A Guide to Sugar

Next time you go to call your nearest and dearest “sugar,” “sweetie” or even “honey”, take a moment to consider whether it’s really a term of endearment you’re flattering them with.

In the past, when sugar was a rare treat, referring to someone as “sweetie” made sense. But nowadays Australians eat an average of more than 40 kg of refined sugar per year. Therefore, sugar has become synonymous with health problems like obesity, diabetes and tooth decay – not exactly the flattering term of endearment you’d use for your family and friends!

Of course, sugar isn’t all bad. But there are limits to how much sweetness your body can handle.

What is sugar?

When you think of sugar, you probably picture the white stuff you stir into coffee. Actually, this is just one form of sugar, called sucrose, which is extracted from sugar cane. Technically, sugar is a carbohydrate which occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable. It’s the major product of photosynthesis, the process by which plants transform the sun’s energy into food.

You can think of sugars in two groups:

Naturally occurring sugars – These sugars occur naturally in foods, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk and dairy products. Be aware, however, fructose can also be used as an added sugar, such as in some novelty beverages (e.g. Bubble Tea), food/energy bars, and some “natural” packaged foods (eg. biscuits from a health food store).

Added sugars – An added sugar is any type of sugar that is added to food, such as the sugar you use in baking, or the sugar you add into your coffee. Added sugar can take many different forms, including: raw sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, sucrose, glucose, fructose, malt, maltose, corn syrup, lactose, sorbitol, mannitol, honey, molasses, evaporated cane juice, and barley malt extract.

Are there any benefits to sugar?

Energy. When sugar is metabolised it supplies you with calories for energy in the form of carbohydrates. Four calories of energy are provided from every 1 gram of carbohydrate you eat. However, added sugars aren’t a good choice of carbohydrates to supply you with energy, as they provide few nutrients for the amount of calories they contain. Natural sources of sugar such as milk, fruit and other unrefined foods are a much better choice.

Taste! Of course, what sugar is most loved for is the taste it adds to food. Even in fruits and vegetables, it’s the naturally occurring sugars which provide flavour. Refined sugar is often used to add flavour to everyday foods. For example, you might sprinkle brown sugar on your porridge or pour maple syrup on your pancakes. This use of added sugars can be fine in moderation, but watch those extra spoonfuls – they’re an easy way to add an unhealthy amount of extra sugar to your diet.

Food technology. Refined sugar is also important in cooking, and not just for flavour. For example, sugar helps bread rise by providing food for the yeast. Sugar also helps prolong the shelf life of baked products and acts as a preserve in jams.

How much is too much?

Added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your total energy intake each day, though many dietitians will recommend less than this. In a 2000 calories-per-day diet, 10% is equal to about 50 grams, or 10 teaspoons of sugar. Unfortunately, most Australians consume 30-40 teaspoons or more of refined sugar per day – far more than is healthy! Most of this sugar comes from food products to which sugar has been added, such as soft drinks, confectionary and baked goods. A can of soft drink alone can contain up to 10 teaspoons of added sugar!

Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in an apple or a glass of milk, are not included in the less-than-10%-per-day recommendation. Naturally occurring sugars affect your body differently because they come as part of a “whole food” package, including fibre and other nutrients. You don’t need to watch your intake of naturally occurring sugars – except as part of your overall calories.

Sugar substitutes such as saccharin and aspartame contain negligible calories and can be helpful for people trying to limit sugar intake. Sweeteners such as  fructose, sorbitol, and mannitol are not low in calories, but may be used as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes.

Sugar content of common foods:

Food Sugar (tsp)
Soft drink, 375 ml 10
Chocolate, 50g 7
Flavoured milk, 300 ml 6
Cordial, 250 ml 5
Jelly, regular, 1/2 cup 4
Canned fruit in syrup, 0.5 cup 3
Tim Tam, 1 biscuit 2
Coco Pops, 30g 2
Tomato sauce, 1 Tbsp 1

Health problems and sugar

Why should you limit your sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories per day? Aside from the “sugar high” effect it has on your body, which can be uncomfortable and lead to crashes in your energy levels, research shows too much sugar leads to several health problems, including:

Obesity. Sugar may not cause weight gain per se, but foods which are high in sugar are often calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. Therefore, eating too many of them can easily lead to weight gain.

Several studies have recently recognised connections between excess consumption of sugar and obesity. For example, the Nurses’ Health Study II found weight gain over a 4 year period was highest amongst women who increased their sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption from one or fewer drinks per week to one or more drinks per day, and was smallest among women who decreased their intake.

Diabetes. Similar studies have also found excess sugar consumption leads to an increased risk of diabetes. The Nurses’ Health Study found women consuming one or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day had an 83% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to those who consumed less than one of these beverages per month.

Nutritional deficiency. When you consume too much sugar, you “crowd out” other foods which provide important nutrients, such as fruits and vegetables. This can be especially bad for children and teenagers who need nutrients for their growth. For example, if a child chooses soft drink over milk, they’re missing out on vitamin D and calcium, both of which are essential for bone health. Unfortunately, people who try to make healthier choices by choosing diet and low-fat products are often trading a reduction in fat for an increase in sugar in these foods – added to enhance their flavour. Make sure you check the label to see how much sugar, as well as fat, is in the products you buy.

Hyperactivity. Does sugar “hype” you up? That’s a question which has been the subject of several studies, none of which could confirm a connection between consumption of sucrose (table sugar) and hyperactivity in children. But ask a parent if they see a change in their child’s behaviour after they drink a can of soft drink or eats a few lollies, and you might get a different opinion! Some people also notice an increase in stress and tension in their body and mind after consuming too much sugar.

Breast cancer. In a recent study of almost 2000 women in Mexico, it was shown that women who derived 57% of more of their daily calories from carbohydrates were twice as likely to get breast cancer than women with a more balanced diet. Although the study considered all forms of carbohydrates, sucrose and fructose demonstrated the strongest association with breast cancer risk – particularly the sucrose in soft drink. In the study, women who ate a diet high in insoluble fibre – found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables – were at a lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Dental decay. Sugar is the biggest dietary culprit when it comes to cavities. Bacteria in plaque around your teeth metabolise sugars rapidly, creating areas of high acidity which erode tooth enamel. Brushing is too late to prevent this. Frequent snacking on sugary foods increases your risk, as do “sticky” forms of sugar such as caramel and lollies, which linger on your teeth longer.

Tips for reducing sugar intake

At the supermarket:

  • Opt for whole foods over packaged and processed foods.
  • Read ingredient labels. Identify the various forms of sugar in a product. Select items lower in total sugar when possible.
  • Buy fresh fruits or fruits packaged in juice. Avoid those in syrup.
  • Buy fewer high-sugar foods such as prepared baked goods, lollies, sweet desserts, soft drinks, and fruit juice drinks.
  • Buy sugar-free (low-calorie) diet drinks or mineral water in place of sweetened drinks.

In the kitchen:

  • Reduce the sugar in foods prepared at home. Try new recipes or adjust your own. Start by reducing the sugar gradually until you’ve decreased it by one-third or more. Often the sugar in a cake recipe can be halved without affecting taste or quality.
  • Use unsweetened apple puree in place of oil or sugar. Use equal amounts.
  • Add bananas or other fruit to cereal instead of sugar.
  • Experiment with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg and ginger to enhance the flavour of foods.

At the table:

  • Use less of all sugars. This includes white and brown sugar, honey and syrups.
  • Choose fresh fruit instead of cake, ice cream, chocolate or biscuits for dessert or snacking.
  • Add less sugar to your coffee, tea, cereal or fruit. Get used to using half as much, then see if you can cut back even more. Alternatively, use artificial sweeteners in moderation.
  • Cut back on soft drinks. Use artificially sweetened “low-calorie” varieties in moderation. Better still, quench your thirst on plain water!
  • Experiment with flavourings for water – try adding lemon, orange or lime slices, sliced strawberries, or herbs such as bruised lemongrass stalks or mint leaves for a refreshing taste without adding calories or sugar.

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