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The Facts on Sugar

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The Facts on Sugar

What impact does sugar have on health? There are many types of sugar to choose from, some healthier than others.

A recent study released by Statistics Canada revealed that Canadians consume 51 lb (23.1 kg) of sugar per year. An excess of white sugar consumption has been linked with cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dental decay, and hyperactive behaviour.

From ketchup and soft drinks to baked goods and cereals, white sugar is in a myriad of commonly eaten food products and is one of the great health robbers of our time.

The problem does not lie in eating foods that are naturally sweetened—the real health concern lies with eating too many processed sugary goods. In 2008, for example, the average Canadian drank more than 86 litres of soft drinks!

To determine how much sugar is in a food item, it is important to know that there are 4 g in every teaspoon of refined sugar. Thus, if a product contains 16 g of sugar, that translates into approximately 4 tsp of sugar per serving.

Sugar 101

The following are the most common types of sugar.

Glucose
The simplest form of sugar, glucose is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. The body will break down all forms of carbohydrates into glucose for its primary source of fuel.

A scale that is used to measure the speed of entry of glucose into the bloodstream is called the glycemic index. Foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains tend to have a lower glycemic rating and therefore do not cause weight gain or blood sugar and energy fluctuations.

Foods that are rated high on the glycemic index include soda pop, candy, cookies, cakes, muffins, sweetened cereals, and white processed goods. Glucose is often referred to as dextrose.

Fructose
As the primary sugar found in fruits and vegetables, fructose is absorbed more slowly in the bloodstream than glucose and is a healthier sweetener.

Sucrose
Also known as table sugar, or white sugar, sucrose comprises one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Sucrose is typically made by refining sugar beets or sugar cane.

Lactose
The primary sugar found in milk, lactose comprises one glucose molecule and one galactose molecule. In order to be properly broken down, lactose requires the enzyme lactase. People who are lactose intolerant do not produce enough lactase in their intestine.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
This very popular sweetener is derived from corn and is used in many beverages and processed foods. Although this sweetener helps to extend the shelf life of certain products, research has linked the consumption of HFCS with the surge of type 2 diabetes and obesity in North America.

But don’t despair. There are some healthier natural sweeteners that can be substituted for their less healthy counterparts.

Simple tips to reduce your sugar intake
  • Don’t be fooled by the words brown sugar. Often brown sugar is simply white sugar with a small amount of blackstrap molasses added.
  • Eat the fruit, drink the water. In order to avoid added white sugar, avoid fruit juices and stick to high-fibre fruits such as apples, oranges, and grapefruits. Drink water instead of fruit juice.
  • Become a wise label reader. Sugar likes to hide in many grocery store products by using aliases in the ingredient list such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, and corn syrup. If any of these ingredients are listed in the first three to four words of the list, you can count on a high sugar content.
  • Break sugar cravings. Use natural spices or teas such as cinnamon or vanilla.
  • When baking, use natural sweeteners. You can also use fruits such as mashed bananas, plums, raisins, applesauce, pears, peaches, apricots, or cranberries for a natural burst of sweetness.
  • When choosing a cereal, follow the “5 in 5” rule. Purchase a cereal with a minimum of 5 g of fibre per serving and a maximum of 5 g of sugar per serving.

Sweet Revenge

These sweeteners possess some nutritional value.

Molasses
A byproduct of refining sugar cane or beets into sugar, molasses contains a higher nutritional value than sugar. It contains calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin B6.

Sucanat
The name Sucanat stands for “sugar cane natural,” and it is a product derived from evaporated sugar cane juice. Sucanat contains more vitamins, minerals, and other trace nutrients than white sugar. It is an all-purpose sweetener for baking, cooking, and sweetening hot drinks and should be substituted for white sugar in a 1:1 replacement ratio.

Agave nectar
Derived from the Mexican agave plant, agave nectar is very low on the glycemic index and has almost no impact on blood sugars. This makes it an ideal sweetener for diabetics.

Stevia
Derived from a plant found in Central and South America, stevia is completely natural. With few to no calories, stevia is available in health food stores in liquid or powdered form. Although some find stevia to have a bitter taste, it is widely used to sweeten baked goods, coffee, and tea.

Sugar alcohols
Also called polyols, sugar alcohols such as maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt, and xylitol differ in nature from sugar. They have less impact than sugar because they are not fully absorbed by the body.

The upside of sugar alcohols is that they contain fewer calories than sugar and do not appear to cause tooth decay. The downside is that because they are not completely absorbed by the body, they ferment in the gut and can cause bloating, stomach upset, gas, or diarrhea.

Artificial sweeteners
Sweetener

Commercial name

Uses

Possible side effects

Aspartame

NutraSweet, Equaltabletop sweetener (Equal); added to cereals, yogourt, soft drinks, candy, dessertsheadaches, depression, abdominal pain
CyclamateSugar Twin, Sweet’N Lowtabletop sweetener; heat stable so it can be used in baked goods1960s research suggested it may speed the formation and progression of cancer tumours; some research suggests it may damage male reproductive DNA; further research is required
SucraloseSplendatabletop sweetener; added to cold and hot drinks, baked goods, frozen goodscontains chlorine; requires long-term studies on humans to determine its safety
Acesulfame potassium (Ace K)Sunettadded to beverages, fruit spreads, baked goods, hard candies, chewing gumthe newest artificial sweetener; long-term studies on humans are lacking

What’s so bad about a little sugar?

Research studies have demonstrated the ill effect of white sugar on health and wellness. An excess of white sugar consumption has been linked with diseases ranging from type 2 diabetes to tooth decay.

The original study that examined the association between sugar and immune system suppression was conducted in the 1970s. Researchers demonstrated that the consumption of 100 g of glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, or orange juice significantly decreased white blood cells’ ability to engulf harmful bacteria.

In other words, the body’s white blood cell count dropped after eating refined sugars, thereby hampering its ability to fight off infection. There was no change in immune system function after the ingestion of starch.

While current research has not been done specifically on the impact of sugar on immune system function, obesity has been shown to lower immune system response. For overall health and wellness, it’s best to decrease the amount of white, processed sugar in your diet. You can reduce your sugar intake dramatically and improve your health simply by eliminating sugary pops, juices, and baked goods; eating naturally sweet fruit; and reading labels. By doing so, you will quickly notice your cravings disappear, and your energy and overall well-being will improve.

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