The bitter truth about sugar
by Viviane Höger
Sugar: delicious, dangerous and probably addictive
A simple carbohydrate that is present in most processed foods, sugar is the biggest culprit in our chronically expanding waistlines, soaring levels of diabetes and a catalogue of other serious diseases.
Cutting back as much as possible on refined sugar should be on everyone’s personal agenda. Why? To put simply, sugar is making us fat, tired and it’s probably addictive, which means we’re wired to crave, eat, store it as fat, and the cycle goes on.
Refined sugar is found in cakes, biscuits, chocolate, fizzy drinks and most processed foods. While cutting refined sugar from our diets completely might be hard and unrealistic, trying to reduce the amount of sugar we use gradually, and using natural (never artificial!) substitutes if needed, can have an immediate and positive effect on our health.
Do we need sugar?
We need glucose, our body’s preferred energy source. Our body processes most carbohydrates we eat into glucose, either to be used immediately for energy or to be stored in muscle cells or the liver as glycogen for later use. Unlike fructose, insulin is secreted primarily in response to elevated blood concentrations of glucose, and insulin facilitates the entry of glucose into cells.
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and added to various beverages such as soda, fruit-flavored drinks and refined food in general for its most abundant form, high-fructose corn syrup, is widely available and cheap. However, fructose is very different from other sugars because it has a different metabolic pathway, and it is not the preferred energy source for muscles or the brain.
Fructose vs. Glucose
They seem almost identical, have the same chemical formula and weigh the exact same, but to your body, the two are completely different.
Fructose is only metabolized in the liver. It is also more lipogenic, or fat-producing, than glucose. Unlike glucose, too, it does not cause insulin to be released or stimulate production of leptin, a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure.
These factors raise concerns about chronically high intakes of dietary fructose, because it appears to behave more like fat in the body than like other carbohydrates. Consequently, a high consumption of fructose can lead to insulin resistance, abdominal fat gain, increased triglycerides, blood sugar and small, dense LDL compared to the exact same number of calories from glucose.
So, glucose and fructose have the same number of calories, but vastly different effects on hunger, hormones and metabolic health.
Keep in mind that this applies to fructose from added sugars only, not the fructose from fruit. Fruits also have fibre, water and significant chewing resistance, which mitigate the negative effects of the fructose.
Food manufacturers are masters of hiding sugar. The Nutrition Facts label requires the listing of ingredients by mass, so by using different names for sugar in any given product, the food industry can add many different types of sugar to a single product.
There are at least forty other names for sugar, some of the most common being: agave nectar, cane sugar, date sugar, golden syrup, maltodextrin, caramel, muscovado sugar, maltose, rice syrup, beet sugar, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and the list goes on… It’s all SUGAR.
Things like ready-made pasta sauces contain an enormous amount of added sugar (fructose) and so do condiments (ketchup, chili sauce, etc.,). Some breakfast cereals and energy bars – often marketed as healthy, contain as much sugar as a chocolate bar.
Calculating sugar content
It’s very useful to calculate sugar content in teaspoons as this provides you a visual of how much sugar you’re actually eating. A quick and easy way to check this is to look at the label for carbohydrates from sugars and divide the serving amount (make sure you’re eating the serving amount and not more) by 4.2 – you’ll have the sugar amount in teaspoons.
When taken at face value, diet soda seems like a health-conscious choice. It saves you the 140-plus calories you'd find in a sugary soft drink while still satisfying your urge for something sweet with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.
But there's more to this chemical cocktail than meets the eye. Artificial sweeteners have more intense flavor than real sugar, so over time products like diet soda dull our senses to naturally sweet foods like fruit. Even more troubling, these sugar stand-ins have been shown to have the same effect on your body as sugar.
Substances that do not contain sucrose or fructose should not cause a rise in blood sugar, so that is reassuring for people with diabetes who want a taste of something sweet. However, the newest concern is whether artificial sweeteners, if consumed in excess, can alter the microbiology of the intestines and contribute to insulin resistance and diabetes risk.
Some facts about sugar substitutes
Sucralose: To make sucralose, sucrose is chemically modified in a process that removes most of the calories and increases the sweetness by a factor of 600. Sucralose is not broken down for energy by the human body like sucrose is. The Splenda brand offers numerous products containing sucralose; their products also contain dextrose and/or maltodextrin to add volume and texture.
Stevia: Rebaudioside A (Reb A) and stevioside are the two steviol glycosides that manufacturers extract from the leaves of the stevia plant to be used as sweeteners. Pure stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Stevia extract is often combined with sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, or with dextrose, a form of sugar, to increase the product's volume. Products include Truvia, PureVia, and Stevia in the Raw, and health food stores also carry stevia in liquid form.
Saccharin and aspartame. Both of these substances have come under scrutiny for possible harmful health effects, but human studies have revealed no clear evidence. Saccharin is the main ingredient in Sweet'N Low and SugarTwin. Aspartame is the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet. Sweeteners that contain saccharin or aspartame also contain another ingredient that adds volume, since both are sweeter than sugar.
Natural doesn’t mean healthier
Some people tout alternatives to common white sugar, including agave nectar and honey, as healthier options, but you need to look past the hype at the facts.
Sweeteners such as honey and agave have a 'health halo' around them that can make people think they are healthier choices. These sweeteners still should be used in limited amounts. They both are higher in calories than an equivalent amount of table sugar, although they are also sweeter, so it is possible to use less of them to achieve the same sweetness.
Both honey and agave contain less glucose and more fructose than table sugar; at one time, it was thought that these sweeteners were smarter choices for diabetics. However, we now know that consuming large amounts of fructose can promote fat storage and insulin resistance. Common sense dictates that all sweeteners, natural or otherwise, should be used in moderation.
The bottom line
Cutting down on sugar is no easy task and it’s one of those things that fall on the much easier said than done category. A change in perspective though may be helpful. Cutting back on sugar is important, but it is more helpful to focus on what to add than what to subtract.
Our diets should be full of whole foods, including vegetables, beans, fruit, nuts, and lean protein. When we are eating these healthy foods, there is less room for highly processed items that are high in sugar. Gradually reducing your consumption of highly sweetened foods such as sweets, cakes, and pastries can help reset your palate, which has become saturated with these processed foods.
Choosing fruit when you crave something sweet for example can save you hundreds of calories and grams of sugar.
Other great tips to help with cravings:
Just because you’re having a craving or want something sweet doesn’t mean you have to eat sugar — or even a sugar replacement, such as a piece of fruit — on impulse. Try to first get to the bottom of what’s really going on. Do you…
. . . just want something sweet?
. . . feel physical hunger — is your stomach growling?
. . . have a headache?
Then, once answered:
- Drink a glass of water.
- Take a breather — 5 deep breaths — or wait a few minutes.
- Try to do something physical, such as taking a short walk.
- Eat something if you’re truly hungry. Just make sure that it’s satiating. Often people trying to stay healthy choose a piece of fruit, when a craving hit. But fruit alone may not quell the craving — especially if the craving isn’t necessarily for something sweet. Your best bet for stamping out a craving of any kind may be to have a snack that includes protein or a healthy fat.
Some great snacks which barely raise the blood sugar, if at all:
- Nuts or seeds – any kind, so almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.
- ½ cup plain Greek Yoghurt + ¼ seasonal fruit
- Seasonal fruit with full fat quark
- Guacamole with fresh celery and peppers
- Small salad with pine nuts, balsamic dressing and goat cheese
- Hard-boiled egg + salt and pepper
- Roasted nori (seaweed snack)
- Olives and dill pickles
- Kale chips + nuts
- ½ avocado with salt, pepper and lemon juice
- Celery sticks with peanut butter or almond butter
- 30g dark chocolate (the darker the better) + nuts
- Medium apple + handful of almonds or some cheese
- ½ banana + peanut or almond butter
- ½ cup hummus + feta cheese + celery/carrot sticks
- Sliced apple with nut butter
- Whipped ricotta with roasted cherries
- Baked cinnamon apple
- Herbal tea that has a sweet note such as vanilla
Consistently eating too much sugar can, over time, lead to severe health issues. While it’s not a health food, like everything else in life, moderation is key. Just like a micro-dose of poison is unlikely to kill, sugar in moderation also won’t hurt you!