The Word Health organisation recommends that adults consume no more than 10% of their daily calorific intake from sugar, in real terms this is about 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women per day. The recommended intake for children is no more than 5 tsp. However we are eating closer to 30 tsps per day or nearly a full kilo bag every week.
How on earth are we doing this?
Imagine this is your “fairly healthy” looking day.
Breakfast: small bowl of Just Right, Couple of dollops of fat free yoghurt and a 400ml glass of apple juice = 20 teaspoons
Mid morning: Carmen’s Original Fruit Free Muesli Bar = 2 tsp
Lunch: sandwich with chicken, sweet chilli sauce and salad = 3 tsp
Mid afternoon: can of coke = 11tsp
Dinner: pasta with a brought tomato based sauce = 4 tsp
Even without the coke this person is up to 29 teaspoons in a single day, add the coke in and the total is 40 teaspoons and this doesn’t include any sugar added to coffee or any fruit or obviously sugar treats like sweets or ice-cream. To calculate the sugar in packaged food, simply divide the total sugar per serve by 4 – this will give you the number of teaspoons, if it has more than 2 per serve, think twice.
So easy and so very frightening.
So whats the big deal?
This is the technical stuff (to just find out what to eat skip down a few paragraphs)
Humans are hard wired to seek out sweet foods, they give us an instant burst of energy and make us feel good. So whats the big deal I hear you ask. Basically, table sugar is made up from glucose and fructose molecules. These two molecules processed in totally different ways by our clever bodies; any cell in the body can breakdown glucose for energy, not so fructose which needs to be processed by the liver. If we eat more than our liver can handle, the excess is turned to fat in a process called lipogenesis. These tiny fat droplets can accumulate and lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that was incredibly rare prior to 1980. According the Harvard Medical Journal Excess sugar consumption has also been linked to elevated triglycerides, increased LDL’s (harmful cholesterol), visceral fat (the scary stuff around your organs), increased blood pressure, insulin resistance and increased production of free radicals which can damage cells. None of this sounds fun at all.
Refined sugars are extremely easily to digest and are absorbed straight into our blood stream, causing elevated blood glucose levels. High glucose levels put a massive strain on our body. Sugar speeds up the aging process – more wrinkles, no thanks. Not only this, but excess sugar consumption is contributing to weight gain and tooth decay, compromising immunity and has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer. Did you know that the immune suppression caused by sugar can last up to 4 hours after we have enjoyed a sugary treat? I find it fascinating that sugar has the same biochemical pathways as opioid drugs so when someone says I am addicted to sugar they are telling the truth.
Sorry I got a wee bit technical for a minute, the truth is not a pretty story. In clinical practice I like to ensure that people understand the why and how something is a good or a bad choice, that way you can make informed decisions for yourself rather than blindly following what I say. If you are informed it makes it easier to convince a partner or child that any subsequent changes to their diet are really necessary for the long term health.
Please note that I AM NOT suggesting that you remove all sugars, including fruit from your diet, simply that you be more aware of the choices available to you. I am dead against removing fruit from your diet, 2 pieces a day is fine as part of a balanced diet, remember these are nature’s sweets and provide a whole host of vitamins, antioxidants and fibre, plus fruits tastes pretty good too.
What are the alternatives to white processed sugar?
Rapadura sugar has become mainstream, it’s even sold in supermarkets. Rapadura is basically dehydrated pure sugar cane juice, limited processing means it has many vitamins and minerals intact! A good substitute for white sugar as you can use less.
Coconut sugar is produced from the sap of the coconut palm with minimal processing. The sap is collected and heated to evaporate the water which is then reduced into a granulated form. Coconut sugar is naturally low-GI and while it contains magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron, the quantities are too small to consider it nutrient rich.
Honey is a natural sweetener with powerful medicinal properties. Look for raw honey if possible as it has all its nutrients intact and steer clear of squeeze style honeys as these are often mixed with other sweeteners. Honey is naturally high in Fructose so not an option for people on the FODMAP program.
Maple syrup is basically the sap of maple trees, collect and boiled to extract it’s distinctive flavour. Maple syrup contains fewer calories than honey, with a higher concentration of minerals such as zinc, magnesium and manganese. Make sure you look for 100% maple syrup, not maple-flavoured syrups which are basically just sugar.
Dates pack a real nutritional punch. They are high in both soluble and insoluble fibre, as well as many vitamins and minerals including potassium and magnesium. Dates are used in a lot of raw deserts and bliss/protein balls as they add sweetness and also help to bind the dry ingredients. Please remember though they are very high in fructose and should be eaten very sparingly. A big slice of date based cakes is not a healthy choice for every day.
Brown Rice Syrup is fermented brown rice, cooked until it becomes a syrup which is glucose dominant, so great if you are avoiding fructose. I love this sweetener and use it a lot in baking.
Stevia is made from a plant whose leaves are 300 times sweeter than sugar! It has zero calories and from the research I have read it does not appear to impact blood glucose levels like other sweeteners. However in my opinion it has a weird chemical aftertaste. There are lots of white powdered stevia’s around out there and strange clear liquids, which freak me out a little as they are clearly very processed. Stick to using the powdered leaf if you can. Remember this is a sweetener where less is more, use very sparingly. Remember folks, just because Coke and now Pepsi are using stevia in their drinks, these are not even close to a healthy choice with a single 600ml bottle can containing 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Agave seems to be a healthy sweetener, but is in fact 70 – 90% fructose so will send your blood sugars through the roof. I avoid any product that contains agave.
Where do artificial sweeteners fit in?
I am not a fan at all. Recent studies has linked the consumption of artificial sweeteners with increased total calorie intake and obesity. Basically our tongue tastes something sweet so our body gets ready for the sugar, when this never arrives our body simply craves more sweetness and we consume far more than we would have. In rat studies, rats fed diets with artificial sweeteners ate more calories in a day then those fed meals with sugar.
My concern is that scientific evidence on the safety of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive. Much of the research into artificial sweeteners has been conducted, or paid for, by the companies that produce them so in my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Take home message
Read labels, if there is more then 10gm of sugar per serve, think twice.
Switch from processed white sugar to a healthier alternative.
Just being aware of the hidden sugars will help you make healthier choices.