Sugar: is it poison or pleasure?


P0512HEALTHNMsugarDO YOU dunk a rusk in a cup of tea and call it breakfast, or grab a sneaky chocolate during your afternoon slump, or perhaps you add a teaspoon of sugar to your coffee?

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If you find yourself doing any of these things, you may well have a sugar addiction. You may feel that calling it an addiction seems like a stretch, but recent literature findings suggest that sugar can be likened to addictive substances such as heroin.

Kate Tattersall
Kate Tattersall is a Johannesburg dietician with MME Dietitians.

The idea that sugar is bad for your health is not a new concept, but is it an accurate one? If a substance such as sugar, is found in a number of naturally grown products, surely it can’t be seen as a major problem component of the diet?

It helps to get some of the basics right:

What is sugar?

Sugar is a carbohydrate that is naturally present in a number of foods and can be listed under a variety of names such as sucrose, glucose, galactose, lactose, fructose and maltose. Sugar is necessary in your diet as it is the body’s preferred source of fuel.

Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit, certain vegetables and in dairy products. They are also the end product of starch digestion. They not only provide the necessary fuel for your body but also contribute essential vitamins, minerals, water and fibre when eaten in an unprocessed form. The unprocessed form of sugars is preferable for health as they are generally high in fibre and known as slow-releasing sugars, which prevent sugar spikes after eating.

What are added sugars?

Over time the use of sugar in the food industry has increased substantially, resulting in larger amounts of added sugars being consumed. Today, the majority of sugars in a typical Western diet are added sugars. These are added during production of food to sweeten, help with preservation, improve texture, aid in browning of foods and improve palatability.

Some examples of these are evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, fructose and dextrose.

Some of the major sources of added sugars in South Africa include:

• regular soft drinks and squash;

• sweets and chocolates;

• cakes, biscuits and pies;

• fruit drinks (some fruit juices have sugars added to the drink and are not 100% pure fruit juice);

• dairy desserts and products (ice-cream, sweetened yoghurt, milkshakes);

• jams and preserves;

• rusks; and

• breakfast cereals (those in which additional sugars have been added)

Added sugars have been a hot topic among healthcare professionals for some time. The reason for this is the apparent involvement of these sugars’ in the ever-increasing waistlines of the population.

Added sugars provide concentrated energy (calories) but fail to provide any other nutrients.

It isn’t fair to say that sugar can make you fat, but consuming these energy dense products can lead to the intake of unnecessary kilojoules, which may be associated with weight gain.

In the results of the South African national health and nutrition examination survey published earlier this year, the highest percentage of high sugar users were identified as 15-24-year-olds, and people living in urban areas (Gauteng province had the highest consumption)

How much sugar do you need?

• One gram of carbohydrate contains 17 kilojoules of energy so a teaspoon of white sugar (4g of carbohydrate) contains 68kj of energy

Foods which naturally contain sugar should make up the majority of your sugar requirements with only a small portion of added sugars in the diet.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that added sugar should not contribute more than 10% of total energy in your diet. More recently, however, the American Heart Association suggested the limit should be lowered to 5% of total energy, due to continuing increases in obesity statistics.

What does this mean for your diet?

• In an average female expending 7,560kj a day, a maximum of 20g added sugars daily is recommended (an equivalent of five teaspoons of sugar or 340kj).

• In an average male expending 9,240kj a day, a maximum of 36g added sugars daily is recommended (an equivalent of nine teaspoons of sugar or 612kj).

As reference, remember that drinking 500ml of coke is about equal to eating 10 teaspoons of added sugar, exceeding the recommended intake.

Will consuming sugar lead to weight gain, diabetes or cardiovascular disease?

According to a large UK study published earlier this year, evidence showed that the intake of sugar is a determinant of body weight, a fact which has been controversial. The results of the study showed that reducing sugar in our diets (specifically added sugar) led to weight loss.

It is well known that weight gain is linked to developing chronic diseases of lifestyle such as diabetes, cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. It therefore stands to reason that if consuming excess kilojoules via added sugar may be associated with weight gain, it may also be associated with developing these lifestyle diseases.

Is sugar toxic or addictive?

The controversial Dr Robert Lustig, a US expert on childhood obesity at the University of California, believes sugar is toxic beyond its calories. There is now some evidence to support that food such as added sugars, also known as hyperpalatable foods, can result in cravings comparable to that of narcotics.

While these findings have only been seen in animal studies, the literature is intriguing and may lead to some interesting findings in why people have so called sugar cravings.

What do you need to look for on a food label?

Firstly, how do you know whether a product is high in sugar? According to official classifications per 100g, a product is considered high in sugar if it has 12.5g or more; moderate if it has 5g-12.5g and low if it has less than 5g.

Where possible try choosing food mainly in the “low” sugar category.

The do’s and don’ts on sugar

• Don’t think all sugars are bad.

• Do include a variety of fruit and vegetables in your diet, they are natural sources of sugar but also contain beneficial nutrients such as vitamins and minerals as well as fibre. Aim for at least two fruits and three vegetable portions a day.

• Don’t avoid fibre, it helps regulate the release of sugars and beneficial nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and can improve blood glucose management.

• Cut down on the use of processed (white) starches as these lead to a rapid release of sugar into the blood stream.

• Don’t drink your kilojoules — soft drinks contain a large amount of added sugars or “empty calories” as they do not necessarily fill you up nor do they add many, if any, beneficial nutrients to your diet.

• Choose fresh fruit over dried or fruit juices as these contain concentrated amounts of sugars.

• Don’t add sugar to your breakfast cereal, most cereals already contain sugars. Use a fresh fruit to add sweetness.

• Read the labels, some treats advertise that they are fat free but they may contain large amounts of sugar, for example, gum sweets.

• Don’t add sugar to your beverages such as tea and coffee. This will also provide empty calories.

Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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