I love sugar! I mean, who doesn’t right?

Sugars are found everywhere, they’re not just in your chocolates treats or fruit, so it’s very easy to consume too much. In fact, sugar can be found in some of the most unexpected products such as tomato sauces and peanut butter. However, as wonderful as sugars make our food taste, they do have their health risks if we over consume them. In fact, many health organisations have re-evaluated their guidelines to encourage people to consume less in the fight against obesity and tooth decay.

Sugar

As humans, we are genetically programmed to seek out sweet foods – there is even sugar in breast milk as infants. Sweet foods were traditionally seen as safe to eat and that programming hasn’t left us. We are constantly expose to sweet foods today and they are so much easier to find – however, this doesn’t mean that we have lost our preference for those sugary foods! In fact, sweet foods play a massive role in society from being the centre piece at birthdays, weddings and anniversaries to being shared around at events, religious holidays and used as treats to celebrate.

As well as having a sweet taste, there are many practical sides to sugar. Sugar feeds yeast which allows bread to rise, it balances flavour, helps the caramelisation of foods, reduces the risk of microbial growth in jams and increases moisture during baking. This functional aspect of sugar makes it widely found in many different types of foods, both fresh and packaged.

What are sugars?

Essentially there are 2 types of sugars: Naturally occurring sugars (such as those sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk) and ‘free’ sugars – it’s these ‘free’ sugars that the NHS says the UK eats too much of.

Free sugars are those found added into food or drinks such as biscuits, chocolates, yogurts, cereals and fizzy drinks. There are also some naturally occurring sugars that count as free sugars and they are: honey, syrups, unsweetened fruit & vegetables juices and smoothies.

The sugars that the NHS says we don’t need to cut down on are those naturally occurring in fruit, vegetables and milk.

Sugars are carbohydrates however, the term ‘sugar’ refers to simple sugars ie: Monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose and disaccharides, such as sucrose, lactose and maltose. Note how many sugars end in ‘ose’.

The chemistry:

  • Sugars are carbohydrates that are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
  • Monosaccharides are simple sugars and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. These are the building blocks for more complex carbohydrates. They occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and milk.
  • Disaccharides are made up of two monosaccharides joined together and include sucrose (glucose and fructose), maltose (glucose and glucose) and lactose (glucose and galactose). These sugars are found in table sugar and dairy products.

Natural sugar vs added sugar:

The body breaks all sugar down into glucose and at the end of the day sugar is still sugar regardless of the source. Because of this, many people believe that the source of the sugar doesn’t matter but this isn’t the case and it’s important to be able to distinguish between two types – natural and added sugars.

Natural sugars are found in whole foods (foods in their ‘whole’ form) whereas added sugars (free sugars) are introduced later on – added sugars refers to those free sugars (why have just one name for them when you can have two!). Natural sugars occur naturally in fruits and vegetables and these foods also come with added benefits and are packed full with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre which are all needed to nourish our bodies and reduce spikes in blood sugar. When consumed in their whole form, these foods also help to increase feelings of fullness, which in turn, helps to reduce the amount we eat. These natural sugars generally increase as the fruit or vegetables ripen adding to the sweetness.

Foods with added sugars tend to be higher in calories and lower in nutritional value and usually they don’t provide the same benefits in nutrients as natural sugars like fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. These foods are not always eaten as part of a balanced meal, they may cause spikes in blood sugar and we are more likely to over indulge in these foods.

Blood sugar:

This is just a quick note on blood sugar. Blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, refers to the amount of glucose we have in our blood. Some foods are digested and absorbed quicker than others which causes spikes in blood sugar levels. Continuously elevated blood sugar levels may lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and may negatively impact health over time.

To prevent these spikes in blood sugar levels eat more whole grains, eat fruits, vegetables and legumes that are rich in fibre and eat balanced meals that contain all macronutrients and micronutrients that your body needs. This will help to slow down digestion and reduce the amount of glucose in the blood stream at one time.

How much can we eat?

Our body needs glucose – it’s needed for so many functions in our bodies and it’s our brain’s preferred fuel source. However, that doesn’t mean that we need huge amounts of sugar – in fact, we get more than enough glucose from eating a balanced diet without the added free sugars (these just taste yummy!).

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults and children lower their daily intake of free sugars to less that 10% of their daily energy intake with 5% providing even more health benefits. The NHS also recommends that free sugars should make up no more than 5% of the daily intake of energy you get from food (calories).

What does this mean:

  • This means that ideally adults should have up to 30g (approx. 7 sugar cubes) of free sugars daily.
  • Children aged between 7-10 should have up to 24g (approx. 6 sugar cubes) daily.
  • Children aged between 4-6 should have up to 19g (approx. 5 sugar cubes) daily.
  • Children under 4 should avoid drinks and food with added sugars.

(It’s amazing how quickly these free sugars can add up as one can of a fizzy drink can have as much as 9 sugar cubes in it which exceeds the recommended daily amount for adults!)

Surprisingly up to 27% of the UK’s daily energy intake is made up of added sugar, with 11-18 year olds having the highest sugar intake. The most commonly consumed products with these sugars include cola, squash cordials, fruit juices, chocolates, frosted corn flakes, chocolate biscuits and stir-in sweet and sour sauce. Amazingly, ketchup has 27.5g of sugar per 100g! So bear in mind what you’re eating and where you sugar is coming from – it might surprise you just how much sugar you have in your diet.

Why should we cut down?

Sugar has been linked to a lot of health problems, most noticeably obesity and tooth decay. The World Health Organisation has even stated that they have solid evidence to show that consuming less than 10% of free sugars of total daily energy intake has shown to reduce the risk of being overweight, obesity and tooth decay. As well as being directly linked to obesity, sugar has also been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, acne, depression and skin & cellular ageing.

How to reduce your sugar intake:

  • Read the ingredients
  • Substitute with ‘safe’ sweeteners such as stevia or rice malt syrup
  • Eat fat and protein
  • Swap sweetened drinks, squashes and fruit juices for water or unsweetened teas
  • Eat plain yogurt instead of flavoured yogurt (add fruit if needed)
  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking juices and smoothies
  • Make a DIY trail mix of nuts and seeds to help curb chocolate cravings
  • Use extra virgin olive oil and lemon in place of salad dressings
  • Use natural nut butters
  • Shop on the outer perimeter of the supermarket
  • Try reducing the sugar in your recipes
  • Choose unsweetened whole grain breakfast cereals

Tips for reading the ingredients on food packaging:

  • As a guideline, look for foods with less than 5g of sugar/100g (5% sugar)
  • If it’s dairy – note that the first 4.7g/100g of sugar is lactose
  • If you want to work out how many teaspoons of sugar there are in the food you eat, then divide the sugar content by 4.2
  • Remember your serving sizes – you might not have the recommended serving size listed on the packet, so take that into account when working out how much sugar is in the food you’re eating
  • The higher up on the ingredients list, the more of that ingredient there is – so check where sugar sits. Remember most sugars end in ‘ose’ but not all – others to look out for are cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (try to avoid this as much as possible), fruit juice concentrate, syrups, nectars, molasses and treacle

*Although we don’t have to cut down on the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit, vegetables and milk, it’s important to remember that they are included as part of the ‘total sugar’ figure on food labels.


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