Recently there’s been a lot written in the press about sugar, but how bad is it and should we be avoiding it? Will consuming sugar really affect your weight loss? Emma Pocklington investigates.
Each week adults in the UK consume, on average, 675g of sugar each, although the majority of us would probably be at a loss to explain how we have come to be eating so much.
Sugar occurs naturally in many different foods, including what we recognise to be healthy food choices, but it is also added to lots of foods in the form of refined sugar cane or sugar beet. In fact, so much of our food is processed these days that sugar can be found in a number of savoury prepared foods that we wouldn’t otherwise expect to contain sugar. It is this hidden sugar that drives up our daily intakes and is now under close scrutiny by nutritionists and other health professionals. So how do we avoid this hidden sugar, and how bad is it for us anyway?
What is sugar?
Sucrose is the chemical name for what we recognise as white or table sugar and is obtained from two main sources: sugar beets and sugar cane. Sucrose is a disaccharide (meaning two-sugars) because it is made from one fructose molecule combined with one glucose molecule.
Of the different types of dietary sugar that occur naturally, lactose is found in milk and other dairy products and fructose is found in fruit. So sugar is a naturally occurring substance, it is the building block of all carbohydrates and is what those carbohydrates are broken down into when we eat them.
Should I eat it?
Our issues arise in added refined sugars. When we start refining sugar cane and extracting the sugar, we remove all of the nutrients.
“When it occurs naturally, in fruit or milk for example, sugar is often accompanied by other beneficial nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and other important components. These are both beneficial to our health and are also required to help the body metabolise the sugar and provide us with fuel,’ said Dr Kelly Johnston, Head of Nutrition and Research at LighterLife.
However, if you eat foods containing a lot of refined sugar it is easy to over-consume, and if you take in more than you need, your body will convert the excess sugar into fat to be stored for later use. If this fat is not used by later exertion it will result in excessive weight gain. Not only is obesity linked to the energy imbalance of eating more calories than you burn, there is much evidence to suggest that the over-consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars, in particular white-flour based products (like cakes, biscuits and breads) as well as crisps, sweets and sugary soft drinks, is directly associated with the onset of a range of metabolic disorders including insulin resistance, heart disease and dyslipidemia (too much fat in the blood which can narrow the arteries).
So what is the solution? “Sugar is of course needed for energy but by eating a healthy, balanced diet of complex carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables and pulses we will receive all that our body requires,” explains Dr Johnston. “Adding white sugar to our cereal and cups of tea is more sugar than we need.”
A small sugary snack, preferably accompanying a meal, can be managed by your body, as long as you’re keeping within your guideline daily amounts (GDA).
How much should I eat?
Your GDA of sugar is 90g per day, only 50g of which should be refined or ‘added’ sugar (meaning the sugar added to your food). 90g is equal to the amount of sugar found in two cans of fizzy drink or eight chocolate biscuits, which sounds like quite a lot. So how is it that we are all eating so far over our quota?
The root of the problem is really the ‘hidden’ sugar found in the majority of our processed foods. The amount of sugar found in prepared food can often be astounding, even if you’re buying savoury food. Tomato based sauces, coleslaw, bread, ketchup, and hot dogs all contain a surprising amount of sugar. In 2007, a Which? survey found that some ready meals contained more sugar than vanilla ice cream.
The biggest shock for shoppers is the levels of sugar found in diet products. Sugar is often used to replace the taste lost with the fat. Low fat mayonnaise and flavoured yoghurts in particular can be high in sugar and it is practices like these that are helping to push us towards a health pandemic.
Another major sugar culprit is soft drinks, a 500ml serving of coke contains around 17 cubes of sugar, and many other drinks are no better. The British Dietetic Association says that smoothies are fine in small quantities but if you drink a lot you will be consuming lots of sugar with very little of the necessary accompanying fibre.
How do I know if I’m eating too much?
The trick here lies in reading the label. When reading the ingredients list on a product a good tip is to look for any words ending in ‘ose’. Fructose, glucose, sucrose, maltose – all these words essentially mean sugar, as does hydrolysed starch, corn syrup and honey. If any of these words are high on the list of ingredients this means the product is high in sugar.
Check the part of the label under carbohydrates that says ‘of which sugars’. This means all the sugar, naturally occurring and added, that is in the product. According to the NHS anything above 22.5g per 100g is considered a high sugar content food.
Making food from scratch and cutting out sugary snacks are the best ways to avoid the damaging effects of over-consumption. Have sugar in moderation and with a meal if possible, Also try to avoid sugary drinks. It is important to remember that things like fat and salt are also unhealthy in excess and maintaining a balanced diet is key.
Sugar myths busted:
Thought you knew all the facts about sugar? Here are some you may not be aware of.
- Sugar is addictive – There is some evidence that sugar consumption causes similar changes in some brain activity as certain drugs, but there is not yet good evidence to show that it is addictive to humans.
- Fruit juice is bad for us – Fruit juice is still healthy if drunk with a meal, as long you keep the portions small and it’s not full of added sugar. Try watering it down for children.
- Removing sugar from your diet leads to weight loss – Your body uses sugar for fuel, but it needs only naturally occurring sugar. High sugar diets are directly linked to obesity.