The anti-sugar bandwagon is growing by the minute. Sugar has become the new fat, and ‘sugar-free’ is the modern health guru’s mantra. However many people are not really sure what the term ‘sugar’ actually means. Is sugar a synonym for all carbohydrates? Or does sugar only refer to the white stuff my mother used to add to her tea? Are all sugars a sweet poison or are some sugars healthier than others?
Sugar is a subtype of carbohydrate that is sweet in taste, soluble in water and contains only one or two chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. By far the most common sugars in our diet are glucose, fructose and sucrose. In nature, glucose and fructose occur as building blocks of other carbohydrates and this mitigates how the body handles them. Sucrose is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose and is present in many plants especially their roots and fruits. If we only ate whole unadulterated foods found in nature, we would struggle to overeat sugar – whether in the form of glucose, fructose or sucrose – because in nature these sugars are packaged with generous amounts of water and fibre, which fill us up before we eat too much. Simply put, you’d give yourself a stomach-ache or start to feel bloated. The one exception is honey. It does not contain fibre but is sickly sweet in large quantities.
However when we extract sucrose (glucose and fructose) from cane, beets, coconuts, dates, palms or other sources, and refine it to produce odourless, crystalline, white, yellow or brown powders, it is all too easy to overeat sugar because nature’s control mechanisms (water and fibre) have been removed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called raw, organic, granulated or any of the other 50 names the food industry uses, it’s still refined sugar and it provides a rapidly absorbed source of calories devoid of any nutrients. Herein lies the problem: when the bloodstream and liver are overloaded with either glucose or fructose, these sugars are converted to fat and contribute to widespread inflammation in the brain and body. Inflammation is synonymous with disease.
So what constitutes too much sugar? The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that a safe level of sugar consumption (ie unlikely to cause disease) is four teaspoons per day for children under the age of 12, six teaspoons per day for women, and nine teaspoons per day for men. Even this is probably generous, but given that the average Australian consumes over 20 teaspoons per day, the WHO targets are a good start.
Where is all this added sugar in our diet coming from? Soft drinks are the biggest culprits but sports drinks and juices are also significant contributors. The other source is processed foods. If you don’t eat any processed foods, you have nothing to worry about and no need to calculate your daily sugar intake. If you eat packaged food including sauces, breakfast cereals, flavoured yoghurts, tinned fruits, canned vegetables, frozen meals, sweets, pastries, cakes, biscuits or muesli bars then you need to become savvy in calculating the sugar content of what you are buying.
In my book, NeuroSlimming, I give a detailed explanation of how to calculate your daily sugar intake. In summary, one teaspoon of sugar is approximately 4 grams. Ignore anything written about the health value of the food on the front of the packaging. This is purely marketing and most of it is cleverly deceptive. Examine the nutrition panel on the back. Look to see how many grams of sugar per serve. Divide the grams by four to calculate the number of teaspoons. Then look to see how many servings are in the packet. Ask yourself how many serves you’d be likely to eat in one sitting and multiply the number of servings you will eat by the number of teaspoons. Are you surprised by how many teaspoons of sugar are hiding in your favourite breakfast cereal?
This is part 1 of a 4 part series on the real effects of sugar on the body. To view the other articles in the series click on the titles below: