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Human Nutrition & Dietetics Expert Tells Us The Truth About Sugar


Human Nutrition & Dietetics Expert Tells Us The Truth About Sugar

In the last year the media has been filled with warnings about sugars and the impact it has on our health. Awareness has been raised about the amount of sugar hidden in manufactured foods and sugary drinks have been targeted in a bid to reduce rising levels of diabetes and obesity. There is no avoiding the alarm bells sugar has been ringing in the world of nutrition.

Since the sugar hype started we have seen a raft of health gurus, celebrities and wellness warriors advocating free from sugar diets, launching cookbooks and exploring table sugar (sucrose) alternatives from natural sources such as coconut palm sugar and a variety of syrups.

So is sugar really the root of obesity and ill health, and should we be cutting it out, replacing it with a substitute or should we just be cutting down?

Why have sugars suddenly become such a big problem?


Refined sugar has been consumed for years. And it’s never been a secret that we should be limiting our sugar intake. So why is there so much focus on reducing sugar in the diet now?

Rates of obesity have been rising in both adults and children leading to an increased strain on the health service and many people are experiencing health complications associated with obesity earlier in life.

In the past dietary guidance was focused mainly around dietary fat consumption, and the aim was to reduce fat intake. This then lead to a rise in low fat or reduced fat manufactured products. For many of these products the fat content was reduced but sugars were added in its place to maintain the taste. This combined with our tendency to enjoy sweet foods resulted in sugars flooding the manufacturing market. Now we find high levels of sugar in a number of foods that we wouldn’t normally associate as sweet foods such as cereal, yoghurt, cooking sauces, condiment sauces and dressings.

Couple that with the lure of bigger portions, the wide-spread availability of cheap and generally, nutritionally poor quality food and regular price promotions on junk food, consumers are buying and consuming high sugar foods more frequently.

A recent study by mysupermarket.com showed that of the total number of price promotions carried out in store,53% included foods high in sugar, fat, or salt.

So what is sugar?

Sugar is one of three main sub groups that make up the classification of carbohydrates. The molecular structure is mono or disaccharides but you may be more familiar with the names glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose and maltose.

The brain, central nervous system and red blood cells have an obligatory requirement for glucose as an energy source. So we do need this in our diet. However the important part we need to consider is where we get the sugars from and how much we take.

So we know excessive sugar consumption is being linked to higher energy intakes contributing to obesity in both adults and children. We also know that we need some glucose for basic bodily function. So where should our sugars come from and what exactly are ‘free sugars’.

What’s the difference between intrinsic sugars and free sugars?


Free sugars are sugars added to foods either by the manufacturer, the cook or by you. This also includes some sugars that are present naturally in honey, syrup, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrate. These are the sugars that should be limited in the diet.

You can identify free sugars generally by looking at the ingredients list. If the list contains any of the following names then these are sugars that have been added and would be classified as free sugars. Although the nutritional profile may be slightly different and some may contain additional nutrients they are minimal and these products should be used sparingly because regardless of the name, in concentrated forms like this, sugar is sugar.

  • Sugar (table sugar)
  • Molasses or treacle
  • Golden syrup
  • Coconut blossom syrup
  • Coconut sugar
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Unsweetened fruit juice
  • Agave Syrup
  • Rice malt syrup

However sugars can occur naturally inside the cells of food and these are called ‘intrinsic’ sugars. Examples of these are lactose in milk or milk based products and fructose within whole fruit and vegetables. These sugars do not countas free sugars. They are also generally healthy choices because they provide additional vitamins, minerals or fibre when consumed. Fruit is low calorie, generally high in soluble fiber, water and takes a while to digest, meaning a slower sugar uptake.

How much free sugar should we be having?


The new dietary recommendations from Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) in 2015 reduced the recommended ‘free sugar’ consumption to 5% of our total energy intake or 30g per day for the average person over 11 years old. This looks like 7 teaspoons (4g each)

So let’s make this relative to some daily dietary choices…

The average 330ml can of full sugar fizzy juice such a cola contains 30-35g of sugar

A standard 40-50g bar of chocolate can contain 25g -30g of sugar

A sweetened breakfast cereal such as honey coated, frosted or chocolate flavoured can contain upwards of 11g in a standard serving portion.

So it’s easy to exceed your recommended intake of free sugars, especially with sugar sweetened beverages which can cover your full amount.

And the recommendations for children are even less:

19g of free sugar for 4-6 year olds

24g of free sugar for 7-10 year olds

Making it easier to exceed their intake and more than likely contributing to nearly a fifth of children who are already obese by the time they leave primary school.

So what should we be doing?

Sugar in its many forms is safe. The problem arises with sugar when consumption is too high. Following the new fad of sugar-free living is not necessary to achieve a wholesome and nutritious diet or good health. Aim to keep your intake from free sugars low. If you have sugar-sweetened drinks daily, aim to stop this and swap for a sugar-free alternative or water.

Although there is no doubt that in modern society the abundance of high sugar food plays a role in the increasing energy levels contributing to obesity. It is fair to say that sugar its self is not the driving force. Obesity is complex and multi-factorial and it is important that people understand that no one nutrient holds the key to health, instead the emphasis should be placed on understanding how to eat balanced meals and make healthy choices.

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