Let's Talk Sugar...

Unless you’ve been residing on another planet for the last year or two, you will not have failed to notice that one sweet thing has dominated the headlines lately. SUGAR! This sweet, addictive, energy giver has been getting some bad press lately and has become one of the most vilified ingredients in recent food history. So why has an ingredient that has been used for thousands of years, suddenly been highlighted as a health villain, and are we right to worry?   

Why all the fuss now?

In the last few years, there has been a vast amount of research on the effects of sugar consumption on health and disease and the results have not been very positive!! As a nation, we consume a lot more sugar than the guidelines recommend, with the teenage population being the worst culprits by consuming a whopping 50% more sugar than the recommendations. One of the biggest concerns in relation to sugar is its direct link to obesity and with half the adult UK population being overweight and 17-21% classified as obese, the future doesn’t look bright. This is especially because we know obesity is linked to so many other diseases including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which are on the rise. The incidence of tooth decay has also risen, particularly amongst children and we know that sugar plays a large part in this decline of oral health. When almost a third of five year olds in the UK have tooth decay, it’s difficult to ignore the problem!! It is mainly due to all the results of these studies and other scientific research that has now caused a big public health drive to reduce the amount of sugar in peoples’ diets. 

Is all sugar equal?

The answer is no, not really. There is a lot of confusion about sugar and sugar substitutes and whether some forms are better for us than others. Most health professionals agree that it is the sugar found in processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate, ready meals, cereals, soft drinks and alcohol etc. that is of most concern to our health, especially as these types of foods account for 80% of ‘free sugars’ consumed in the UK diet. Free sugars are sugars which are added to foods by the manufacturer, consumer or cook as well as sugars naturally present in fruit juices, fruit concentrates, syrups and honey. Sugar found naturally in products such as milk and fruits are largely fine and milk products from Delemare Dairy contain no added sugar at all and only contain naturally occurring ones. These naturally occurring sugars are found only in low amounts in our milk (less than 5g in 100ml) which makes it a low sugar ‘food’ when compared to Government food labelling guidelines (see labelling information below). The naturally occurring sugar found in fruit juice however, is not considered healthy as fresh fruit juice has, in some cases, been shown to have the same amount of sugar, or sometimes more, than soft drinks and is therefore not a healthy choice despite it containing the word ‘fruit’. 

You may be surprised to know that soft drink consumption is currently one of the leading sources of added sugars in our diet, so why not make your own? Here is how:

HOW TO MAKE A REDUCED SUGAR SOFT DRINK

Why not flavour water yourself by adding different fruits such as lemon, lime or mango or herbs from herbal tea bags or fresh mint leaves. Adding cucumber or fresh ginger pieces to water works really well too. If you want it fizzy, then think about buying a Soda Stream that can turn normal tap water into fizzy water, then flavour it yourself. Making your own soft drinks in this way, is sure to keep the children happy and you can be assured you know exactly what’s going into their drink. Why not turn it into a fun summer activity and get them to invent their own drinks name and design their own drink label. If they help make the drink themselves, they are more likely to like it!!

Are there 'safe' alternatives to sugar?

No food is ‘safe’ in excessive quantities and as a nutritionist when it comes to food, I am a big believer in the rule ‘everything in moderation’. It is often when we can’t moderate things that they become a problem. I often get asked about the use of artificial sweeteners and although I don’t personally promote the use of these due to lack of research on their long term health implications, for some people, especially those struggling with obesity, they do offer a calorie free alternative to sugar. Although honey, pure maple syrup and coconut sugar are often seen as sweet alternative choices to sugar and do contain some vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants, they are still classified as ‘free sugars’ and do still count towards your six teaspoon, daily sugar allowance. Both pure maple syrup and coconut sugar do have a lower glycaemic index compared with sugar and will therefore not spike blood sugar levels as much as regular sugar, which is an advantage.  In summary, yes there are sweet natural alternatives to regular sugar which may have small advantages over refined sugar, however they are still all classed as sugar and therefore the sugar guidelines still apply to these products.

How much sugar should we be eating?

The World Health Organisation now states that we should be consuming no more than 10% of our daily calorie intake from ‘free sugars’ and ideally we should aim to get that figure down to 5%. These percentages can be hard to relate to, so in simple terms we should all be aiming to consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day which is about 24grams.

What to look for on food labels

So much sugar can be hidden in food products, even in foods that you may never think would contain it. It’s therefore important to know how to determine whether the food you are buying and eating, is classed as a high sugar or low in sugar product. Here is how to tell: 

When looking at the food label find the nutrition information section and locate where it says sugar. The label will usually provide you with two columns, one with an amount per 100g of the food and another column which states the amount per portion or per packet/can/box. You need to look at the column which specifies the amount per 100g of the product.

 

  • If the total sugars content is more than, or the same as 15g per 100g, this is classed as a HIGH sugar product

  • If the total sugars content is the same or less than 5g per 100g, this is classed as a LOW sugar product

 

Making foods from scratch where possible, is ALWAYS going to be the best way to avoid excess added sugar in foods.  Making a small change every week will help cut down your sugar intake over time. Remember you do not have to avoid all sugar to be healthy, but making changes where you can, for example making your own tomato sauce using tinned tomatoes instead of using a readymade jar of sauce full of sugar, is a far healthier option and easy too. 

Conclusion 

With some research suggesting that refined sugar is as addictive as the drug cocaine, reducing it in your diet is not necessarily going to be easy. However, reducing it gradually and making small changes in your cooking and drink consumption will have positive impacts on your health. As a wise man once said ‘Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live’ (Jim Rohn).

 

SOME RANDOM SUGAR FACTS:

  • Most sugar is consumed within processed products

  • Sugar has been used throughout history to help wound healing, as it helps dry out the wound and prevent bacterial infections

  • A level teaspoon of sugar (about 4g) contains 16 calories

  • Young people consume most of their sugar through drinking soft drinks

  • Two different types of plants provide the world with most of its sugar: sugar cane and sugar beet.

  • Brazil is the country which consumes the most sugar in the world, averaging a whopping 156g per person per day

RESOURCES:

  • Public Health England – Sugar Reduction, Responding to the Challenge, (2014)

  • Sugar Nutrition UK – Researching the Science of Sugar http://www.sugarnutrition.org.uk/default.aspx

  • World Health Organisation – Sugars Intake for Adults and Children: Guidelines, (2015)

  • Worldwide Trends in Dietary Sugar Intakes. Nutrition Research reviews, (2014)

  • New Unsweetened Truths about Sugar. JAMA internal Medicine, (2014)

  • Sugar Substitutes: Health Controversy over Perceived Benefits. Journal of Pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics, (2011).

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