Sugar - the good, the bad & the ugly
We all have a sweet tooth – we are genetically disposed to like sugary stuff - but some of us feed that sweet tooth more than others.
Knowing more about the sugars in our diet, and the impact on our bodies, can help us to make decisions based on information rather than myth.
For example, did you know that honey has more calories per spoonful than sugar? But it is sweeter, so we might end up eating less calories by choosing honey.
Let’s unpack some of the information around sugars, so that we can make more informed choices.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate, meaning that it doesn’t need much digestion in order for our bodies to be able to access it. Sugar is very easily absorbed into the bloodstream, often causing blood sugar levels to increase rapidly.
What is ‘Free Sugar’?
This is the term used for any sugar that is added to a food or a drink. We have all heard the scary tales of numerous teaspoons of sugar in your takeaway coffee, but sugar can also be added to seemingly healthy options such as cereals, flavoured yoghurt or fruit juice.
This ‘free sugar’ includes sweetening agents such as honey and maple syrup, as well as white sugar, because it is any type of sugar that either the manufacturer, or you, have added to the basic product.
Most adults and children in the UK are eating too much free sugar, between two and three times the recommended amount.
Why should we be eating less sugar?
Increased consumption of free sugars has been linked to the following:
Dental caries (tooth decay)
Dental caries is the result of demineralisation of enamel and dentine in the presence of acid. This acid is produced through fermentation of sugars (particularly sucrose), by bacteria that resides in the mouth. Too much acid, from a diet high in sugar, leads to tooth decay
Type 2 Diabetes
Sugar consumption is not directly related to type 2 Diabetes. However, weight gain associated with sugar consumption can lead to obesity, a risk factor for type 2 Diabetes
Weight gain/ Obesity
Obesity is linked with increased risk of developing type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and some types of cancer
Chronic inflammation occurs when the body’s natural inflammatory response - fighting against infections, injuries and toxins - does not automatically switch off once no longer required, leaving your body in a constant state of alert.
Over time, this may have a negative effect on your tissues and organs.
Associated with the risk of developing dementia and depression, chronic inflammation is also linked to a shortened lifespan
How much sugar should we be eating?
In 2015 Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACAN) published new guidance on sugar levels. Free sugars should be no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake. This equates to:
Child up to 10 years old 4-5 teaspoons
Adult Female 5-6 teaspoons maximum
Adult Male 7-8 teaspoons maximum
Remember, this is the sugar that is added to anything, from smoothies to cereals, from hot drinks to colas. For example, even Kellogg’s All Bran contains a teaspoon of sugar per serving. According to the British Heart Foundation, a sugar-frosted cereal could contain 13% of your recommended daily sugar intake.
Worryingly, over 80% of adults, and more than 90% of children, currently have a free sugar intake that exceeds the SACAN recommended guidelines
Are other sugars better for you than white sugar?
White sugar, called sucrose, is made from either sugar beet or sugar cane. Both types are high in glucose. When trying to reduce sugar intake, people may turn to other forms of sweetener. Here we take a look at some popular alternatives:
Honey is made by bees, from the nectar of flowers. The bees also pick up pollen on their bodies, helping to cross-pollinate species.
Honey contains flavonoids, which are considered to be anti-inflammatory. But these are present in such small amounts that there is arguably only a negligible benefit. Large-scale processing methods may also filter out much of the pollen, thus further reducing any health benefits.
Honey, at 64 kilocalories per tablespoon, is higher in calories than white sugar that contains 48 kilocalories per tablespoon. However, because honey tastes sweeter, we may eat less compared to sugar and therefore consume less calories overall.
Agave syrup is made from the agave plant, native to the Southern US and Latin America. Agave syrup is low in glucose (low G.I.) and favoured by ‘clean eaters’ because of this. However, agave syrup is also very high in fructose, 85%.
Traditionally, the agave plant was used to produce a natural sweetener. But modern processing methods, which include high heat, end up destroying most of the beneficial effects of the agave plant. These processing methods also create a product that our bodies can metabolise much more quickly, meaning that we can be trying to absorb a high level of fructose in a very short time.
Fructose sugar is metabolised in the liver (the same pathway as alcohol), so a highly concentrated amount of fructose at any one point can be just as bad for you as too much glucose.
Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, primarily grown in Brazil, Paraguay, Japan and China. Stevia has zero calories and no impact on blood sugar levels, making it appear to be a good alternative to sugar.
Stevia is used as a sweetener on its own, but can also be found in products such as desserts, sauces, bread, and soft drinks.
However, processed stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. This high concentration of sweetness can impact our taste buds, making us crave sugary substances more and sabotaging our attempts to eat less of the sugary foods.
How about sugar from fruit?
Sugars that are found in fruit, vegetables and milk are not ‘free sugar’ as they are part of the composition of the food and therefore do not have to be included in your free sugar calculations.
The smaller amounts of sugar contained in whole fruits and vegetables (compared to processed foods) are easier for our bodies to digest more slowly, avoiding both that sharp spike in blood sugar levels and avoiding an overload of the liver function.
Due to the high levels of fibre, water, and their chewing resistance, it is almost impossible to consume enough sugar from fruit and vegetables to cause harm. Of course it is possible to eat too much of anything, even healthy fruit, but as most people do not even eat the recommended aim of five portions a day, it is unlikely.
The combination of fibre and beneficial nutrients in fruit and vegetables makes them a more suitable sugar source, as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Milk sugars (lactose) are low G.I. and also easier to digest, although some people may have an allergy. Breast milk contains high levels of lactose.
It is clear that most of us need to change the proportion of sugary foods in our daily dietary intake. The type of free sugar, for most people, is far less important than the amount. Here are 3 suggestions to help improve your diet:
1. Reduce consumption of ‘free sugars’
An easy way to do this is to know what is in your food. Maybe bake your own cake rather than buying a store bake – that way you are more aware of the amount of sugar, and can choose recipes that either substitute sugar or have reduced amounts
2. Switch to whole foods e.g. fruit & veg
Fructose, contained within fruit and vegetables, is easier for the body to digest, without blood sugar spikes, than sucrose. The fibre within fruit and vegetables helps to moderate the impact of the fructose
3. Enjoy sugary products in moderation
We all have a sweet tooth. It is fine, for most of us, to eat some sugary products now and then. Enjoy the occasional biscuit, cake or chocolate. Just be mindful of the amount and, more importantly, take time to savour every mouthful
Michelle Helstrip – Dru Yoga Therapist
Founder of DRUVA
Further information & Sources:
Linia Patel, nutritionist https://soundcloud.com/user-883127547/sugar-by-linia-patel
British Heart Foundation, explanation of free sugars https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/sugar-salt-and-fat/free-sugars