrylamide-y of foodstuffs are really quite tiny, and the evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans is very limited anyway. There is some evidence that acrylamide accumulates in the body, though, so consuming these sorts of foods day in and day out over a lifetime could be a concern. It might be wise to think twice about eating burnt toast every day for breakfast.

Oh yes, and there’s quite a lot of acrylamide in cigarette smoke. But somehow I doubt that if you’re a dedicated smoker this particular piece of information is going to make much difference.

As the FSA say at the end of their report:

Your toast almost certainly isn't going to kill you.

Your toast almost certainly isn’t going to kill you.

“The dietary acrylamide exposure levels for all age classes are of possible concern for an increased lifetime risk of cancer. The results of the survey do not increase concern with respect to acrylamide in the UK diet but do reinforce FSA advice to consumers and our efforts to support the food industry in reducing acrylamide levels.”

This is not, I would suggest, QUITE the same as “Crunchy toast could give you cancer, FSA warns” but, I suppose, “FSA says risk hasn’t really changed” wouldn’t sell as many newspapers.

One last thing, there’s acrylamide in coffee – it forms when the beans are roasted. There’s more in instant coffee and, perhaps counterintuitively, in lighter-roasted beans. No one seems to have mentioned that today, possibly because having your coffee taken away in January is just too terrifying a prospect to even contemplate. And also perhaps because coffee seems to be associated with more health benefits than negatives. Coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, suffer fewer cases of some cancers and fewer incidences of stroke. Whether the link is causal or not isn’t clear, but coffee drinking certainly doesn’t seem to be a particularly bad thing, which just goes to show that when it comes to diet, things are rarely clearcut.

Pass the crisps, someone.


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Is it possible to give up sugar completely?

It’s January, a month that’s traditionally marked by cold weather, large credit-card bills and, of course, an awful lot of highly questionable health stuff. Juicing, detox, supplements… it’s all good fun. Until someone gets hurt.

"Refined" sugar is almost entirely made up of a molecule called sucrose.

“Refined” sugar is almost entirely made up of a molecule called sucrose.

One substance that regularly gets a bashing is sugar, particularly so-called “refined” sugar. We’re told it’s toxic (it’s not), it’s more addictive than cocaine (it isn’t) and we should definitely all be trying to give it up.

Now, before I go any further with this, a word about healthy eating. I’m not a dietician. I don’t even claim to be a nutritionist (although I could, if I wanted). However, I think I’m on fairly safe ground if I say that we should all be striving for a healthy, balanced diet. That is, a diet containing a broad range of foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy amounts of protein and some good fats.

A lot of people have diets that fall short of this ideal. Cutting back on foods which contain a lot of added sugar (cakes, chocolate, fizzy drinks, etc) and eating more vegetables and fruits is a good, and sensible, course of action.

The problem is that bit of common-sense advice doesn’t sell books or make an interesting TV show. It’s all a bit boring and, worse, it’s freely available. Compelling entertainment needs to be more exciting, more dramatic, more… extreme.

Which brings us to ITV’s Sugar Free Farm.

Page 81 of the current issue of Radio Times tells us that the celebrities face a "completely sugar-free regime".

Page 81 of the current issue of Radio Times tells us that the celebrities face a “completely sugar-free regime”.

This is actually the second series of this show, which first aired last year. According to the 7-13th January 2017 issue of the Radio Times:

“Seven celebrities who admit to terrible diets succumb to a few weeks of hard farm labour and a completely sugar-free regime (so no white carbs or fruit, let alone chocolate).”

Hm. Now, I’ve written about sugar more than once before, but to save clicking back and forth, here’s another quick summary:

Sugar is not one thing. The chemistry of sugars is quite complicated, but a human being trying to understand the food they eat probably needs to be aware of three main types, namely: glucose, fructose and sucrose.

180px-Glucose_chain_structure

glucose

Glucose is the sugar that all your cells need. Not having enough glucose in your bloodstream is called hypoglycaemia, and the result is seizure, coma and ultimately death. This isn’t a risk for healthy people without pre-existing conditions (like diabetes, for example) because evolution has put some clever safety-nets in place. First, our bodies are extremely efficient at carrying out the necessary chemistry to turn the molecules we eat into the molecules we need. Should that fail, our bodies are very good at storing nutrients to use in times when our diet doesn’t supply them. If you don’t eat glucose, your body will break down other foods to produce it, then it’ll start on your glycogen stores, move on to fat stores, and eventually start breaking down protein (i.e. the stuff in your muscles). This means that unless you stop eating completely for a fairly long period of time, you’ll survive.

Still, I think it’s important to emphasise the point: glucose is essential for life. The suggestion that this substance is “toxic” and thus should be completely eliminated from our diets is really, when you think about it, a bit odd.

Sucrose ("refined sugar") is a unit of glucose joined to a unit of fructose

Sucrose (“refined sugar”) is a unit of glucose joined to a unit of fructose

Ah but, I hear some people saying, no one is saying that glucose is toxic! They’re talking about refined sugar!

Fine. So what’s “refined” sugar? In simple terms, it’s pure sucrose. And sucrose is just a molecule made from a unit of glucose stuck to a unit of fructose. As I said, our bodies are really good at breaking up the molecules we eat into the molecules we need: our cells can’t use sucrose for energy, so all that happens is that it more or less instantly gets broken up into glucose and fructose.

Refined sugar is, basically, half glucose and half fructose, and it’s no more dangerous or “toxic” than either of those substances. And while I’m here, “natural” sugar options are little different: honey, for example, contains similar ratios of fructose and glucose.

200px-Skeletal_Structure_of_D-Fructose

Fructose

Allrighty then, what’s fructose? Fructose is another simple sugar, and it’s the one that plants produce. For that reason it’s sometimes called “fruit sugar”.

Our cells can’t use fructose for energy, either. But, same thing again: if you eat it your body will still use it. In this case, your liver does the heavy lifting; changing fructose into glucose and other substances, some of which are fats. On the one hand, this is a slower process so you don’t get the blood sugar spike with fructose that you get with glucose. On the other, some of the fructose you eat inevitably ends up being converted into fat.

As I mentioned, fructose is the sugar in plants. It’s found in almost all plant-based foods. For example, the USDA food composition database tells us that 100 g of carrots contains about 0.6 g of fructose. Perhaps surprisingly, broccoli contains slightly more: about 0.7 g per 100 g. Iceberg lettuce contains even more, at 1 g per 100 g, whereas green peas contain a mere 0.4 g.

Even a really small glass of fruit juice contains about 150 g.

Even a small serving of fruit juice usually contains at least 150 g.

None of this comes close to fruit. Apples contain about 6 g of fructose per 100 g, grapes 4 g and bananas 5 g. Dried fruit, as you’d expect, has considerably higher amounts by weight – because the water’s gone. Juices have similar amounts of fructose per unit of weight but, of course, you tend to drink a lot more than 100 g of juice at a time.

Now we understand why “Sugar Free Farm” has banned fruit. But this is why I have a problem with the title: you CAN’T eat an entirely “sugar-free” diet, unless all you eat is meat, fish, eggs and dairy products like cream and butter (but not milk, which contains lots of another sugar: lactose). This would be a far from healthy diet, seriously lacking in fibre as well as a host of vitamins and minerals (even “phase 1” or the “induction” period of the controversial Atkins diet isn’t quite this extreme).

The show hasn’t aired yet, and I admit I didn’t watch it last year, so I don’t know if that’s what they’re doing. But I seriously doubt it – it would be unethical and irresponsible. Plus, the words “white carbs” in the listings blurb make me suspicious. Why specify “white”? Are whole grains included? And what about pulses? Whole grain foods might be relatively low in fructose and glucose before you put them in your mouth, but as soon as saliva hits them the starch they contain is broken down into…. glucose. By the time you swallow that chewed-up food, it contains sugar.

In summary, Sugar Free Farm is almost certainly not sugar free. What they appear to have set up is a place where sugars are restricted and foods with added sugar are banned, and then mixed that with lots of outdoor activities (the celebrities are also expected to work on the farm).

Most people would lose weight following such a regime, because it’s likely that calories in are going to be lower than calories out. It’s a simple calorie deficit.

give-up-sugarWhat bothers me is that the show might go on to conclude that we should all “give up” sugar to lose weight – and some people might misinterpret that and end up embarking on an unbalanced, unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable diet – when in fact the results are simply due to calorie deficit.

There’s no need to try to give up sugar. Cut down, yes, but you can eat some sweet foods and still manage a calorie deficit. In fact you probably should: fruit in particular has lots of nutrients, including fibre. Besides, such a diet will probably be a lot more sustainable in the long term.

Unfortunately, “Eat Fewer Calories And Do Some Exercise Farm” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?


EDIT, 11th Jan 2017

Well, the first episode aired last night. No, the diet is not “zero sugar”. It’s very low in sugar, yes, but there are sugars. They used milk (contains lactose), ate wholemeal bread, brown rice and oats (all of which are broken down into glucose) and ate a variety of vegetables which, as I mentioned above, all contain small amounts of sugar. In fact, on their very first morning they eat a strange granola mixture made with sweet potato. The USDA food database tells me that sweet potato contains about 0.4 g of fructose, 0.5 g of glucose, 3.3 g of maltose AND 1.4 g of sucrose per 100 g. Yep. Sucrose. The stuff in “refined” sugar.

There was much talk of “detox” and “detoxing” from sugar. Sigh. That’s not a thing. Most worryingly of all, poor Peter Davison (he was “my” Doctor, you know) was carted off in an ambulance on the second day, suffering with dizzy spells. Everyone immediately started talking about how dreadful it was that “sugar” had caused this. There was only one, in passing, comment shown suggesting that perhaps the 65-year-old might have something else wrong with him. In fact, it turned out that he had labyrinthitis, an inner-ear condition. It’s usually viral. It’s not caused by “sugar withdrawal”. I’m sure they’ll make that clear in the next episode, right?

Speaking of which, the celebrities are on Sugar Free Farm for 15 days. A safe rate of weight loss is generally considered to be 0.5-1 kg (or 1-2 lb) a week. So they should lose about 2 kg, or 4 lb, on the outside. A snippet was shown at the end of the program in which Alison Hammond said she was “pleased” she’d lost 8 lbs. Whether that was after two weeks or a shorter period of time wasn’t clear, but either way, it’s a lot. It suggests that her diet is/was too low in calories, particularly considering all the extra physical activity.  Perhaps some of her so-called “sugar withdrawal” symptoms were actually simply due to the fact that she wasn’t consuming enough to keep up with her energy needs?

That aside, the diet they followed did seem to be fairly balanced, with plenty of vegetables and adequate healthy fats and protein. They had all been eating huge quantities of sugary foods beforehand, and cutting down is no bad thing. I’m just skeptical about exactly how much of the bad, and indeed the good, can be pinned on sugar.

Still, it made good telly I suppose.


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Sugar that’s not sugar?

A couple of days ago I was catching up with last Sunday’s Dragon’s Den. For the non-Brits out there, this is a show in which entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of ‘dragons’ – i.e. successful business people – to get an investment of money and, perhaps more importantly, expertise and contacts. It’s a great show that’s been running for quite a few years now and has resulted in a number of products and brands becoming household names – in the UK anyway.

LinusGorpeDragonsDen

Linus Gorpe on BBC’s Dragon’s Den

The last entrepreneur to pitch in the show was the founder of the Raw Chocolate Company, an interesting character called Linus Gorpe (quote: “I love life. Life is the dance for me. I play a lot. I play in the woods. I eat a lot of healthy food. I love clean living. I love women, oh I love women.” Ahem).

He was promoting his ‘raw’ chocolate products. The Dragons asked what he meant by raw: he said something about heating up apples for two hours in an oven. I don’t think anyone was much the wiser. But I’m not going to pick holes in the ideas behind raw food diets (Science Based Medicine wrote a great article on that topic a little while back, I urge you to check it out).

No, I was more bothered by this little exchange:

Deborah Meaden: “So, the sugar content when comparing it to other chocolate. Same?”
Linus: “No. I use coconut palm sugar, which is um, not refined white sugar. It’s the sugar that’s been made from-”
DM (interrupting): “That’s interesting, so it’s unrefined?”
LG: “It’s unrefined. It’s boiled. So it doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels.”

Peter Jones chimed in at this point on something else entirely, leaving me shouting pointlessly at the telly. Not least because hadn’t he just said heating food was basically bad? And now he’s talking about boiling?!

Saccharose2

Sucrose

But that’s the least of my problems with this. Firstly, what is the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar? As the name suggests it’s really just a question of processing. Somehow the word ‘refined’ seems to have become irrevocably linked in people’s minds with ‘horribly unhealthy’ whereas ‘raw sugar’ somehow sounds much better. In reality, in the case of cane sugar (for the sake of comparing like with like), all the ‘refined’ bit means is that any non-sugar ingredients, which mainly provide flavour and colour, have been removed and the water has been rapidly evaporated from the sugar solution to produce fine, white crystals of pure sucrose.

Raw sugar, before the refining process, is still mostly sucrose. And truly raw sugar syrup, i.e. completely unprocessed, doesn’t often work very well as an ingredient. So when people talk about ‘unrefined’ sugar, what they usually mean is ‘a bit less refined’ sugar.

Ah, I hear you say, but he didn’t say cane sugar. He said coconut palm sugar. Yes, he did. So what’s that, then?

Coconut palm sugar, or just coconut sugar, is sugar produced from the sap of the cut flower buds of the coconut palm plant. It is usually less refined than cane sugar: essentially the syrup is harvested from the plant and then simply heated to remove the excess water. It’s a pretty simple process.

But does that make it any healthier? What does it actually contain?

179px-Beta-D-Fructofuranose

Fructose

157px-Alpha-D-Glucopyranose

Glucose

Well, coconut palm sugar is, guess what, about 80% sucrose. The remaining 20% is made up of a mixture of glucose and fructose. Both of which are also sugars. In fact, if you have a look at the images I’ve inserted here, they’re very similar molecules. Chemists describe them as isomers; they have the same number and types of atoms, just arranged slightly differently. If you’ve really been paying attention, you might notice that sucrose is, in fact, just a glucose molecule joined up with a fructose molecule.

When you eat sucrose, your body breaks it down into glucose and fructose. So practically, consuming any of these will have basically the same result, which is to raise your blood sugar. Pure glucose causes the biggest spike, because your body doesn’t have to do anything very much at all in the way of digestion, but just to make this absolutely clear: table sugar is not glucose. It is sucrose.

How much your blood sugar rises when you eat mostly depends on what else is in the food. A whole piece of fruit, for example, also contains a lot of fibre. That fibre slows down digestion, which means the sugar (there’s a lot of fructose in fruit) is absorbed more slowly than if you, say, swallowed a teaspoon of the same sugar on its own.

Coconut palm sugar

Coconut palm sugar

In short, refined sugar raises your blood sugar levels. But so does unrefined/raw/partially-refined/whatever-we’re-calling-it-today sugar. It was frankly flat-out incorrect of Linus to state that coconut palm sugar doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, because it does.

There is a bit of debate around how much it raises blood sugar levels. One oft-quoted study (consisting of a grand total of ten participants, and carried out by the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute – incidentally the Philippines is one of the world’s largest producers of coconut palm sugar) quoted a glycemic index (GI) for coconut sugar of about 35, which would compare quite favourably with table sugar (about 58) and pure glucose (100, by definition).

On the other hand, hunt around a bit and another source pops up quoting a GI of 54 for coconut sugar. Which is… about the same as table sugar (and given the chemical make-up of coconut sugar, it’s hard to think of a good reason why they should be very different).

The truth is, there isn’t any such thing as ‘healthy’ sugar, certainly not in the way we talk about ‘healthy fats‘. If you’re going to eat products made with sugar, any sugar, you have to accept that while they may be jolly tasty (that ought to be a give-away, really) they’re treats, and should probably still be enjoyed only in moderation.

I’m sure that the Raw Chocolate Company’s products are delicious, and I’m not particularly anti-sugar. But let’s not be misleading. If someone genuinely cares, for whatever reason, about the sugar in their food, it’s important they get accurate information. Saying things like “it doesn’t raise your blood sugar” is, well, frankly a bit naughty.

The dragons know their stuff, and Deborah Meaden (who eventually invested) is a very smart lady. There’s no way she’ll allow any inaccurate, or even questionable, claims to persist in the long term, so I daresay this is the last time we’ll hear the blood sugar thing in relation to these products. But still, if he’d quoted dubious sales figures they’d have been all over it. Grrr.

About this time last year I wrote a post about a company claiming that their agave-sweetened products are ‘sugar-free’. They’re still out there. They still say their products are sugar-free (although they are making some that are sweetened with the sweetener xylitol now, which they’ve bizarrely chosen to label ‘no added sugar’). Their products still do, in fact, contain sugar. Sigh.

Something about sugar (free)

Blenheim Flower Show

The Blenheim Flower Show

Last month I went to the Blenheim Flower Show. I hadn’t been before, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In my head I was imagining rows and rows of flowers with a sort of maze-like path through them. I have no idea why, possibly I’ve been doing too much Wizard of Oz (this is not a euphemism).

Perhaps not surprisingly it wasn’t like that at all. In fact the flowers were confined to a couple of easily-avoidable tents, leaving me to wander around stalls selling everything from jewellery to space-saving furniture, chat to the jolly interesting chaps giving a bee-keeping demonstration and scrounge free samples from the food tent.

And it was in the food tent that I came across the Raw Chocolate Pie stall. Sounds good doesn’t it? They’ve combined some very appealing words there. Anyway, the ladies on the stall were very nice and gave me some pieces to taste, and it was indeed scrummy, and sweet. I mention this because in huge letters across the top of the stall were the words “sugar free”. Hm, I thought. They had already told me that the ‘pies’ (actually more like chocolatey lumps) were made with raw cacao beans. Now, I’m a fan of dark chocolate and I’ve tasted 90% cocoa chocolate. It’s bitter. Bitter with a capital bit. It also has a sort of powdery texture due to the low fat content, and this had neither quality.

“So,” I said conversationally, “what’s it sweetened with?”

“Agave nectar,” came the reply.

thefoodofthegodsAt this point I’d heard of agave nectar but I wasn’t really sure what it actually was, so I simply nodded and bought a bar of nut pie. I intended to bring it home and investigate it properly, but it was hot and it got a bit melty, so I was forced to eat it at lunchtime. I took a picture of the wrapper though.

See how it says “sugar free” right there at the top? They are big on this claim. It says sugar free all over the Living Food raw chocolate pie website too.

What would you imagine that means?

It’s a pertinent question. Sugar is one of those words, like ‘salt‘ and ‘alcohol‘, which has a subtly different meaning in chemistry than it does in everyday speech. For chemists these are groups of compounds, but if you read “add pinch of salt” in a recipe book you don’t wonder whether to add sodium chloride or the copper sulfate from your child’s chemistry set. Likewise, if a bottle of wine claims to be 14% alcohol you don’t ponder whether it’s safe to drink or whether you should save it for paint stripper. (Unless, that is, it’s very cheap wine indeed.)

No, in everyday speech we know that salt means sodium chloride, alcohol means ethanol and sugar means, er… sugar means…

Sucrose

Sucrose

This is where it gets a bit sticky. Because there’s more than one sugar that we eat on a regular basis. The white, or sometimes brown, stuff that people bake with and plop into their hot beverages is mainly sucrose. It’s also called ‘table sugar’, or sometimes ‘cane sugar’ or ‘beet sugar’, because those are the plants from which it’s extracted.

Raw chocolate pies haven’t been made with cane/beet sugar, so they might be able to truthfully claim to be sucrose-free. But sugar-free? We-ell…

180px-Glucose_chain_structure

Glucose

The other two sugars that we’re probably most familiar with are glucose, which is the fuel our cells use for energy during respiration, and fructose, which is found in plants and which, like glucose, can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

200px-Skeletal_Structure_of_D-Fructose

Fructose

So fructose is found in plants. In fact, fructose is often found in plants chemically bonded to glucose. To make…. sucrose.

So in short:
glucose + fructose = sucrose

And they’re all sugars, and we eat them all on a fairly regular basis. Our bodies break up sucrose into units of glucose and fructose during digestion, and it’s fair to say that none of them are particularly healthy if consumed in large quantities. They’re calorific, bad for your teeth, nutrient-free (other than as an energy source), and regularly eating large quantities of sugar (of any kind) puts you at a greater risk of type II diabetes.

So what’s in agave nectar? Well it comes from a plant, the agave plant, so if you’ve been paying attention that should give you a clue. Yep, it’s packed full of fructose. Which is a sugar. In fact, there are a lot of health concerns around fructose. You may have heard of high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. This stuff is controversial, with claims that it contributes to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Other groups claim these links are unproven, and it’s no worse than any other type of sugar. These groups are mainly people that make and sell high fructose corn syrup, so draw your own conclusions.

Back to agave nectar or, more accurately, syrup. It actually has considerably more fructose than high fructose corn syrup. So bearing all that in mind, is it a healthy alternative? Er, almost certainly not.

Is it correct to call something that’s sweetened with agave ‘sugar free’?

I had a little poke around the Food Standards website. It was something of a slog, but as far as I can work out, the word ‘sugar’ in an ingredients list specifically refers to sucrose. So, you don’t have to list ‘sugar’ in the ingredients list if sucrose isn’t specifically used as an ingredient. But what about the term ‘sugar-free’?

I struggled to find a clear definition of this term on the FSA website, which was a bit annoying (see update below). The best source I can come up with is The Sugar Association, which I’m fairly sure is an American site and so the information quoted wouldn’t apply to a British producer. Still, it’s the best I’ve got, and I’d put money on the rules being similar if not quite identical. This is what they say:

‘“Sugar Free”: Less than 0.5 g sugars per reference amount and per labeled serving (or for meals and main dishes, less than 0.5 g per labeled serving). No ingredient that is a sugar or generally understood to contain sugars except as noted below(*)’ (sic)

The “as noted below” refers to sugar alcohols. These are things like xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol. They often turn up in things like chewing gum. Fructose, at the risk of stating the obvious, is not a sugar alcohol.

There was no percentage composition on the raw chocolate pie wrapper, but just from the taste I’m pretty certain it had more than 0.5 g of sugars (i.e. fructose) per serving. Nothing is that sweet without sugars, unless it also contains artificial sweeteners (which aren’t listed as an ingredient).

I did find this on the Food Standards website:

“To sell food and drink products, the label must be: […] not misleading”

Sugar-free Coke?

Sugar-free Coke?

Is calling something sweetened with a high-fructose syrup (because that’s what agave ‘nectar’ is) misleading? I’m afraid to say that, although I did very much enjoy my nut pie snack, I think it is. By the logic that seems to be being applied here, Coca Cola could use high fructose corn syrup as an sweetener and label their red non-diet bottles and cans as sugar-free, which would be patently ridiculous.

It’s a shame really, because Living Food have a nice product. They just need to get their labelling sorted out.

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Update 4th August 2014
After I wrote this I continued my quest to find a proper definition of “sugar-free”. I tried the Food Standards Agency, who sent me to Defra, who ignored me. So I went back to the FSA, who eventually sent me this link. It’s a very interesting document, clarifying and giving examples of how EU Regulation No. 1924/2006, which is all about nutrition and health claims on food, should be applied. On page 70 it says:

‘”The Regulation does […] define any product with no more than 0.5g of sugar per 100ml or per 100g as “sugar free”’

And so conversely, anything with more than 0.5 g of sugar per 100 g as NOT sugar-free. (The official definitions of sugar-free, low-sugar and no added sugar can all be found in the Annex, on page 14, of EU Regulation No. 1924/2006). What still wasn’t entirely clear was exactly what’s meant by ‘sugar’. But now I had somewhere to start. Rooting through EU Regulation No. 1924/2006 I found that it referred to Directive 90/496/EEC for definitions. And there, finally, I got my answer, in Article 1, page 4:

“‘sugars’ means all monosaccharides and disaccharides present in food, but excludes polyols”

Voilà! Fructose is a monosaccharide, and therefore if your product has more than 0.5 g of fructose per 100 g, then it cannot accurately be labelled sugar-free.

I can’t prove this is the case for the Raw Chocolate Pies, since I my testing involves tasting two samples. But if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a very sugary duck.

The question of ‘no added sugar’ may be somewhat irrelevant, since they’re not making this claim, but I think it’s illuminating. If agave syrup has been added then “no added sugar” can’t even be used, since (from regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006):

“A claim stating that sugars have not been added to a food, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product does not contain any added mono- or disaccharides or any other food used for its sweetening properties.”

So that’s the end of the journey, really. You can only call something sugar-free if there’s no sugar in it, and that includes fructose (‘fruit sugar’), glucose and sucrose (‘table’ sugar). Foods sweetened with agave, which contains fructose, aren’t sugar-free, unless they have only the tiniest amount – less than 0.5 g per 100 g – added.