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Sweet Poison!

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THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT SUGAR With a slew of bad press and negative opinion, sugar is having a hard time of it late – and that’s just as it should be. Samantha Wong reports

PHOTOS COURTESY OF Pexels

Sugar has a bittersweet reputation when it comes to health. Its ok to eat whole foods that contain natural sugar (carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains and dairy) because your body digests these foods slowly and the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. However, problems occur when we consume too much added sugar – the sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavour or extend shelf life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for daily added sugar intake recommend no more than 5% of calories, that’s 25 grams or 6 teaspoons for adults. And note that the demonisation of sugar isn’t focused solely on the sugars added to processed food and sugary drinks, like glucose, fructose and sucrose, it also includes natural sugars, like those found in honey and freshly squeezed fruit juice.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

A growing number of us are already opting to cut sugar out of our diets. However, many of us still don’t realise just how easy it is to consume more than the 6 teaspoonfuls recommended. Let’s take a typical afternoon-slump snack of iced coffee (Frappuccino) and a muffin from Starbucks.

According to HK’s Centre for Food Safety’s (CFS) committee, this amounts to about 49 grams of sugar (12 teaspoons) – 28 grams for the iced coffee and 21 grams for the muffin. Of course, this assumes that the coffee comes with sugar, which it does at Starbucks. And what about that gin and tonic after work? That’s 8 teaspoons of sugar per standard drink, right there.

You may also be surprised by the high sugar content of many breakfast cereals. In leading brands of fruit, nut and seed muesli, marketed as ‘healthy,’ sugar content ranges from 23 to 25 grams per 100 grams. Assuming a serving size of at least 50 grams for an adult, this is already 3 teaspoons of added sugar, or half the recommended daily allowance. Fruit yogurts are also serious offenders, often containing around 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams. With a typical serving size of 125 grams, this amounts to 4.5 teaspoons of sugar.

sugar chart feb 2022

THE HEALTH LINK
No doubt the WHO recommendations are wholly positive. Our bodies simply don’t have the physiological need for all the added sugars that have found their way into our diet. The science which links sugar to poor dental health, being overweight or obese, liver disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions must not be ignored.

Research is showing consistent relationships between fructose (in particular) and chronic conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and other forms of metabolic syndrome. Scientists claim that high consumption of fructose may contribute to insulin resistance and other complications, including liver damage.

The WHO guidelines are also supported by evidence linking sugary food and drink to higher levels of tooth decay. Dental professionals welcome the guidelines but suggest we also reduce the frequency of our sugar intake. Sugar reacts with the bacteria in plaque and produces harmful acids for up to one hour after eating and drinking. So, it’s important to limit sugary food or drink to mealtimes.

INDUSTRY IN DENIAL

The WHO guidelines centre on the sugars that are added by manufacturers – the ones many argue are hidden from plain view. What we put on our plate is heavily influenced by the food industry giants and clever marketing.
It is this industry that argues that the science is wrong and if sugar is consumed as part of a balanced diet, it is not harmful. Yet sugar is an essential component of processed foods, making them more palatable and acting as a preservative. It is therefore easy to deduce that the added sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup (or one of 57 other aliases), in processed food isn’t required for a balanced diet and results in the consumption of calories with no nutritional value, while creating health risks.

TIPS ON CUTTING BACK
Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists to understand the extent of your sugar intake. There are plenty of apps that convert this information into meaningful data but the simple method is to divide grams by 4 to give you teaspoons of sugar. Avoid products where sugar content is shown as double digits, and watch out for ‘hidden’ sugars like corn syrup.

Eat whole fruit rather than dried fruit. The fibre helps with the absorption of the fructose, making it a better option. Drink even freshly squeezed fruit juice infrequently, and swap sugary drinks for fizzy water. Avoid pre-packaged processed foods.

Use healthy alternatives, like coconut nectar, maple syrup or green stevia powder, sparingly. Raw honey is beneficial since it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels quickly; it may also contain useful antioxidants, amino acids and vitamins.

Reset your taste buds. Our taste for sugar adjusts quickly and after a few weeks even a small amount will add a lot of sweetness, so don’t worry too much about withdrawal symptoms. You’ll soon find that the natural sweetness in fruit and vegetables is heightened and sugary processed foods are almost sickening. Beat sugar cravings with fat and protein. Get detoxing!

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