Friend: “You should totally have one of these bars I made. They’re refined sugar free!”
Me: “What’s in them?”
Friend: “Nuts, maple syrup, coconut oil…”
Refined sugar has been named the latest dietary evil and it seems that everyone is in a rush to recreate our favourite sweet foods sans
poison sugar. But what exactly does it mean when recipes or products claim to be free from refined sugar? Does the term even mean the same thing to everyone? And are there any guidelines as to what foods can be labeled “refined sugar free”? Time to find out.
A refined sugar by any other name…
Some recipes take “refined sugar” to mean regular white (cane) sugar but there is great variation in this interpretation. Some take it to mean that food should have no sugar in it at all and rely on non-nutritive sweeteners like Nativia, while others replace table sugar with rice malt syrup or maple syrup.
The problem with swapping refined cane sugar for ‘unrefined’ varieties is that the use of the words ‘refined’ and ‘unrefined’ is a misnomer. All sweeteners have gone through some sort of processing or refinement before they reach supermarket shelves. For example, rice malt syrup is made by adding enzymes to cooked rice to convert starches to sugars. The process involves several steps of evaporation and liquefaction to make sure the right consistency and sweetness is achieved in the final product.
Table sugar comes from the sugar cane plant and typically goes through two major stages of processing – milling and refining. Milling extracts raw sugar from the harvested sugar cane and refining ensures that the sugar reaches our shelves looking white and pure. This is achieved by adding phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, which combine to make calcium phosphate. Calcium phosphate traps impurities in the sugar and floats to the top of the tank where it is skimmed off.
Both sugars also don’t differ when it comes to nutrition and while rice malt syrup has slightly less kJ per 100g it is higher GI than cane sugar. It has been mentioned many times before, that a sugar is a sugar, no matter what source it comes from. There is no evidence to suggest that swapping one refined sugar for another confers any health benefits. Despite what popular media might have you believe, your body is more than capable of digesting different sweeteners from different sources that have different processing methods.
Now we’ve covered that, its time to move on to labeling laws – are there any guidelines for the use of this ambiguous term?
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is the regulatory body that outlines food-labeling laws in Australia. There are strict guidelines about the types of claims that can be made about certain products. These range from general claims through to high level claims which make specific claims about particular foods and disease states.
For most of these claims, there is a set list of claims that can be made. For example, for food products to be labeled gluten free, the manufacturer must demonstrate that the product is in fact, “gluten free” by indicated that the product contains no or ‘nil detectable gluten’ in the product’s nutrition information panel.
Refined sugar is not among these, nor is there any mention of it in the Food Standards Code. So you probably won’t see major food manufacturers jump on this band wagon but the lack of guidelines around “refined sugar free” have left the doors wide open for food bloggers and small businesses to capitalize on the confusion. Even if their intentions are pure, it is at best misleading to suggest that foods made with maple syrup instead of cane sugar are “refined sugar free”. However, the lack of labeling laws around this term mean that bloggers and writers are not under any obligation to stop using the phrase “refined sugar free.” And why would they want to when they can cash in on the ‘health halo’ that surrounds some sweeteners?
Take home message
What does this all mean? When you see a recipe or food labeled “refined sugar free” don’t assume you know what is or is not in the product. There is no law that governs what “refined sugar free” means nor is there any consensus among recipe developers or bloggers on what this entails. This means that recipes or products that claim to be free from refined sugar probably contain other forms of sugar, depending on the author’s interpretation of “refined sugar free.” This is especially true of sweet or dessert type recipes- if “refined” table sugar isn’t making them sweet, what is?