bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Grocery store lessons: a tale of two pasta sauces

Further to all of my discussion about sugar in food and nutrition labels I wanted to share with you the following nutrition facts label that has me stumped:

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Apologies for the poor photo quality. Hopefully you’re able to see that the nutrition facts panel indicates that there’s no sugar in this pasta sauce. That’s grand and all, no one wants a sugary tomato sauce. It’s also puzzling because tomatoes (and many other vegetables) naturally contain sugar. So how does one end up with zero grams of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving?

Compare this to another pasta sauce:

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This second sauce, despite having no added sugar, still contains 6 grams of sugar per serving. This is much more the norm  than the sauce in the first photo.

I know that people are trying to cut back on sugar. That’s great. But this is another example of why you might want to pay more attention to the ingredients in a food than to the nutrition facts panel. These are very similar products but tell rather different stories when it comes to sugar content. One supposedly contains no sugar, while the other contains about one and a half teaspoons in a serving. Even if you’re trying to cut back on sugar there’s really no point in getting riled up about a little bit of sugar naturally occurring from vegetables.


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Does adding the percent daily value to the nutrition label add value or confusion?

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The news broke the other day that, despite calls from the public, Health Canada will not be revising the nutrition facts panel to include added sugars. According to our current health minister, one of the most “significant” changes will be the inclusion of a percent daily value for sugar.

Despite the lack of evidence for a specific recommendation for sugar intake (either added or naturally occurring) the percent daily value will be based on a total of 100 grams of sugar (approximately 25 teaspoons). This kind of blows my mind. I think that it’s absurd to make numerical recommendations for nutrients to people when we don’t know how much people can (or should) safely consume. Everyone’s all up in arms about sugar being toxic and the root of obesity which, if you read this blog regularly, you know I think is melodramatic at best, misguided fear mongering at worst. So, how exactly are we making recommendations for total sugar intake when we don’t know what that should look like?

Another dietitian on twitter pointed out to me that the percent daily value is not a recommended amount to consume. Rather, it’s a tool to help people make healthy choices. A percent daily value of less than 5% is “a little”, while more than 15% is “a lot”. Yes, that’s how we’ve tried to frame the confusing percent daily value in recent years but I wonder, is that really how most people use it? And, considering that technically percent daily value is based on the recommended nutrient consumption for an “average” 2, 000 calorie diet, wouldn’t that mean that the arbitrary 100 grams of sugar be either a quantity to aim for or at least a maximum to stay under? Personally, I’d prefer to see the percent daily value removed from the nutrition facts panel rather than the addition of a %DV for total sugar.

Of course, beyond the addition of fairly useless information, Health Canada won’t be adding the more useful information that we were all screaming for. Nope, if you want to know if your food has added sugar in it then you’ll have to check the ingredient list (often preferable to the nutrition facts panel anyway but much more time consuming). Look for all of the usual suspects (e.g. anything ending in “ose”, sugar (duh), molasses, honey, syrup, fruit juice or puree, etc). Ideally, you want most of the sugar you consume to be naturally occurring so your food might not have an ingredient list (like an apple) or it might contain sugar but not have any sugars in the ingredients (like plain yoghurt). Limiting the number of pre-made foods you consume may mean that you spend more time in the kitchen but it will save you time reading labels in the grocery store and likely give you more healthy years to enjoy your life.


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A little bit about the Starbucks mini frappuccino

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I have mixed feelings about Starbucks addition of “mini” frappuccinos to their menu. There’s a part of me that’s glad to see it because their “normal” sizes tend to be monstrosities. At least this is offering customers who want a sweet blended icy treat a better option. However, there’s another, more cynical, part of me that hates this limited time promotion.

Really, Starbucks, if you wanted to offer healthier options for your customers then you wouldn’t make them “limited time” offers. You would also maybe try to actually make them healthier rather than just smaller. Because let’s face it, a S’mores Frappuccino isn’t really the healthiest of options at any size. And since when is 10 oz “mini”??! Ten ounces is a perfectly reasonable normal serving size for a beverage. It’s only because of our years of super sizing that we have come to reside in a world in which a ten ounce beverage is miniature. Miniature for Shaq or Sultan Kösen perhaps, but not for the majority of us. This is all just a marketing ploy to get more of us to spend our money on their products and to feel good about doing it.

Okay, so let’s ruin that delicious blended icy treat for you just a little bit more shall we? An average (assuming the grande, i.e. 16 oz is average) Starbucks S’mores Frappuccino packs in a mere 500 calories (approximately what many of us should consume at an average meal), 20 grams of fat, and 68 grams of sugar (that’s about 17 teaspoons of sugar). But the much more reasonably sized “mini” version contains only 230 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 31 grams of sugar (a piddly near 8 teaspoons of sugar). Fine if you’re having it as a treat or a dessert, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the mini frapp is a good or virtuous option or a justification for having a cookie or brownie on your order as well.

While not sweet or blended, I’m partial to the iced latte which, of course, isn’t even listed on their menu board. With just ice, espresso, and milk it’s a far less indulgent treat but it’s cold and caffeinated so it meets all of my criteria.

If you do love the blended sweet beverages, I’ve created a healthier version of the frappuccino:

In advance: freeze strong coffee in ice cube tray(s).

Blend together: coffee ice cubes (about 1/2 tray worth), 1 frozen banana, 1 heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder, 1 tbsp almond butter, 1/2-1 serving of mocha flavour vega one, milk (to consistency). Serves two.

Nutrition (approximate – used 3/4 cup of 1% milk and 1/2 packet of vega one for this analysis):

180 kcal, 7.3 g fat, 3.1 g fibre, 12.3 g sugar (about 3 teaspoons, from banana and milk), and 10.2 g protein.

Let me know what you think if you try it and feel free to share your own healthy iced coffee recipes!


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Is 63 grams of liquid sugar the answer to high cholesterol?

A friend recently shared this tweet with me:

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She had asked the tweeter for more details but hadn’t received a response. My response: “Ugh. No wonder so many people don’t trust us as dietitians”.

Of course, it’s Florida orange juice that imparts these benefits. Because oranges from other locales couldn’t possibly impart the same benefits (<— please note this should be written in the yet to be developed sarcasm font). Even so, is the benefit even all that meaningful? I’d argue no.

While I can’t be certain that the study I found is the one the tweeter was referring to it was the top hit and was sponsored by Tropicana orange juice so it fits the bill. The study looked at a very small group of individuals with elevated cholesterol. There were only 25 participants, 16 healthy men, and 9 post-menopausal women. This means that the results cannot be extended to apply to pre-menopausal women or “unhealthy” individuals. There were additional strict criteria that participants had to meet: 1. have initial fasting plasma triacylglycerol (blood lipid) concentrations in the normal range, 2. be habitual or occasional orange juice drinkers, 3. be free of thyroid disorders, kidney disease, and diabetes, 4. have an alcohol intake of ≤2 drinks/d, 5. not be receiving hormone replacement therapy if female. With such a small sample size of people meeting such precise criteria, no concrete conclusions can be drawn from this study.

However, the researchers still drew conclusions. Namely that three cups of orange juice a day can lower LDL and increase HDL blood levels. They found that HDL levels were increased by 21% and the HDL-LDL ratio was decreased by 16%. That sounds fairly impressive but is it really? Well, no, not really. The average HDL level increased from 1.0 to 1.3. Anything over 1.0 is good anyway so they weren’t all that badly off to begin with. The HDL-LDL ratio really only changed because of the increase in HDL as LDL levels went from an average of 3.6 to 3.5. Not a significant change.

What the study doesn’t tell you is that cholesterol recommendations are only made in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease. If your risk level is low then an LDL of under 5.0 is fine. If your risk is high then an LDL of less than 2.0 is ideal. Risk level is determined by family and medical history. None of these factors were discussed in the current study despite the fact that the cholesterol levels measured are essentially meaningless without being placed in the context of CVD risk.

Can we just go back to that THREE cups of OJ a day again? The researchers found no significant change in cholesterol levels at one or two cups of OJ a day. Only at three cups a day. That’s a considerable amount of orange juice. Considering that a serving size of juice is 1/2 cup and most dietitians recommend no more than one serving per day I find it hard to fathom recommending 6 servings of juice every day for a slight increase in HDL levels. The researchers note that as OJ increased fibre intake decreased. They didn’t mention any other aspects of diet. There was no comparison to consumption of whole oranges, other fruit or vegetable juices, or any other dietary changes. Based on this study alone I would absolutely not advise anyone wishing to improve their blood cholesterol levels to drink 63 grams (more than 15 teaspoons) of liquid sugar daily.


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#Sugarfree me

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Now that it’s over, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and experiences during my sugar-free experience.

After one week:

It’s been much easier than I expected. The biggest challenges have been mornings and dessert after supper. There are only two cold cereals available that don’t have any added sugar so I’ve been relying on smoothies (my maximum one serving of fruit a day), steel cut oats, and toast (no sugar) with natural peanut butter. Instead of my usual small glass of coconut water, I’ve been having plain kefir. For morning snacks at work, instead of fruit or a bar, I’ve been having cheese and crackers (again, not many without added sugar, low sodium triscuits fit the bill), vegetables and hummus, avocado with Herbamare, or mixed nuts. After supper I’d been in the habit of having a cookie or some chocolate. I must confess that I’ve been snacking on chips far too often in the evenings since giving up sugar. However, I find that teas work as a great substitute for a sugary snack. I’m loving the Stash chocolate orange, Traditional Medicinals organic ginger and some of the David’s teas (some have sugar so I have to be careful).

While I can give up sugar, I can’t give up baking on my days off. Instead of something sweet I made crackers (rosemary gruyere puffs) one day. They were so yummy! Who needs sugar? That being said, I’ve already planned my Easter Sunday baking: a recipe for lemon sticky buns I saw recently. Mmmm….

While I haven’t felt too much like I’m missing out, I think that my subconscious may be missing sweet treats as I’ve had a couple of dreams where I scarf down cookies, either in guilty defiance of my self-imposed sugar ban or forgetting about it entirely. Very interesting. I can’t recall ever dreaming about secret cookie snacking before.

One evening my boyfriend picked up the evening take-out from The Canteen (a delicious local sandwich shop that also does a different take-away most evenings). The meal included dessert, some sort of profiteroles by the looks of it. He had forgotten about my sugar ban so he lucked into two desserts. I was a little bit envious, but had some tea and Beanitos to compensate.

Two weeks in:

Why do I follow so many people on twitter who tweet links and photos of delicious baked goods? I’ve been emailing myself lots of links to recipes to try after this experiment is over.

Have purchased a new herbal tea. Some kind of berry flavoured thing. It’s pretty tasty.

Sorry if this is TMI but… I usually have terrible cramps when I get my period. Debilitating. This month, I had some slight cramping, took one ibuprofen and they went away without resurfacing! I don’t have them horribly every month, but more months than not, so I’m not sure that this was due to my sugar free diet or just a coincidence.

I’ve heard so many people say that when you quit sugar that you’ll go through withdrawal. I haven’t experienced that. I’ve felt fine, perhaps even a little better, than usual.

Made some quick cooking oatmeal bread today, couldn’t have a day off without baking something! The recipe called for just a couple of tablespoons of honey so I omitted them and it turned out fine – yay!

Three weeks:

I’ve noticed that I follow some people who share a lot of recipes, often for sweet baked goods, on twitter. Some of these people are dietitians. While I’m amassing a collection of recipes to bake when I’m back on the sugar, I’m also questioning how appropriate it is for RDs to be sharing copious recipes for less than healthy food. It’s almost as if we feel the need to buck the stereotype of puritanical healthy eaters. Yes, we all indulge in treats, but should we be essentially pushing these foods on others?

Went to the Bulk Barn for some snacks and made the sad discovery that nuts are really the only option there for people avoiding added sugar. I love nuts but was gazing with longing at the peanut butter M&Ms and sour watermelon gummies that my boyfriend purchased. I did find some fun snacks at Winners: seeded crackers, veggie straws (not super healthy, but tasty!), roasted edamame, and sesame roasted seaweed snacks.

Eating out is a little tricky. Avoiding sauces and dressings. I don’t usually eat out very often but somehow it happened that I had three meals out over the past three days! I must confess that I decided that ignorance was bliss as far as bread products were concerned. I just couldn’t do my burger without a bun or pass up the amazing toast at brunch.

Three and a half Weeks:

ONLY TWO MORE WEEKS(ISH)! Not that I’m counting or anything… It’s really not that hard. Although, I can see how it would be difficult if I was one to use more packaged foods. Sugar is insidious in a lot of foods that you wouldn’t expect, and very high in a lot of others. It’s in nearly every cracker, cereal, snack bar, protein bar, sauce, salad dressing, etc. I nearly bought a bag of cracked black pepper chips the other day and then I saw sugar in the ingredients! Who woulda thunk?

Pinterest pushed out a list of eye roll inducing pins to me last week on how to “ditch sugar for good” and “sugar is the new fat”. Yes, most of us can stand to curb our sugar consumption but there’s no need for the fear mongering. I’m all about consuming everything in moderation and I don’t see the need to completely eliminate sugar on a permanent basis.

In my desire to bake on my day off today I made these sugar-free scones. I didn’t add the raisins because they’re concentrated sugar but I did add a few frozen berries for flavour and they turned out pretty good! Tomorrow I’m making a savoury french toast for breakfast with a sugar-free cheese beer bread I made. If nothing else, this experiment is forcing me out of my safe breakfast zone.

Four weeks:

I ate some sugar. I’m sorry. No, I’m not. We had yet another snowstorm on Wednesday and in the face of about 70 (more) centimetres of snow I said “screw it, I’m baking cookies” as one does. I made an exception for the one day. I had some Baliey’s in my coffee and about four cookies (toasted coconut cashew chocolate chip) and I regret nothing. Interestingly, I didn’t find they tasted too sweet and I didn’t feel any worse for having eaten them. I got right back on the wagon the next day. Bringing some of the remaining cookies in for coworkers and leaving the rest for my boyfriend to take care of. I regret nothing.

Week 5:

I’m ready for this adventure to be done. Sticking with it though because I’m stubborn (shocker, I know!) and because I think that the longer I do this, the easier it will be to keep my sugar intake low when I’m done.

One evening after supper I had a wicked craving for dessert; preferably chocolate. I managed to stave off the craving by eating a spoonful of peanut butter with raw cacao nibs. Not quite what my taste buds were looking for but it did the trick.

I’ve become annoyed with the fact that there is no trail mix without dried fruit or chocolate. It’s either mixed nuts or sugary trail mix. No in between. Planning on hitting up the Bulk Barn to create my own but there must be others who would like a lovely mix of nuts and seeds. Get on that food manufacturers!

Six weeks:

On the home stretch!

Did I mention that I found some chocolate in the linen pantry leftover from my Christmas bake-a-thon? I did. Pretty much right after I went sugar-free. I left it hidden there because I knew if I told my boyfriend about it he would eat it all before I could get back on the sugar. I got my period the other day (cramps and all, so much for my hope that going sugar-free was alleviating those) and he was out and I kept thinking “I could eat those Smarties and no one would ever know about it”. I didn’t though because I’m far too stubborn for that, but it was a little touch and go for a while.

If nothing else, this experiment has forced me to be more creative with breakfasts. I’m a big fan of cereal, and I usually have shredded wheat, but it’s a bit meh on its own so I would normally top it with granola. I’ve been having a lot of variations on steel cut oats and smoothies, as well as some savoury breakfasts. I also created a delicious pudding: blend together a frozen banana, heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder, a bit of canned coconut milk solids, plain yoghurt, and peanut butter. So good!

Easter Sunday:

Made those lemon sticky buns for breakfast (see photo above). Yum! It feels strange not to have any foods off limits or to have to check ingredient lists for sugar.

While I’ll be reintroducing sweets into my usual diet following this experiment, I intend to continue to be much more cognizant of the amount of sugar that I’m consuming and try to limit my total, and added sugars each day. As I always say “too much of anything is bad for you.” While I don’t believe that sugar is toxic and to be entirely eschewed, I do think that many of us, my past self included at times (including on Easter!), consume it to excess.