Do you remember when fat was given a bad rap? When we were led to believe that getting rid of all fat from our diet was the best for us? Now it turns out that we need almost all kinds of fat, yes, even saturated fat for good health (albeit in small amounts). Well, you have to ask, is sugar the next baddie to steer clear of? Nutritionist and Director of Cadence Health and Nutrition Courses and Sneakys, Leanne Cooper takes a look at the nutritional facts on sugar.
What’s a carb and what’s a sugar?
Quite simply, sugars are a type of carbohydrate (let’s stick with carbs, so much faster). So? carbs in our food are made up from combinations of glucose, fructose or galactose sugar units. For example, the sugar in that delicious piece of fruit you had for morning tea contains fructose, the sugar in the milk in your latte, lactose, is a made up of two sugars, glucose and galactose. And the teaspoon of sugar you added to your cuppa is made up of glucose and fructose. Single and double sugar units are referred to as simple sugars because they are simple chemical structures (it really says nothing about their health impact).
In the past there has been a tendency to see all simple sugars as bad, and some people have confused them with refined sugars (refined table sugar or other sugars produced commercially and used to add sweetness to food). Many people are often confused about sugars and carbohydrates and label carbs as bad for you, clearly this is wrong. It’s important to remember that the sugars that naturally occur in our foods are in fact all useful to the body. Given that sugars occur naturally in plenty of our food and, as we will see, are vital to good health, it’s a little scary to hear or read of someone suggesting sugar shouldn’t pass your lips.
A twist and chain and we have something complex
Carbs can be made up from multiple sugar units bound together in long-chain structures (imagine a knitted patch of wool), examples of such polysaccharides (poly meaning many) include fibre and starch. Most of us will have heard the term “complex carbohydrate” bandied about. However, more recently people have begun to move away from the terms “simple” and “complex” and instead focus on wholegrains and fibre. Most of the fibre in a grain is found in the outer layers, which for many years were hulled off to produce what was felt to be a lovely “clean” looking flour, white flour. We now know that due to this process we are losing the inherent goodness of the grain and that wholegrains, or wholemeal flour, is nutritionally superior to plain white flour.
But we can make it better? can’t we?
Yes of course you can buy fibre-enhanced white breads, but it just doesn’t seem to make sense to pay to have the flour refined, then pay to have the fibre added back, though of course such breads can be helpful for the “I only like white bread” eaters among us. But if you can start with the intact varieties of foods and stick with them, all the better. It’s good to keep in mind that one of the many issues impacting on diet-related health issues is the quality of the foods we consume. You could argue that in consuming such breads, etc, we are eating artificially pre-digested foods (chemically and mechanically processed foods) and such foods appear to have many inherent nutritional issues.
What does our body do to carbs?
When we consume food that has carbohydrates our digestive system breaks it down into its most simple form, sugar (also known as monosaccharides or single sugar). Sugars can easily be moved into the bloodstream and shifted to our cells to make energy. Any excess is stored as glycogen (which is a very convenient energy form) or is discarded via the urine. While bees and pigs convert sugar to fat, we humans under normal conditions do not! Yes, one of the many nutritional myths around. Sugar’s link to body fat is via the release of insulin when sugar hits our bloodstream. Insulin opens cell “doors” to allow glucose to move in and be converted to energy. Insulin, however, is our fat storage hormone. So while we are consuming lots of sweet morsels our body is being told to store fat and hold onto it.
Complex carbohydrates, however, due to their resistance to our digestive processes end up at a different point and hence have different functions. WHO has neatly classified carbohydrates in a way that reflects the fundamental differences between simple and complex carbs. WHO broadly divides carbohydrates by:
- Chain length, that is how long its chemical chain is. Which gives us simple one-two molecule sugars such as glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose and so on; short chain sugars of up to 10 sugars joined together known as oligosaccharides (also referred to as prebiotics) which are found in many plant foods and believed to support bowel health; and of course long chain carbs, short being sugars and long being fibre, for example.
- Their glycaemic response, so how quickly they are absorbed by the body, with sucrose (table sugar) being absorbed very fast to bananas, which slowly alter blood sugar levels.
- And lastly as to whether they ferment. Recently research has highlighted the importance of how a carbohydrate breaks down in relation to its health function, for example some carbohydrates breakdown slowly and ferment in the gut and feed our healthy bacteria.
How much do we consume?
A recent study found that in the United States, on average, Americans consume 156 pounds (71kg) of added sugar per person, per year. Interestingly, while the intake of sugar has increased in the United States, this is not so for Australia and other countries, including some parts of Europe.
Between 1980-2003, we consumed less table sugar (a drop of 23 per cent), however, our intake of sugars via manufactured foods increased slightly. The interesting statistic for the United States is in the use of “other sweeteners”, in particular high-fructose corn syrups, which jumped by a staggering 138 per cent. Keep your eye out for this little number, it might be one to avoid if it hits our shelves!
Where does all the sugar come from?
You might be surprised to know that only 25 per cent of the added sugar we consume comes from what we ourselves add to our foods. Seventy-five per cent comes from the food we buy in the store, in our packaged food. For example:
- One can of soft drink can have about 10 teaspoons of sugar
- One Mars bar up to eight and a half teaspoons
- A tub of fruit yoghurt or a glass of cordial or ice block up to five
- A sweet biscuit or lolly has up to one teaspoon
So, if you had a can of soft drink, a mars bar and some fruit yoghurt over the day that would be a whopping 23.5 teaspoons of sugar! This equates to 282 calories which roughly represents 14 per cent of an average adults daily calorie requirements, and that’s not even counting the rest of the meals that would be consumed over the day. Only 10-12 per cent of the calories we need over the day should come from sugars.
Let’s be serious here, too much of anything isn’t good for you! Too much calcium interferes with iron, too much vitamin C can cause unwanted reactions in the body, too much of one B vitamin can upset the balance of another and so on. We don’t need to be told that we shouldn’t woof down loads of sugary foods do we? But do we need to be aware of which sugars are more desirable and how to limit our exposure to sugars in the foods we purchase? After all, should we really be sweetening our food supply?
Spot me if you can!
Sugar can be hidden in many ways; in fact, there are a multitude of terms that are used to fool the unsuspecting consumer. Other ingredient names for sugar include:
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup (watch out for increasing use of this in Australia and New Zealand)
- Honey, molasses, golden syrup
- Malt extract
- Rice extract
- Invert sugar
Sound familiar? Have that committed to memory? No, me either, its way too long, but you get the hang of picking sugar eventually.
What are people saying about carbs and sugar
There are a lot of well-meaning “experts” around saying nonsensical things about sugars and carbs being bad. Clearly, to suggest that carbs are bad is ludicrous and makes no sense whatsoever; our bodies would be in a sorry state without carbs. So some of the things you may have heard about sugars and carbs include:
- White sugar causes diabetes
- White sugar upsets your immune system
- Excessive sugar turns to fat
- Sugar causes hyperactivity
- White sugar upsets your nutrient absorption
- Sugar causes cancer
- Sugars cause tooth decay (though we do know sucrose, table sugar does)
- Sugar changes your pH balance
- Carbs make you fat
- Carbs are hard to digest and should be eaten alone
- You shouldn’t eat carbs after 8pm
The list goes on, if you google “why is sugar bad for you” you will find sugar pretty much causes everything known to man!
It is pre-packaged commercial food that, by and large, provides us with excessive sugar, fat and salt. Simple! We are in fact generally doing the right thing with food preparation by adding less salt, sugar and fat to our plates. Where we trip and stumble is in our ability to determine what a “good” product is and what’s a “bad” one. Is it better to have a low-fat, high-sugar mayonnaise? Is a high-fibre, low-protein, high-sugars cereal better than a high-protein low-fibre one? Making sense of all the options and then determining if a product is healthy or not can almost be impossible, even for nutritionists. It all depends on the criteria and in what order you rate them. Much easier to just eat fresh!
What do we know?
Carbohydrates and sugars are involved in many vital processes such as thermo-regulation, energy production, energy storage, brain functioning, embryonic nutrition, blood clotting, immune function, feeding of healthy intestinal flora and much more.
We also know that:
- Fructose is great for replenishing lost stores of glucose (known as glycogen) that why it’s in good hydration fluids.
- Our brain’s primary fuel is glucose, which comes with every sugar unit we consume.
- Sucrose does affect oral bacteria.
- In fact, sugar intake data does not correlate to obesity rates. For example, in the 1970s sugar intake was very high, yet obesity rates were quite low. And more recently in countries like Australia where sugar intake has dropped, obesity has remained very high.
- Sugar doesn’t turn to fat under normal circumstances, but sugars do inhibit the use of fat because they stimulate the release of insulin, our fat-storage hormone.
- Excessively sugary drinks appear to cause increased intake of food and may be related to overweightness.
- Sugar intake tends to affect nutrient status in children as apposed to adults.
- Simple sugars provide fast and efficient fuel for activity and the body preferentially uses this fuel.
- Sugar is not linked to hyperactivity, but highly sugary foods often come packed with additives that are more likely to cause behavioural issues.
- All sugars have a health effect, but like anything in nature an excess can tip the scales in favour of ill health.
- Carbohydrates perform many more functions vital to health than we once thought.
Use the nutrition panels not the marketing claims
Packaging has so many ticks, crosses, stamps and claims that it can hide the real value of a product. Make nutrition panels your friend in the fight for healthy eating. Specifically, let’s look at the “carbohydrates” figure in comparison to the “total sugars” figure.
- The total carbohydrates figure represents all sugars, naturally occurring and added, simple and complex.
- The total “sugars” figure on the other hand indicates how much of these carbohydrates are simple sugars (naturally occurring and added).
While it doesn’t tell you if the sugars are added (that’s where the ingredients panel is best), it will show you what portion of the carbohydrates are simple sugars, and what proportion are complex carbohydrates. You can tell this by looking at the difference between the two. So if a product has 50g of carbs and 45g of sugar you know it is going to be sugary. Compared to a product that has 50g of carbs and only 5g of sugars, the other 45g will be from complex sources. Remember, complex carbohydrates are associated with many health benefits, so where possible look for products that have a low total sugars figure in comparison to the carbohydrates figure.
Quick tip: Some agencies recommend choosing breakfast cereals with 20g or less of sugar (per 100g) or 25g if it contains fruit.
Once you have had a look at the nutrition panel, briefly cast your eye over the ingredients panel, where ingredients are listed in order of amount. Here you can see where sugar has been added or perhaps what foods are contributing to the sugars in the product. For example, you have a product that lists “milk, milk solids, strawberries, cultures” you know that any sugars shown on the nutrition panel will come from the sugars inherent in the milk and strawberries. However, if you have a product that has “rice, apple juice, sweet potato, pumpkin and salmon” you know that while some of the sugars will come from the vegetables and rice, apple juice has been added to sweeten the product, and given it’s the second ingredient it’s likely to be a fairly sweet product.
“Crikey!” I hear you say, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell us that in the first place?”
Quick fact: White or brown sugar?
Keep in mind that brown sugar these days is simply white sugar with a bit of molasses thrown in for good measure.
There are an increasing number of sugar alternatives, but yes, once again you have to do a little homework. Let’s take just a quick look at a few.
Agave nectar is drawn from the large spikes of tequiliana plants (yes the ones used to make tequila). The sap is extracted, filtered, cleaned and heated (to a low temperature) to produce a beautifully mild sweet nectar. It’s unclear just how much but the sugar is predominantly fructose, which gives it a lower GI rating than sugar. Agave doesn’t have the same issues as honey in terms of botulism, though being so high in fructose you do need to use it sparingly with children.
Stevia is considered a ‘natural? sweetener and not an artificial one. Stevia comes from the leaves of a native plant in Paraguay in South America. Gram-for-gram, stevia is about 250 times sweeter than sugar, but with far fewer calories; it is also said not to raise blood sugar levels. Half a teaspoon (2g) of stevia has only 8 cals compared to 15 cals for a teaspoon of sugar. So you need very little to get the same taste effect as table sugar. Keep in mind that it is still extracted and reduced from a plant, and you could therefore argue it’s not a whole food, that it’s a refined food. Like anything, it’s better to find a good balance, even sweetness in foods can alter our brain chemistry and eating patterns.
Being more firmly ensconced in our culinary repertoires, there is a great deal more known about honey. Honey contains roughly equal amounts of its principal sugars (fructose and glucose). Different honey types differ in their make up. Interestingly, darker honeys generally have more antioxidants. It’s the antioxidants that are said to give honey is many health benefits, including being antimicrobial, which is why you will often see it used in natural cough and cold elixirs.
Keep in mind that honey is not recommended for infants under 12 months due to the risk of botulism infection.
What can we do?
The truth is we need all carbs. The question is where you get them from, how much of them you have and how frequently you consume them. Do we really want to go down the “all fat is bad” line with sugar and end up dissecting it to the point that there is overwhelming confusion and we simply give up? Consider:
- Eating fresh
- Cutting back on the processed foods in the cupboards, fridge and freezer
- Becoming familiar with the various terms manufacturers used to disguise added sugars
- Opting for the product where the “sugars” figure is lowest
- Reading labels and avoiding products with numerous sugars and where sugar is high up in the ingredients list
- Avoiding soft drinks
Passionate about nutrition? Why not do a short course!
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.