Sugar. It’s so sweet, so delicious and so addictive.
But… research is showing that it’s also damaging our bodies and we should be eating less of it. But is that even possible?
Sugar is highly likely to be responsible for the increase in people being diagnosed with high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and other health conditions, and is without a doubt responsible for our nation’s ever-expanding waist lines and the increase in tooth decay. It can also be linked with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (where excess sugars are stored in fat cells in the liver causing inflammation).
We could all do with eating less sugar – myself included.
But what counts as sugar?
Sugar has many names – some you may have heard before, others may be new to you. If you take a look through your kitchen cupboards, you’ll probably find an assortment of sugars in the products you already own.
Generally, the names of sugars will end in “-ose”, such as:
• Glucose – in fruits and plants.
• Fructose – incredibly sweet, and found in fruits, honey, agave syrup and even coconut sugar
• Sucrose – a mix of glucose and fructose, found in sugar cane stems, sugar beet roots, and some other fruits and plants.
• Lactose – found in milk products and requires a specific enzyme (lactase) for digestion. Those lacking the enzyme can experience a lactose intolerance reaction.
The white granulated sugar you use in baking or add to your daily tea/coffee is created through processing and refining of the sugar cane or sugar beet plants, and is rich in sucrose – approximately 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
What happens when we consume sugars?
When we consume sugar it enters our blood stream and raises our blood sugar levels. The pancreas recognises this and releases the hormone insulin into the blood. Insulin’s job is to regulate the sugar levels in our blood by storing any excess sugar away in our liver and muscles as glycogen, or into our fat cells as triglycerides. The more sugar we consume, the more insulin is released, and the more sugar needs to be squirreled away by the insulin into the various storage areas of the body. But there are no perfect measurements, and often too much insulin will be released by the pancreas. This results in too much sugar being stored away and gives us a ‘sugar crash’ (hypoglycaemia) making us feel tired and sleepy, and ultimately making us crave more sugary foods – thereby causing the process to start all over again!
Clearly, the ideal way to prevent being on the sugar rollercoaster is to avoid sugar. But with sugar being included in so many foods, is this even possible?
How can I avoid sugars in everyday foods?
To start with, you would need to read the labels of anything and everything you purchase in a packet very carefully. Here’s a list of sugars you might find in the ingredients lists. Not all of them end in “-ose” because manufacturers have found different names for them, which of course, makes their product look better!
• Agave nectar
• Brown sugar
• Cane crystals
• Cane sugar
• Coconut sugar
• Corn sweetener
• Corn syrup
• Crystalline fructose
• Evaporated cane juice
• Fruit juice concentrates
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Invert sugar
• Malt syrup
• Maple syrup
• Raw sugar
And, to add to the issue, processed carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and cakes are processed by the body in the same way as sugars: pancreas –> insulin –> storage in liver cells/muscle cells/fat cells. The more refined the carbohydrates are, the quicker it will turn to sugar in the body. So white bread, made with refined white flour will turn to sugar much faster than a wholemeal bread. Likewise, white rice vs. brown rice and so on.
So if you really want to avoid sugars, which foods should you be avoiding? Well, it is probably easier to list the foods that are not considered to contain sugars: whole fruits, whole vegetables, meat/fish, nuts, seeds, milk, water. Seriously – that’s the full list!
As soon as a fruit or vegetable is processed in any way (juiced, blended, pureed, and even dried) the sugars are released and become “free sugars” which are then considered to be the same as sugar. Confusingly, the NHS still recommends that one 150ml glass of juice counts as 1 of your 5 a day intake! As a side note here, I would also suggest limiting the consumption of whole fruits to just two pieces (or handfuls, in the case of berries) per day. Not because I think the fructose in whole fruits is harmful, but because if you’re eating more than two pieces a day, you’re probably missing out on the nutrients that you could find in an equivalent portion of (low-fructose) vegetables!
If you’re thinking of doing this seriously, you might also want to look into a low glycaemic-load (low GL) diet, whereby any sugars you do consume are combined with protein and fibre to reduce their effect on the body and get you off the sugar rollercoaster once and for all. But that’s a subject for another day!
How do I calculate how much sugar I’m consuming?
Now that you know which foods contain sugars, it’s time to work out how much we should be consuming.
The World Health Organisation recommends 5% of your daily calorific intake should come from sugars. For an average adult, that’s 25-30g of sugars per day or between 6 and 7 teaspoons of sugars per day, with each teaspoon weighing in at 4g.
When reading the nutrition label on a food, you will find a line that reads “Carbohydrates, of which sugars” and this is the number you are looking for, to know the amount of sugars in that food item.
As a guide, “the carbohydrates, of which sugars” in a 330ml can of coca-cola weigh in at 35g (almost 9 teaspoons of sugars!) and one small 250ml glass of fresh orange juice contains a shocking 20g (5 teaspoons of sugars!)
Remember: 4g of sugars = 1 teaspoon, and your maximum daily intake should be below 7 teaspoons.
What alternatives are there to sugar?
There are many artificial sweeteners that contain zero grams of sugars, such as aspartame, saccharine, acesulfame K, but I am not a fan of any of them due to adverse reactions such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and so on. Some of the latest research shows their use should be restricted with young children, and yet they are in many products aimed at young children!
One alternative would be Xylitol (a sugar alcohol made from birch trees, or from a chemical conversion of the plant fibre xylan into xylitol) which contains 2.4g of sugars per teaspoon – 40% less than the sugars we’ve been talking about so far. Side effects of xylitol include fermentation in the gut (bloating, gas, diarrhoea) if the dosage is too high, and as such, it’s not suitable for people following a FODMAP diet.
The second alternative would be the leaves of the herb stevia, which are 40 times sweeter than sugar! Stevia can be purchased as a liquid stevia extract in health food stores, or as a processed and refined granulated product in most supermarkets. Guess which version I’d prefer to use! You can even grow your own stevia plants for turning into a liquid extract by drying the leaves, grinding them, and mixing them with water. What an amazing way to naturally sweeten your foods!
But what about coconut sugar?
You might have been reading this and wondering why coconut sugar hasn’t been given the green light that you thought it should. Well, while coconut sugar is slightly (and only slightly!) more nutritious than the white granulated sugar you might put into your tea or coffee, it is still high in fructose and will keep you on that sugar rollercoaster. So step away from that cookie made with coconut sugar, and go find yourself an apple – your energy levels will love you!