What about cane sugar and caffeine? A reader asks.

Although I am certified in Plant-Based Nutrition by the T. Colin Campbell Foundation and eCornell, I don’t consider myself an expert in nutrition. As you know, I call myself “the big picture guy” when it comes to how our food choices affect not only our health but many other troubling global issues as well.

As the “big picture” handle implies, I try to always keep that “big picture” in mind and try not go get mired down in the details. But that’s not to mean that I won’t take an honest stab at answering Brian’s questions:

With Coke, the vast majority of the calories are from added “sugars.”  It’s like drinking a bowl of sugar.

Dear Mr. Hicks: Let me first thank you for offering with clarity and importance your knowledge of following a whole foods, plant-based diet.  My wife and I (both in our early 40s) are well on our way in that direction, and we could not have even begun to sort through this change in lifestyle had it not been for you.  We recommend your book to anyone who will listen, and we will continue to do so.

First Question. What is the story with cane sugar?  Limiting our food choices (those with labels, anyway) to an ingredients list of only 2-3 items is hard enough, but sometimes we find that one of the 2-3 ingredients is cane sugar or “evaporated cane sugar,” or corn syrup/sugar. How much should we be avoiding such sugar even if it is in whole grain products?  It seems, in many cases, unavoidable.

Second Question. Also what is your overall take on caffeine?  Coffee (black like we drink it) is not specifically mentioned in Healthy Eating, Healthy World.

My Response. Dear Brian, First of all, thank you very much for your kind words about our book and our work. When we developed the 4Leaf Program, one of our goals was to keep it as simple as possible, so we established a few flexible guidelines to help people maximize the percent of their calories from the healthiest of foods—-whole plants, still in nature’s package. We also asked them to keep their fat calories below 20%. Like the 80% for the whole plant calories, that was somewhat of an arbitrary number, based on three things:

  1. We know that Dr. Esselstyn likes for his heart patients to stay below 10% of their calories from fat—any kind of fat.
  2. We know that the average American consumes about 40% fat; and it’s literally killing them with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
  3. We wanted to pick a reasonable goal that would provide for great improvement from that 40% number; while providing an easier target to maintain than that of Dr. Esselstyn.

But you’re right Brian, we didn’t say much about sugar and caffeine in our book. For sugar, we just recommended (in the book) keeping added sugars to a minimum, so if you’re eating only whole plants–still in nature’s package, then, by definition there won’t be any added sugar. The label on the bag of oranges may contain “sugars,” but you can be sure that they weren’t added by humans.

As for cane sugar, brown sugar, or fructose; it’s all added by humans and should be avoided. And you’re right; for sugar in products with labels, it’s almost unavoidable. Look for the word “unsweetened” on the label and then check the Nutrition Facts panel to make sure. That word can be hard to find in most most stores; for that reason, I order my cereal (Uncle Sam’s) and my almond milk (Pacific unsweetened) in bulk; because I got tired of searching for it in the grocery store.

“Tall Pike, Black Please” are usually the first four words of my day.

Finally, for your caffeine question, which I didn’t mention a single time in our book. As with sugar, the optimal amount of caffeine for humans  to consume is zero—in my opinion. So, in both cases, I am guilty of straying a bit from the optimal diet when it comes to added sugars and caffeine.

I begin my day with one Starbucks “Tall Pike” and, like you, I drink it black. Sometimes, I ask for a half-cup refill which is free with my gold card. Then, sometimes after a meal, I indulge with one or two very small cookies that contain a little sugar.

But, for my average daily total, my percent of calories from whole plants (in nature’s package) is consistently over 80%.

Leveraging the simple, yet powerful concept of maximizing the percent of your calories from whole plant-based foods.

People are constantly telling us that they love the simplicity and flexibility of the 4Leaf Program—it helps everyone gain a good feel for what constitutes an optimal diet. Then, each person must decide how far in that direction they wish to proceed.

Brian, Thank you again for your question and I hope that this information will be helpful for you and your wife.

Want to receive some occasional special news from us? You may wish to join our periodic mailing list. Also, for help in your own quest to take charge of your health, you might find some useful information at our 4-Leaf page.

If you’d like to order our book on Amazon,  visit our BookStore now.

And if you like what 4-Leaf eating is doing for you and your family, you might enjoy visiting our new “4-Leaf Gear” store. From the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

J. Morris Hicks

—J. Morris Hicks…blogging daily at HealthyEatingHealthyWorld.com

SHARE and rate this post below…One more thing, occasionally an unauthorized ad may appear beneath a blog post. It is controlled by WordPress (a totally free hosting service). I do not approve or personally benefit whatsoever from any ad that might ever appear on this site. I apologize and urge you to please disregard.

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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4 Responses to What about cane sugar and caffeine? A reader asks.

  1. Craig says:

    Interesting subject. I appreciate the previous comment about date sugar. I use this as well as dates in smoothies. It is great. I also am aware of Dr. Greger’s thoughts on synthetic sweeteners. I occasionally use erythrytol (sp?) or Truvia. Look at http://www.nutritionfacts.org for Greger’s take on this. Generally sugars cause only harm. Most natural sweeteners, ie. fruit, work well as tastes change.

    Coffee is also interesting. I believe caffeine has considerable downside. To see another opinion look at the site, http://www.lef.org, and search under coffee. Interesting take on this. I like Life Extension not for supplements necessarily but for information as they generally provide many references to support their position.

    Thanks for the site. I also like the broccoli answer. Eat well


  2. Hi Jim,
    As a grad student in nutrition and future registered dietitian, I agree with your thoughts on added sugar and caffeine. Work on eliminating both from your diet. Dates and date sugar are whole-food sweeteners and can be used in moderation, I like to add dates to my green smoothies.

  3. Jim,

    Your advise to the posted question is “real.” You should become everyone’s adviser on nutrition.

    Are we making progress in changing the SAD? Or are we still the “plant foods” fringe group?

    I notice that in my gym class where most of the seniors look like baby elephants, they are avoiding the “broccoli eater” (me). They don’t want to hear my rantings on plant foods, they are eating healthy (?)

    My breakfast today is pea soup with brown rice, not the traditional SAD breakfast is it?

    Sal Liggieri

    P.S. If you stray from optimal, what happens if you get lost?

  4. Bill K. says:


    Your advice is spot on!

    Also, I appreciate your honesty regarding occasionally “straying” from optimal. I don’t know many health experts who do not occasionally step outside the line – but there are few that will admit to it.

    Getting to an optimal diet is just like sailing. You head for the buoy (optimal diet) but you actually tack back and forth (between good and bad foods) to get to it.


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