Sugar has slid from its status as mere dietary demon to a major contributor to what ails our society — that’s according to a commentary in the journal, Nature. In the article, titled Public health: The toxic truth about sugar, scientists from University of California San Francisco try to make the case for regulating the use of added sugars in much the same way as alcohol and tobacco are controlled. They believe that added sugars are responsible for many of the chronic diseases in Western countries.
While it’s true that as a society we definitely have a collective sweet tooth, the authors may have gone a little overboard. There’s no doubt that our sugar consumption exceeds healthy limits. Excess sugar, in particular the refined or added type, contributes to our increasing obesity rates and may play a role in the development of a variety of diseases including heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes. However, sugar is just one of the culprits.
According to a Statistics Canada report, one in every five calories that Canadians consume comes from sugar. On average, we take in a whopping 110 grams or 26 teaspoons of sugar each day. Before your jaw drops in shock, consider that these figures include both naturally occurring sugars and those added to foods.
The naturally occurring ones come from nutrition-packed options such as fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt. The sugar in these foods is accompanied by a host of nutrients. Fibre, vitamin C, potassium and disease-fighting colourful pigments such as beta carotene may partner with the sugar in fruits and vegetables while calcium, magnesium and B vitamins are just a few of dairy’s accompaniments.
But when you look at the nutrition facts box on a package of food, you can’t tell how much of the sugar is added and how much is naturally contained. Flavoured yogurts and cereals are a perfect example. There have been calls for Health Canada to change nutrition labels so we can determine how much added sugar is inside packaged food.
A change in labelling could certainly make the task of slashing sugar counts easier.
On food packages, ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means that the first ingredient is the one that weighs the most. You might be fooled, though, if sugar seems to be way down the list. Food companies can put in an assortment of sugars — corn sugar (previously called high fructose corn syrup), brown sugar and molasses, for example, along with a variety of simple sugars and list each separately. You can spot simple sugars because they end in ‘ose’. Add them all together and likely, they would be the number one ingredient.
A simple way to reduce sugar totals is to get rid of sweetened beverages, including soft drinks, fruit drinks and most fruit juices. While they may quench thirst, they don’t satisfy hunger which may be a contributing factor to unwanted weight gain. Having fruit instead of fruit juice, on the other hand, is more filling because of the fibre. Milk contains protein which helps make it a beverage that satisfies both thirst and hunger.
It can certainly have an impact on behaviour. But not in the way many parents think. Having sugar or other quickly digested carbohydrates on their own can result in a quick rise and then a sudden drop in blood sugar readings to sometimes lower levels than before the sugar was consumed. In youngsters (and some adults, too), low blood sugar levels are often accompanied by exaggerated stress hormone (adrenaline) readings. The result can be hyperactivity, irritability or aggression.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods (Viking Canada). Originally published in June 2012.