Health professionals have long cautioned about the dangers of consuming too much sugar.
Study after study shows that too much of the sweet stuff puts people at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other non-communicable diseases. The latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows a link between a diet high in sugar and common mental health disorders, including depression.
It’s a concern world-wide. The World Health Organization recommends people reduce their daily intake of added sugars (this excludes sugar that is naturally found in fruit, vegetables and milk) to less than 5 percent of their total energy intake. However, people in the U.S. consume triple that amount of sugar and in the U.K., double that.
Andrea Hill, a holistic nutrition educator, says sugar intake is an issue in the Cayman Islands.
“This is certainly a concern for Cayman, considering the rate of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes are high among the population,” she says. “The general diet can also be quite heavy on the starch, which is essentially another form of sugar.”
Why are people consuming so much sugar? “First and foremost, sugar is everywhere,” says Hill. “Unless you completely avoid processed and packaged foods, people are probably eating more sugar than they think.”
Sodas, energy drinks, cakes, candies and sweets are obvious culprits, but many of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains about 1 teaspoon of sugar. Condensed tomato soup is about 11 percent sugar. Other common ‘healthy’ items that can be sugar-laden include breakfast cereals, granola bars, yogurt, packaged breads and smoothies.
“Sugar has infiltrated our food supply. It’s almost unavoidable,” says Hill. “We seem to be getting a steady supply of this addictive substance in the body, and this generally keeps the desire for sugar going.”
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar (that’s 24 grams), and men no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar (36 grams) and children no more than 3 teaspoons (12 grams). An average 12-oz. regular soda has 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar in it.
Hill has advice for those looking to cut back on their sugar intake.
“The first thing people can do is read the ingredients list on any food product – healthy or otherwise,” she says. “Most people don’t realize that sugar is disguised under a variety of different names: glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, to name only a few.”
Cutting back on sugar begins with learning where sugars are hidden in our food supply, she says. “Sadly, sugar is in everything from breads, pasta sauces and salad dressings, to natural peanut butter and “healthy” breakfast cereals. Once you know which foods you eat on a regular basis contain added sugars, it is much easier to work on cutting back.”
She says cutting back on sugar means eating fresh, whole fruit versus drinking fruit juices; choosing an almond/soy/coconut milk that is labeled “unsweetened” versus “original”; swapping out sodas for water, fruit-infused water, club soda or flavored fizzy waters like La Croix and Perrier; weaning down the added sugar in coffee or tea; and comparing food labels on food products such as cereals and granola bars, and choosing those with the lowest amounts of added sugars.
There is misinformation about the sweet stuff as well. “Swapping brown sugar for white sugar isn’t any better,” says Hill. “Brown sugar is pretty much white sugar in disguise; the brown color doesn’t make it any healthier, contrary to what most people believe.”
Another myth is that artificially sweetened foods and beverages help save calories or reduce appetite. “Studies show that “sugar-free” and “diet” foods and beverages can make you feel hungry and eat more,” says Hill. “The best approach is to wean sugar out of the diet.”
She recommends using the least processed forms of sugar, including raw, unpasteurized honey, 100 percent maple syrup and coconut sugar.
“Regardless of the most natural sweeteners available, sugar is still sugar at the end of the day, and it is vital we exercise caution when we use sweeteners,” says Hill.
Gone are the days when you’ll see straight “sugar” listed on nutrition labels. So, what should you look for instead? There are many more names for sugar out there and this handy list by nutritionist Andrea Hill can help you avoid these secret sugar bombs.
Other names for sugar include:
- Anything ending in “-ose” (such as dextrose, sucrose, glucose, sucralose)
- Anything ending in “-ides” (such as glycerides, mono- and di-saccharides)
- Other names include:
- Agave nectar/syrup
- Barley malt/syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Brown sugar (e.g. turbinado, demerara)
- Cane sugar or cane juice (evaporated, dehydrated)
- Coconut sugar, Coconut nectar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn syrup, High fructose corn syrup, Fructose
- Golden syrup (aka Treacle)
- Granulated sugar
- Inverted sugar
- Maple syrup
Does the body need sugar?
Although the body (and brain) rely on sugar (glucose) to generate energy for survival, this doesn’t mean that this sugar needs to come in the form of white sugar, fruit drinks or high fructose corn syrup ingredients. Carbohydrate foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, oats, and brown rice) will satisfy this purpose as carbs are broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body during their digestion.
Having said that, the body also relies on other nutrients: namely fats and protein to function optimally. Fat, for example, becomes an energy source for the body when carbohydrates are not available.
Moreover, the brain is made up of 60 percent fat, so eating healthy fats, such as walnuts, and oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, is key to maintaining function and memory. Protein helps fuel the production of new cells in the body, among other things. Like fat, protein also supplies energy for the body if you are not eating enough carbohydrates.
The bottom line is that there is not one single nutrient more important than the other; all three must be considered for optimal functioning of the body and brain.