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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sorbet: Dairy-Free But Watch the Sugar

Though the northeast is suffering through a June that features far more rainy days than scorchers, the calendar and the astronomers proclaim that we've arrived in summer. And since editors are slaves to calendars, garnering material weeks or months early to appear on the proscribed date, frozen dessert articles are appearing like clockwork. If anybody under the age of 50 understands what that metaphor means.

Therefore we have Erin Lindholm on amNewYork, who provided a terrific reminder that most frozen desserts are sugar-filled candy confections. They taste great, they satisfy the craving for coolness in the heat, but they need to be occasional treats. You can't load up on the cool stuff and then eat your way through the rest of the day without taking these extras into account.

Sorbets are especially subject to this blindness. Because they're fruit-based and often dairy-free, even fat-free, most people will think of them as a light and less calorific alternative to ice cream. That might be true. Even so, you might be surprised at the sugar wallop they're packing.

While it’s true that sorbet’s a lower-calorie, lower-fat (often fat-free) alternative to ice cream, and it’s made of fruit and often dairy-free, that’s not a green light to eat the whole pint in one sitting.

“It should still be considered a treat or dessert unless it’s homemade, and you know what’s really going into it,” noted nutritionist Liz Stein.

The first step, said Stein, is to check the sugar. For all their appeal, “sorbets are still loaded with sugar.”

In the four market brands taste-tested for this article — Ciao Bella, Haagen Dazs, Sharon’s and Whole Fruit — sugar per serving ranged from 19g to a whopping 38g, which is a huge variable when we’re talking about a scoop of frozen delight.

Second, said Stein, is figure out where the sugar’s coming from. The fruit accounts for some of it, but "you want to choose a sorbet that has natural sugar, as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup." Case-in-point: In four samples, we found everything from cane sugar to plain old "sugar" to corn syrup.

I'm not as much a foe of high-fructose corn syrup as Stein. Sugar is mostly sugar, with four calories per gram no matter what the source. Cane sugar is the same thing as "plain old sugar." Corn syrup is the simple sugar glucose. Sugar is glucose plus fructose in equal parts, but converts to glucose inside the body. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also glucose plus fructose, with a variety of blends from 42% fructose to 90% fructose depending on the needs of the final product. As a commercial syrup it also contains water, usually one-quarter of the total. This means that HFCS only has three calories per gram. It's made commercially starting from a corn syrup base.

I know that many people get hysterical over the tremendous amount of use of HFCS in consumer products, because it is much cheaper than sugar. (Remember that it's one-quarter really cheap water.) The science is not clear that HFCS promotes obesity or has any truly bad effects on the general population. My feeling is that any sugar consumed in large quantities is going to have an effect on obesity. It wasn't the switch to HFCS that made Americans obese, it was the change in habits, the lessening of physical activity, and the growth in portion size that made supersizing the new normal.

Back to the point. Go ahead, have a small sorbet as a summer treat. No reason at all to cut out treats entirely. Just remember that fruit or not, you're eating a cupful of sugar, with some cups having even more sugar than others. Moderation in all things, except moderation.

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Anonymous said...

Useful item, Steve. Readers should beware, though, of manufacturers that think SORBET is just a fancy, more attractive synonym for SHERBET, which, as we know, almost always contains dairy lactose. And such idiot manufacturers are out there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up. Now I know that sherbert and sorbet are two different things.