Next time you go to call your nearest and dearest “sugar” or “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 dietary treat, referring to someone as your “sweetie” made sense. But nowadays Australians eat eat an average of more than 40 kg of refined sugar a year. Therefore, sugar has become more synonymous with health problems like obesity, diabetes and tooth decay – not things you would want to wish on your family and friends!
Of course, sugar is not all bad. But there are limits to how much sweetness your body can handle.
For everything you need to know about sugar, read on!
What is sugar?
When you think of sugar you probably picture the white stuff you stir into your coffee. Actually, this is just one form of sugar, called sucrose, that is extracted from sugar cane. Technically, sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable. It is 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 – This term refers to sugars that occur naturally in foods such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk and dairy products. Be aware, however, that fructose can also be used as an added sugar, such as in some novelty beverages (e.g. Bubble Tea), some food/energy bars, and some “natural” packaged foods (e.g. 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 to 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.
What is sugar for?
Energy. When sugar is metabolised it supplies calories for energy in the form of carbohydrates. Four calories of energy are provided by every one gram of carbohydrate you eat. However, added sugars are not a good choice of carbohydrate for energy as they provide few nutrients for the amount of calories. 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 that 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 to 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 should not make up more than 10 percent of your total energy intake for the day, and many dietitians will recommend less than this. In a 2000 calorie-a-day diet, 10 percent 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-percent-a-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 might be used as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes.
Sugar content of common foods:
|Soft drink, 375 ml||10|
|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 percent of total calories per day? Aside from the “sugar high” effect on your body, which can be uncomfortable, research shows that too much sugar leads to several health problems, including:
Obesity. Sugar may not be a cause for weight gain per se, but foods that 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 that weight gain over a four year period was highest among 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 that excess sugar consumption leads to an increased risk for diabetes, a disease that affects one million Australian adults. The Nurses’ Health Study found that women consuming one or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day had an 83 percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes compared with those who consumed less than one of these beverages per month.
Nutritional deficiency. When you consume too much sugar, you “crowd out” other foods that provide important nutrients, such as fruits and vegetables. This can be especially bad for children and teenagers who need nutrients for growth. For example, if a child chooses soft drink over milk she is missing out on vitamin D and calcium, both of which are essential for bone health. Unfortunately, people who are trying to make healthier choices by choosing diet and low-fat products are often trading a reduction in fat for an increase in sugar – added to enhance flavour. Make sure you check the label to see how much sugar, as well as fat, is in the product.
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 he drinks 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 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 percent of more of their calories for the day from carbohydrates were twice as likely to get breast cancer than women with a more balanced diet. Although the study considered all forms of carbohydrate, 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 wholegrains, fruits and vegetables – had a lower risk for breast cancer.
Dental decay. Sugar is the biggest dietary culprit when it comes to cavities. Bacteria in plaque around the 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 stay on the teeth longer.
Hints to reduce sugar
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 foods that are high in sugar 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 preference to 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 about 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 when you want a snack.
- Add less sugar to 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.