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  • Writer's pictureAnita Hollerer-Squire

Sugar - not so sweet

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

The World Health Organization recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5 percent or roughly 25 grams per day would provide additional health benefits - this is according to the guidelines WHO issued in March 2015.

10 percent - really?? Who are they kidding? That would mean the average person eating about 2,000 calories a day, could have 200 calories from sugar (that's about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons!). This is way too much. Even the American Heart Association recommends less than that - 6 teaspoons a day for women, 9 teaspoons for men and 4 teaspoons for kids.

Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

The WHO guideline does not refer to the sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables, and sugars naturally present in milk, because there is no reported evidence of a​dverse effects of consuming these sugars.

How did we end up here?

Things began to change in the 1960s. Following two world wars, rationing and measured consumption became a problem of the past. As concerns arose around the increase in heart diseases and other chronic problems in the 1970s, with limited scientific proof, the blame was put down to fat. To keep food tasting good, fat calories were replaced with sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – a cheap commodity back then. Today, added sugar can be found in almost everything edible: we feed it to children, it laces our breakfast cereals and it is a key ingredient of our soft drinks. As consumption has risen over the years, so has the prevalence of type II diabetes and obesity. Nowadays, 4.8 million people die of type II diabetes every year and close to 20 percent of the global population is obese.

Where are we today in sugar intake?

Today, the world daily average consumption of added sugar per person is 17 teaspoons, up 45 percent compared to 30 years ago. Although genetic variations allow some people to tolerate more sugar than others, and may explain the difference in the prevalence of type II diabetes across countries and races, a scientific statement issued by the American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day; men no more than nine teaspoons a day and children no more than four teaspoons a day. Although consumption varies considerably from country to country, current intake of added sugars is well above these recommended levels in most developed and developing countries.

Most of us don’t know that a serving of tomato sauce has as much sugar as an Oreo cookie, or that fruit yogurt has as much sugar as ice cream, or that most breakfast cereals are loaded with sugar - that’s not breakfast, it’s dessert!

The Credit Suisse Research Institute's 2013 study "Sugar: Consumption at a crossroads" found that close to 90 percent of general practitioners in the US, Europe and Asia believe that the sharp growth in type II diabetes and the current obesity epidemic are strongly linked to excess sugar consumption.

How does sugar affect us?

Before sugar enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract, it is broken down into two simple sugars....glucose and fructose.

Glucose is the energy of life. If we don't get it from the diet, our bodies produce it.

Fructose is different. Our bodies do not produce it in any significant amount and there is no physiological need for it. It can only be metabolized by the liver in any significant amounts. This is not a problem if we eat a little bit (such as from fruit) or we just completed a marathon. In this case, the fructose will be turned into glycogen and stored in the liver until we need it. However, if the liver is full of glycogen (which is the case for the majority of people), eating a lot of fructose overloads the liver, forcing it to turn the fructose into fat. Keep in mind that all of this does not apply to fruit!

Sugar in drinks

Many people don't realize just how much sugar is in drinks. Recent studies, including the Credit Suisse Research Institute's analysis, show that type II diabetes and obesity are highly correlated with full-calorie soft drinks. Credit Suisse estimates that 43 percent of added sugars in our diets come from sweetened beverages – easy to comprehend given that one can of soft drink averages eight teaspoons of sugar.

Are diet drinks better for you?

Diet soda is calorie-free, but it won't necessarily help you lose weight. Researchers from the University of Texas found that over the course of about a decade, diet soda drinkers had a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference compared with non-drinkers. And get this: participants who slurped down two or more sodas a day experienced a 500 percent greater increase.

Put simply, diet sodas are a calorie-free version of regular soda, which we will define as carbonated water, flavoring, and sweetener. While regular soda - like Coke, Sprite etc. - are usually sweetened with corn syrup or sugar, diet sodas use a variety of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. Artificial sweeteners have more intense flavor than real sugar, so over time products like diet soda dull our senses to naturally sweet foods like fruit. These sugar replacements have been shown to have the same effect on your body as sugar. Artificial sweeteners trigger insulin, which sends your body into fat storage mode and leads to weight gain.

Drinking one diet soda a day is associated with a 36 percent increased risk of high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and higher risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

So - no, diet drinks are not better for you.

What can we do to lower our sugar consumption?

Becoming aware of how much sugar is hidden in most packaged food and educating yourself is the first step in creating a healthier lifestyle for you.

Learn to read labels - the food industry has become very effective in trying to hide ingredients with names that most of us consumers don't even know.

Tips on avoiding added sugar:

  • Eliminate all sodas, fruit juices, milk shakes, frappuccinos and any other sugary drinks

  • Stay away from high-fructose corn syrup

  • Avoid refined sugar (white, brown, confectioners ....)

  • Don't buy processed food

  • Do your own cooking/baking

  • Know what's in the food you eat!

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