You might think that anything you can buy in a health food shop or in the health food aisle is healthy. That’s why it’s called “health food shop” after all. Unfortunately, there are still a few things that are overrated …
1. Agave Syrup
Agave syrup is a natural sweetener derived from the agave plant. It contains 90% fructose. When we talk about ‘blood sugar levels’, what is usually meant is ‘blood glucose levels’. Unlike glucose and sucrose (table sugar), fructose does not raise blood glucose levels and hence does not trigger the release of insulin. That seemed like good news at first and explains its popularity. Yes, fructose is a natural sugar, however, we are not designed to tolerate very large amounts of it. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, sugar cane and honey, and is one half of the sucrose molecule. It doesn’t cause much trouble if it is consumed as part of a whole fruit or veg, but large, isolated amounts contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gout and increased appetite.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to say that fruit is unhealthy … as such. But we are eating way too much of it. The famous “5-a-day” instruction lumps fruit and vegetables together as if they were interchangeable. They are not. Fruit – particularly tropical fruit – contain considerably more sugar than vegetables, even the starchy ones such as carrots, swede, beetroot and other roots. Only berries are really low in sugar, followed by cherries, melon, plums, pears and apples. Pineapple and papaya contain anti-inflammatory enzymes (bromelain and papain respectively), bananas are a good source of potassium and is great for topping up your carbs just before or after exercise, but in terms of blood sugar control they are not ideal. Your ‘7-a-day’ (yes, 7 at least) should incorporate no more than two servings of fruit, just one if you are aiming to lose weight.
3. Fruit Juices
Many of us have a glass or two of orange juice with breakfast. Bad idea. If fruit is high in sugar, how much, do you think, in in juice? How many oranges do you need to squeeze out for one glass of juice? At least three or four. Would you eat that many in one sitting? Yet, when you are eating them, you are getting all the fibre as well, which would slow down the absorption of sugar from the fruit. Fruit juices have as much sugar as fizzy drinks, so use them sparingly and water them down.
4. Gluten-free Products
If you have Coeliac’s disease, your body doesn’t break down gluten and it damages your gut. There is also non-Coeliac gluten intolerance, and many people really do much better avoiding gluten. So, yes, instead of having regular bread, crackers, cereals or pasta, gluten-free products are preferable for many. However, just because something is gluten-free that doesn’t automatically mean that it is healthy. There are gluten-free cakes and biscuits, lots of gluten-free junk really. You need to still consider the sugar content.
5. Low-Fat Dairy
Dairy naturally contains some fat. Take it away, and you take away much of the taste of milk, yoghurt, and cheese. Adding sugar solves that problem, and that is what happens: Added sugar makes low-fat products palatable, but given the choice between fat and sugar, I’d always go for fat. Fat does not make us fat, it doesn’t even cause heart disease. Sugar, on the other hand, increases insulin levels. Both sugar and insulin are pro-inflammatory and implicated in diabetes, heart disease and most other chronic diseases. Fat is also a carrier for vitamins A, D, E and K, which are fat-soluble. Removing the fat means removing these vitamins. If you must have dairy – not the healthiest food in the world anyway – then make it full-fat.