Sugar is the generic name for sweet, soluble carbohydrates. There are two types of sugar - naturally occurring sugars and added or “table sugars” (sucrose). Added sugars are present in processed or prepared foods and natural sugars are those that occur naturally, such as the sugars present in milk and fruits.
It is these "granulated table sugars" which are the sugars added to food or drinks, we are being advised to cut back on.
Sugar is found in the tissues of most plants and is present in sufficient concentrations for efficient commercial extraction in sugar cane and sugar beet.
Sugar beets are much easier to grow and cheaper to process than sugar cane, which is reflected in the retail price. No wonder, beet sugar is overtaking cane sugar and becoming generally more available now.
With the ease of cheap ready meals and rise of binge drinking culture, we are consuming more sugar than ever. However, the World Health Organization recommends that women should not consume more than 25 grams of added sugar per day and men’s intake should not exceed 36 grams. Children should have less - no more than 19g a day for children aged 4 to 6 years old, and no more than 24g for children aged 7 to 10 years old.
No matter what age you are, you must become aware of the hidden added sugar in every day foods to avoid diseases and maintain a good oral health.
But it's not all bad news - In fact, for people who are very active and working hard, sugar provides a lot of energy to fuel the muscles and keep the brain active. The problem for the majority of us is that many of the processed foods we eat have added sugar which supplies energy in the form of calories, and nothing else. This means we end up consuming much more than we need and our body has to draw on the nutrients from the rest of our diet to process the extra sugar. At the end, this will affect our overall health.
How can sugar impact our overall health
Sugar rots our teeth, makes us moody and irritable, and can even cause malnourishment so it comes as no surprise that more of us are cutting down on sugar consumption.
We could live quite happily without any added sugar as we get natural sugars from many other foods. Some experts believe it's the added sugar rather than the fat in our diets that's contributing to our obesity epidemic.
Although the World Health Organisation recommends a daily intake of 25g (just over six teaspoons) of sugar, in the UK we’re unknowingly consuming more - on average 30 to 40 teaspoons per day. This is having a dramatic effect on our health as well as our waistlines. Sugar-rich foods compromise our ability to digest our food. This means we are missing out on the vital nutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients found in fresh foods - especially fruit and vegetables.
Eating too much sugar has also been linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Which foods contain more sugar?
Many of us are now trying to minimise our sugar intake but it’s easy to underestimate how much we’re actually consuming.
We might be unknowingly consuming foods which contain more sugar than a glazed doughnut, which has 10g. While you may steer clear of fizzy drinks, candies, cookies, syrups and jams, you might not know that foods such as cereals, baked beans and even granola are all packed with sugar.
Even some foods that you wouldn’t consider to be sweet, might have hidden sugars.
Here’s a list of some common foods that might be ruining your efforts to cut down on sugar:
- Breakfast Cereals:
These usually make a quick and easy breakfast. However, some of them, particularly those marketed at children, have lots of added sugar.
- Sauces – BBQ, Ketchup, Pasta Sauce
Sauces can make tasty marinades or dips. However, some of them might have up to 40% of sugar.
- Canned Baked Beans
Baked beans are also surprisingly high in sugar. A cup (254 grams) of regular baked beans contains about 5 teaspoons of sugar.
- Fruit Juice
Despite containing vitamins and minerals, juices come with a large dose of sugar. It takes a lot of fruit to produce a single glass of fruit juice, so you get much more sugar in a glass of juice than you would get by eating the whole fruit.
- Bottled Smoothies
Although these are a trend right now, not all smoothies are healthy. Many commercially produced smoothies come in large sizes and can be sweetened with ingredients like syrup, which increases their sugar content. Some of them may contain over 96 grams, or 24 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving.
- Drink Powders & Soft Drinks (Instant Sweetened Lemon Tea)
Although they are very tasty, these types of drinks might contain up to 95% sugar.
Granola is often marketed as a low-fat healthy food, despite being high in both calories and sugar. The oats in granola have been combined with nuts and honey or other added sweeteners, which increases their amount of sugar and calories.
- Flavored Coffees
These are another popular trend, but these drinks may contain up to 25 teaspoons of sugar.
- Iced Tea
Most commercially prepared iced teas contain around 33 grams of sugar per serving, which is about the same as a can of Coke.
- Protein and Cereal Bars
While there are some healthier protein bars on the market, many contain around 30 grams of added sugar, making them similar to a candy bar.
- Alcoholic drinks
The excessive amount of sugar that is present in alcoholic drinks is often overlooked as it is so easy to have a few too many on a Friday night. However, in just one pint of cider there can be up to 20g of sugar.
Tips to cut down on sugar:
The first thing to know is that we should be wary of 'sugar-free' foods. These often contain synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame which can be really harmful to the body. But there are other small changes everyone can start doing today to cut down on sugar:
- Swap breakfast cereals
Wake up a few minutes earlier and cook a quick healthy breakfast with a high-protein food like eggs. You can also swap the usual breakfast cereals for plain porridge.
- Choose snacks wisely
Healthier snack options are those without added sugar, such as fruit, unsalted nuts, unsalted rice cakes or oatcakes.
- Avoid sugary fizzy drinks
Avoid sugary drinks, such as fizzy drinks, sweetened juices, squashes, and cordials. Instead, try water, lower-fat milk, or soda water with a splash of fruit juice.
- Cut sugar from coffee and tea
Reduce the sugar you add to hot drinks. Do so gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust. Try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to your latte, it helps stabilise blood sugar levels and adds flavour without the sweetness.
- Swap sugary desserts
Biscuits can be swapped for oatcakes, oat biscuits, or unsalted rice cakes, which also provide fibre. Cakes can be swapped for a plain currant bun, fruit scone, or malt loaf.
- Choose alternative sweeteners
While no sweetener is considered healthy, the following sweeteners are healthier alternatives to white sugar and are not genetically modified - Honey (sustainably harvested); Coconut palm sugar (may be listed as coconut sugar); Coconut nectar and Organic stevia.
- Avoid genetically engineered sugars
Avoid any candies, foods and drinks that have been sweetened with corn syrup. Corn is one of the most highly genetically modified foods. Opt for products whose labels specifically call out their sugar ingredients as non-GMO. For example, you might see “non-GMO beet sugar” or “non-GMO molasses. Look for the non-GMO project verified seal and certified organic seal. Organic foods are not genetically modified.
- Swap pasta sauces and ketchup
For a lower-sugar option opt for a homemade vinegar and olive oil dressing. Full fat mayonnaise also tends to contain less sugar than a reduced fat option.
However, if you need to buy pre-made spaghetti sauce, check the label and pick one that either doesn’t have sugar on the ingredients list or where it’s listed very close to the bottom. This indicates that it’s not a major ingredient.
- Look on the label
There are lots of different ways added sugar can be listed on ingredients labels -sucrose; glucose; fructose; maltose; fruit juice; molasses; hydrolysed starch; invert sugar; corn syrup and honey.
- Add spices and superfoods to your diet