Sugar - Grain of Truth

Sugar consumption in Britain has increased by more than 30% during the last twenty years. On average, we each consume an almighty 30 teaspoons of sugar every day! Yet nowadays less sugar is being purchased, and fewer of us are actually adding sugar to our tea, coffee or cereals. So how is it that we are still consuming more sugar?

Well, as a nation we are eating more pre-prepared or processed foods which have copious amounts of added sugars. Sugar can be present in many processed savoury foods, and in surprisingly large quantities. For instance, a supermarket prepared lasagne has approximately 3½ teaspoons of sugar per portion, a tin of baked beans has around 1½ teaspoons of sugar, and a shop-bought stir-fry sauce can have as much as 6 teaspoons of sugar!

And, overall, the amount of sugar added to so-called 'healthy' foods has doubled in 30 years. Breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and soups are among those foods which are significantly sweeter. And while the Government and health watchdogs have focused on encouraging people and food companies to cut down on the amount of salt we consume, sugar levels have gone up almost unchecked by comparison. In 1978, for example, Kellogg's Special K had 9.6g of sugar per 100g. That figure has since doubled to 17g per 100g.

The most worrying factor is the proportion of 'hidden sugar' that has increased dramatically. Sugars provide calories and no other nutrients, and should be no more than 10% of our total daily calorie intake. Too much sugar in the diet can lead to high cholesterol, diabetes, tooth decay, and of course, obesity.

Sugar, or glucose, is a carbohydrate which is our greatest dietary source of energy. Refined or processed sugar, however, is high in calories but contains no fibre to make you feel full, so it is very easy to take in more calories than you need. Any surplus sugar from our diet is stored in the muscles or liver as glycogen, or converted into body fat. The major source of sugar in our daily diet comes from the refined sugar added to food and drink during processing. Food manufacturers use sugar not only to make food taste more palatable, but also to add cost-effective bulk and prolong its shelf life.

Sugar is divided into two categories. Intrinsic sugar (naturally occurring sugar) is part of the cellular structure of plants, found in food such as fresh and dried fruit and vegetables. These fruits and veg make up an important and necessary part of a healthy diet, and the sugar in them is slowly absorbed in the body, partly because of their soluble content. Extrinsic sugar (refined sugar or sucrose) is extracted from sugar cane, sugar beet or honey and commonly added to manufactured foods like cakes, biscuits, desserts, confectionary, preserves, soft drinks and alcohol.

Other types and sources of sugar include maltose which comes from barley; lactose, which is found in milk and is the first carbohydrate we encounter from breast milk as infants; and fructose, found in fruit and honey.

Sugary, refined foods, such as sweets, chocolate, cakes, cereals, etc, are high on the Glycaemic Index. GI is the measure of how much a particular food affects blood sugar levels by how quickly it is absorbed into the blood, causing the blood sugar level to rise quickly. This will give the body a high energy fix and then release insulin as a reaction to curb the excess energy. The blood sugar level then drops to a low again and the uneven cycle begins. This common occurrence can lead to sugar cravings, and then feelings of tiredness.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the amount of fat calories that are probably being consumed at the same time. Ideally, we need to eat more complex carbohydrates (natural foods such as fresh fruit, whole grains and nuts), little and often, to maintain a steady glucose (energy) level throughout the day.

Sugar Substitutes
Some sugar substitutes such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and hydrogenated glucose syrup contain almost the same amount of calories as sugar and so are not helpful for weight loss. Others, however, including acesulfame K, aspartame and saccharin, contain virtually no calories. These artificial sweeteners can be useful for reducing sugar consumption in the diet over a period of time, but for the long term it is better to wean yourself off the taste of sugar and sweet flavours.

Recent research shows that artificial sweeteners can disrupt appetite responses, making us crave more calories than we need. When we taste something sweet our metabolisms expect a calorie-dense meal (in nature, sweet foods are usually high calorie). If the sweet food is calorie-free, our bodies get confused and we eat more to compensate for ‘missing’ calories.

Food Labels
Sugar, in its various guises, can show up on food labels in many forms, so be aware! Here are some of the 'disguises' of sugar to watch out for: honey, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, sorbitol, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, lactose, polydextrose, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, maltodextrin and turbinado sugar.

So remember that the more sugary foods and snacks you eat, the more your body wants, because it wants to maintain the ‘high’. Aim to eat more natural, unprocessed foods instead, which are healthier and gives your body a slow energy release for longer – especially useful for those longer workdays or work-outs.