Sugar bitter-sweet sugar
It is common to have friends talking about foods with me and willing to pick my brain about nutrition. Yes, they want to learn the facts and learn about the best practices and the current scientific evidence so they can make sense of claims made by so many products, fad diets and the superfood of the day.
A few weeks ago, after reading a brief article on a health newsletter, one of my friends sent me a message inquiring: “Honey – is it bad? and what is all this fuss about sugar?”. I had to give him some extra information about sugars so he could make sense of the current sugar debate and why this is an important issue. This was my answer, i.e. my longer answer via a blog post:
Sugars are substances that occur naturally in many foods (fruits, vegetables, milk, grains). Sugars can also be removed from their original sources, transformed into free sugars, which can be added to other foods to promote sweetness or to preserve them.
Foods containing natural sugars such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy provide carbohydrates and also other important nutrients like protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fibers and proteins offer extra benefits to us as they take longer to be digested and absorbed, provide greater satiety, and promote a steady release of sugar in the blood. In addition, many of these foods also have powerful phytochemicals (more on this topic on another post).
Answering your question, sugars like honey, maple syrup and raw sugar may be considered more ‘natural’, but they are not necessarily healthier than other types of added sugar and are equally caloric gram per gram. When I consume added sugars, I do prefer these more natural sources of sugars as they have some minerals not present in refined white sugar.
The problem is that added sugars (or free sugars) are digested and absorbed very fast and can lead to a myriad of healthy problems if consumed in excess (dental cavities, diabetes, obesity, high triglycerides, heart problems, high blood pressure and some cancers among others). Hidden sources of added sugars are present in many processed foods such as breakfast cereals, condiments, sauces, salad dressings, frozen meals, ketchup, cereal bars, flavored yogurt, baked goods, candies, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sport drinks, energy drinks, coffee drinks, ice cream and so many other foods. Compared with whole foods containing natural sugars, most highly processed foods are often less nutritious or are not nutritious at all, providing only calories and often in excess.
One of the big challenges surrounding the sugar debate is that the Nutrition Facts labels (located at the back of processed and prepackaged foods) do not differentiate whether the sugars are coming from natural or from added sources. So, in order to make healthier choices, we need to check the ingredients’ list when buying these foods. If any of the sugars listed below are among the first cited ingredients, this is a good indication where the majority of the sugar in those food are coming from.
Names used to indicate added sugars included on prepackaged food labels (this is only a subset, there are about 50+ ways of saying sugar on a food label):
agave brown sugar cane juice corn syrup demerara dextrose or dextrin fructose (fruit sugar) fruit juice or concentrate galactose glucose glucose-fructose high fructose corn syrup honey icing sugar invert sugar liquid sugar maltodextrin maltose malt syrup maple syrup molasses nectar raw sugar sucrose treacle white sugar turbinado sugar
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been encouraging a reduction of free sugars to below 5% (about 6 teaspoons) of total energy intake per day, and this is my preferred recommendation when I think about sugar. Current nutrition recommendations in Canada encourage to limit the intake of added sugars to below 10% of total energy intake (the double of the recommendation of the WHO!!!). For instance, if a person consumes an average of 2,000 calories a day, this would translate to a maximum of 200 calories from added sugars a day (approximately 12 teaspoons). This sugar allowance is almost used up by many individuals as they consume a single can of soda (~10 teaspoons of added sugar!!!). For every 1 tablespoon of ketchup we consume, there is 1 teaspoon of added sugar (4 grams of sugar and about 16 calories), and a can of tomato soup can have more than seven teaspoons. There are so many hidden sources of added sugar in highly processed foods. If we choose to consume mostly these foods the amount of sugar can skyrocket well above the recommendations.
Even though a recent proposal to declare the amount of added sugars in the Nutrition Facts table was popular among Canadian consumers and various health stakeholders (health professionals, non-government organizations s and provincial and territorial governments) the food industry won the battle again.
Changes in the Nutrition Facts label in Canada will display the percent daily value (% DV) for sugars of a given food, and a footnote at the bottom of the table that lets Canadians know that: 5% DV or less is a little and 15% DV or more is a lot. In addition, all ingredients that are sugar-based will be grouped into parentheses after the common name “sugars” (previously this information was scattered throughout the food’s ingredients on the label). The food industry has until 2021 to make these changes and other proposed changes, note that I am only touching on the issue of sugars. Unfortunately consumers will not know how much unnecessary added sugar they are eating as this information will not be clearly discriminated on the Nutrition Facts label. Such information could empower us all to make informed choices that in turn could greatly benefit our health.
To conclude, it is not a matter of being bad or good. Moderation is key as everything in life. While avoiding free sugars would be ideal, if you cannot resist it (and sometimes I need some added sugar too) just use our best judgement, try not to overdo and enjoy it!
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– Added Sugars; Healthy Eating Tips (Dietitians of Canada)
– Proposed food label changes to sugars information (Health Canada)
– Sugar’s on the food label, but you’ll have to guess how much has been ‘added’ (CBC News, Health)
– Sugars Position Statement (Canadian Diabetes Association)
– The Secrets of Sugar (The Fifty Estate, CBC News)