Sugar is a dirty word these days. However, did you know that sugar, in the form of glucose, is the body’s preferred fuel source? In fact, our brains are heavily reliant on the sweet stuff. This does not mean that you have a free license to gorge on lollies, soft drink, chocolate, pastries or cakes. But there is no need to quit sugar altogether or to severely restrict your intake. The key is to get the balance right. Too much sugar in one’s diet can cause obesity and tooth decay. The World Health Organisation has just updated its guidelines on sugar consumption – it advises that we consume less than 5 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That excludes the natural sugars found in dairy products and fruit – both staple food groups in our diet. Here’s a guide to sugar in many of its forms.
A.k.a. table sugar, sucrose is a disaccharide (double sugar) comprised of both glucose and fructose. It’s sucrose that you add to your tea, coffee and cake mixture. Soft drinks, breakfast cereals and fruit drinks are high in this type of sugar. Cutting back on sucrose will do wonders for your waistline and your pearly whites.
Glucose is a single monosaccharide (single sugar) and our body’s preferred fuel source. It is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream – its glycaemic index (GI) value is 100. Glucose is naturally found in some fruits and it is added to confectionary and sports drinks. There is no evidence to show that the ingestion of too much glucose, or even sucrose, can cause Diabetes (either Type 1 or Type 2). However, a risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes is being overweight. Too much sugar of any type in one’s diet can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Fructose is much maligned these days. Some people blame fructose for the high rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes afflicting our nation. However, this is not the case. Contrary to popular belief, not all fructose is converted to fat by the liver. The majority of fructose is converted to glucose, which is then taken up by the muscular system and the brain, where it is used as an energy source. Fructose is naturally found in honey, apples, pears, watermelon, asparagus, garlic and onions. Fructose has a low GI value, so it is a long-lasting source of energy.
Lactose is a disaccharide naturally found in dairy products e.g. yoghurt, milk, ice cream and custard. Lactose is comprised of glucose and galactose. It has a low GI value so dairy foods are a wonderful option for diabetics. Those with lactose intolerance may be unable to tolerate large amounts of dairy foods, however there are several lactose free milks, yoghurts and ice creams now available. It is important to note that cheese is naturally lactose-free.
Bee’s gold is a rich and concentrated source of sugar – mostly in the form of fructose. Honey contains some B-group vitamins and minerals, however you would have to have a fair bit of it for its nutritional value to be significant and that would be self-defeating.
Agave syrup is derived from the Agave plant in Mexico. It is a very concentrated source of fructose and is much sweeter than regular table sugar. Claimed to be a health food, its vitamin and mineral content is relatively low and it should only be used in moderation.
Rice Malt Syrup
Claimed by some to be a healthy sugar, rice malt syrup is about as healthy as Agave syrup and honey. In fact, it is has a very high GI value, meaning its sugar content is absorbed into the bloodstream rapidly. As with other rich sources of sugar, its use should be moderated.
The Stevia plant is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, its calorie-free and it has very little effect on blood glucose levels. Stevia’s use has become more widespread over the past several years. Some confectionary companies and frozen yoghurt shops are incorporating Stevia in their recipes. There is more research that needs to be carried out to better understand the long-term health effects of Stevia. However, if you’re after a low-calorie sweetener, it’s a pretty nifty option.
Artificial sweeteners are food additives that provide a sweet taste, but without the calories. Many diet products such as diabetic lollies, jellies, diet drinks, cordials, yoghurts, chewing gum and low calorie desserts are beefed up with artificial sweeteners to mimic the taste of their high sugar and high calorie alternatives. Artificial sweeteners have been used for decades and many dispute the claim that they are a healthier alternative to regular sugar. However, recent conclusions from a number of studies found that there is no evidence that sweetener consumption is carcinogenic or can lead to birth defects. Also, sweeteners do not lead to insulin secretion or increase one’s risk of developing diabetes. The evidence shows that the amount of artificial sweetener currently being consumed in the Australian diet is safe. Until the evidence disputes this, these sugar substitutes needn’t be feared.
While sugar cannot be solely blamed for our obesity epidemic, it is clear that we need to reduce our collective intake of the sweet stuff. There is general consensus among health professionals that we should be consuming less soft drinks, lollies, chocolate, pastries and cakes as well as fruit juice. However, cutting out fruit, dairy products and many wholegrains is unnecessary. You don’t need me to tell you that fruit is a healthier alternative to a bag of lollies. After all, an apple a day keeps the doctor away.