Are there good and bad sugars?

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1. Don't sugar coat it

Sugar consumption is at its highest level in history. Global consumption of added sugar has increased by a whopping 46% per person per day in the last 30 years.

We are born with a preference for sweet foods and sugar has played a vital role in our survival at times when food has been scarce. But in our sugar-coated world our preference for sweet foods has led to excessive consumption.

With some media headlines describing sugar as 'poison' and numerous studies linking it directly or indirectly to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, it would seem there is cause for concern. But is sugar all bad – and is all sugar bad?

2. Am I eating too much sugar?

Am I eating too much sugar?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) strongly recommends we reduce our daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of our total calorie intake (about 12 tsp per day). It calls for a further reduction to less than 5% (about 6 tsp per day) if possible.

We once primarily ate sugars that naturally occurred in fruit and vegetables, but research suggests that added sugar is now the main source of sugar in our diets. The problem with added sugar is that it is not bound up with other nutrients, such as fibre. The WHO uses the term ‘free sugars’ to describe free-floating sugars that are instantly absorbed by the digestive system. All sugar that is added to our food is classified as ‘free sugars'. A concern with free sugars is that they make it easy to eat excess calories; you may drink a can of soft drink but you would not eat four apples because the fibre in the apples makes you feel full. Free sugars are not necessary for a balanced diet.

3. Can I substitute sugar with honey?

It is commonly believed that honey is a healthy alternative to sugar. But this isn't true; honey is a sugar. When we think of sugar, we often think of table sugar, but sugar is a blanket term for sweet-tasting, energy dense carbohydrates. Table sugar consists of two simple sugars bonded together. These simple sugars are glucose and fructose. Honey is also made up of glucose and fructose.

Honey is a free sugar

Honey, along with maple syrup, agave nectar and rice malt syrup, is in the ‘free sugars’ club and needs to be restricted. Free sugars are also found in fruit juices, as they do not tend to contain the fibre found in whole fruit and vegetables.

To your body it does not matter whether free sugar comes from honey or table sugar. The bottom line is that honey brings added sugar and calories to your diet and needs to be restricted.

4. Fructose vs glucose

In the sugar debate fructose is often portrayed as the villain. But is fructose, also known as fruit sugar, worse than other sugars?

Fructose in the body

Concern about fructose focuses on how it is processed by the body. All cells in the body can process glucose, whereas only the liver can process fructose in significant amounts, which means that excessive consumption may tax the liver. It has also been suggested that fructose interferes with the proper functioning of the hormones ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain, and leptin, which generates a feeling of satiety. This may cause us to over-eat.

Could fructose be healthier than glucose?

Some claim fructose is healthier than other sugars as it has a low glycaemic index so does not raise blood sugar levels as much as glucose. In fact, as of 2015 food manufacturers in Europe who substitute other sugars with fructose can put a health claim on their products.

What's the verdict?

A problem with research in this area is that studies involve consuming fructose in far greater quantities than we would eat in a regular diet, so they are not easy to draw conclusions from. Overall there is a consensus that there is no significant difference between fructose and glucose in terms of their implications for health.

5. How can I check food labels for added sugar?

Food manufacturers do not have to state how much sugar they have added to food, but instead they give a figure for total sugars. Here are clues to help you work out if a food is likely to be high in added sugar.

Look at the labels

Look at 'carbohydrates (of which sugars)' on the nutrition label. If the total sugar content is over 22.5g per 100g the food is high in sugar; if it is below 5g per 100g the food is low in sugar. The traffic light system can also help identify sugary foods; red sugar labels represent food high in sugar, amber represents medium sugar content and green signals low sugar content. But this system is based on total sugars, so some foods such as natural yoghurt may be labelled amber even though they contain no added sugar – just naturally-occuring sugar. Don’t rely solely on traffic lights; you also need to look at the ingredients list.

Check the ingredients list

Check where sugar appears in the ingredients list. If it is near the beginning of the list then the food is probably high in added sugar.

Check if sugar is hiding under these names

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Maltose
  • Lactose
  • Fructose
  • Molasses
  • Hydrolysed starch
  • Agave nectar
  • Corn syrup
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Honey
  • Golden syrup

6. Why is it so hard to give up sugar?

Throughout our lives we are given sugar as a form of reward and consume it at celebrations. When was the last time you were at a children's birthday party with no cake? This has led to us associating sugar with pleasure. Just as we have learned to derive pleasure from sugar, we can also teach our tastebuds to enjoy foods that are less sweet. But this takes times, so stick with it.

When we consume free sugars, they are quickly absorbed by our bloodstream and we experience pleasure and an energy boost. Our blood sugar levels spike and then drop. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘sugar crash’. These ‘sugar crashes’ make us crave sugar and the cycle of cravings and crashes continues.

How can I fend off sugar cravings?

Make sure you have healthy snacks, such as nuts and seeds, at hand. These are high in fat and protein, and so are useful for keeping hunger at bay.

Craving chocolate? Enjoy small amounts of good quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), which has a lower sugar content than milk or white chocolate.

Try adding some cinnamon to your morning coffee or sprinkling it over porridge. A sprinkle of cocoa can also go a long way in pleasing your sweet tooth.

Sugar alternatives such as stevia can be useful for sugar-free baking. Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from a plant. It is virtually calorie-free, does not affect blood sugar levels and does not cause tooth decay.

Often sugar cravings are a mental phenomenon based on the pleasure we get when we eat sugar. Distract yourself by taking a short walk, reading or listening to some music.

7. How can I reduce my sugar intake?

Simple sugar swaps to help you eat less sugar.