Sugar seems to be constantly in the news, leading most of us to assume that the UK’s sweet tooth is the main cause of obesity. Is this really the case and do we all need to drastically curb our sugar habit and live sugar-free? It seems that many celebrities and influencers have jumped on a “no sugar” bandwagon. But is it even possible to completely eliminate sugar from a diet?
‘Sugar’ is a simple carbohydrate which means it doesn’t need much digestion and is easily absorbed into the bloodstream. ‘Sugar’, relates to mono and disaccharides which include:
- sucrose (white table sugar)
- fructose (fruit sugar)
- lactose (the sugar in milk and dairy foods)
These sugars are found naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, as well as being used to make food and drink products.
In food labelling, ‘sugar’ specifically refers to sucrose, or ordinary white table sugar.
Interestingly, sugar isn’t just about adding sweetness. Sugars act as a preservative (that’s why jam and chutney last so long), they deliver a particular texture (e.g. in cakes, chocolate, ice-cream or biscuits) and add colour (as in browning of caramel). We are genetically programmed to like sweet flavours, which is why we are drawn to sugary foods from birth.
Is sugar bad for us?
A teaspoon of sugar provides around 20 calories, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a lot. However, it can easily add up; 5 cups of tea a day with 2 sugars provides an extra 200 kcal per day for example. In terms of weight, if you were already meeting your energy requirements then the extra calories from the sugar could equate to a 20lb (~1.5 stone) weight gain in a year.
As well as risk of weight gain, we have known for a long time that a diet high in sugar increases the risk of tooth decay. The science also shows that a high consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks causes type 2 diabetes.
What’s interesting is that the link between sugar consumption and obesity or conditions such as heart disease has actually been harder to prove. The reason for this is that sugar is so widely eaten. Diseases are not caused by one food or nutrient in isolation but rather a range of genetic lifestyle factors.
How much sugar is too much?
In 2015, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition published new guidance to recommend that we actually need to reduce our sugar intake to 5%.
Guidelines are as follows:
- Children aged 4 – 6: Less than 19g of sugar a day (5 sugar cubes)
- Children aged 6 - 11: Less than 24g of sugar a day ( 6 sugars cubes)
- Children over 11 and adults: Less than 30g of sugar a day (7 sugar cubes)
Are all sugars equal?
All sugars, whether natural or added, provide 4 calories per gram, which equates to around 20 calories per teaspoon.
However, different sugars are metabolised differently. How they affect your teeth also differs. Most experts believe that certain sugars are more harmful than others, but further research is needed to fully understand this.
Glucose is a form of simple sugar that is part of a normal diet. We are designed to process it as long as it arrives slowly in the diet. However the problem with the Western diet is that we eat too much of it and as our bodies aren’t designed to process this excessive amount. As such, our bodies begin to take the strain and breakdown.
Most experts agree that added sugars as well as those sugars found in honey, syrups or juices are more harmful to teeth than those naturally present in whole fruits or dairy foods. They called these types of ‘harmful’ sugars “free sugars” and these are the sugars that we should try and limit. The sugar found in dairy and fruit, as it is intrinsically still bonded to other cells, is thought to be better for you.
Research has also found that too much fructose is not good for you. Now this doesn’t refer to the fructose in fruit (remember your body can process small amount of fructose found in fruit), but more to high corn fructose syrups added by the food industry. Fructose is 20% sweeter than glucose and half the price. So the food industry has aggressively sweetened all kinds of processed foods since the 1970’s using either beet sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Fructose is metabolised like alcohol and similarly the by-product of detoxification includes fat that can lead to liver disease and enhance the development of insulin resistance. An insensitivity to insulin is directly linked to Western lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, cancer, dementia and gout.
Sugar-Free Living: Is it feasible?
Cutting all sugar from your diet would be very difficult to achieve. For example, all of these popular staples all contain sugar in varying amounts:
- Dairy products and dairy replacements
Therefore to go completely sugar free, you would need to completely cut these foods out of your diet as well. This would leave you with little other than meat and fats to eat. This is definitely not the balanced and diverse diet that one should be following for optimum health.
For me, it’s actually not about going sugar-free, but more about learning how to eat sugar in line with the guidelines and avoiding sugar alternatives that you may think are healthier but aren’t really. It’s not uncommon to find people on a ‘sugar’ free diet who are still consuming copious amounts of other sugar substances such as honey, maple syrup, or agave.
The lowdown on sugar alternatives
Honey definitely has a reputation of being healthier, due to its anti-inflammatory flavonoids. However, as we tend to consume honey in small amounts the amounts of flavonoids and minerals you will be getting will be minimal. Honey is actually sweeter than sugar, so it may mean that you end up using less to get the same sweetness. If this helps to reduce your sugar intake slowly, then this might be reason to use honey over table sugar but it’s not necessarily healthier.
Although derived from the agave plant the syrup (made at a high heat with many enzymes) contains very few of the beneficial plant compounds. The syrup is low in glucose as it contains fructose – so this does means it doesn’t spike your blood levels as much. However, remember that cell in the body can metabolise glucose, whereas not every cell in the body can metabolise fructose. Too much agave can put a strain on the liver where it is processed.
Extracted from the stevia plant, stevia is 30 times sweeter than sugar in its whole leaf form. Stevia comes calorie free which means it also has no effect on blood sugar levels. However, be aware that very often with a sweet tooth the intake of sweetened drinks (with sugar and artificial sweeteners) causes the down regulation of the perception of sweetness. So, it’s important to keep your sweetener intake in check rather than find a replacement.
- Rippe et al. 2014. Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: Current understanding. Nutrients.
- Rippe et al 2014. Sugar and Health Controversies; What does the Science say? Advances in Nutrition
- Morenga et al. 2013. Dietary sugars and body weight; systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trails and cohort studies. BMJ. 346.
- SACN. Carbohydrates and Health Report, 2015
- British Dietetic Association Sugar Factsheet