Sugar: How sweet it is!

Sugar is high in calories, it spoils your skin, makes you hungry, fat, unhealthy etc…. We are bombarded by such messages in the media on a daily basis and most of the time this kind of (dis)information is targeted at women.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the facts about sugar, which are suppressed in the name of selling artificial sweeteners and their by-products.

Sugar – the kind we use in our coffee – is derived from sugar cane and contains three different kinds of naturally occurring sugars: fructose, glucose and sucrose. There are naturally occurring sugars in many different foods: fructose in fruit and honey; glucose in fruit and vegetables, lactose in milk and maltose in semi-cooked cereals.

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, as are potatoes and flour. Carbohydrates are needed by our bodies for energy and as they are not stored in the body, must be consistently provided in our diets. It is energy that is needed in order for our muscles and brains to function. Therefore, sugar is a necessary part of our diet if we are to maintain good health.

Some common beliefs about sugar

  • Sugar (or foods high in sugar) can cause health problems, such as diabetes or heart disease

There is no clear-cut evidence that can substantiate this claim. In the case of heart disease, it is more likely that the person is eating high fat foods, which may contain high amounts of sugar. However, it is the fat content that is causing the problems.

  • Sugar makes you fat

It is the fat content in food that makes us ‘fat’ if we eat too much of it. Fat is stored in the body as a source of long-term energy, sugar is not.

  • Sugar causes behavioral problems, especially in children

Once again there is no evidence for this. The reason for changes in mood/behavior after eating sugary foods is probably more closely related to the pleasure of eating sweet things, rather than the quantity of sugar in the blood.

  • Sugar causes tooth decay

This is true to a certain extent. Decay in teeth depends on other factors also, such as, the hardness of the tooth surface, the amount of plaque on teeth and the contact time between the sugary food and the teeth. Sugary foods that stick to teeth (e.g. chewy lollies, dried fruit etc) are more likely to cause tooth decay. It is important to brush your teeth after eating sticky sweet foods.

Some facts about refined sugar

Refined sugar is sugar broken down to its finest form (sucrose). White and raw sugars are essentially refined. The difference between them involves the coating of molasses (another sugar) on the raw sugar, which gives it that brownish appearance. Molasses contains some vitamins and minerals but their contribution to our overall diet is negligible.

Since refined sugar has already been reduced to its purest form our digestive system does not have to work to break it down. This means our digestion does not operate as it should because its function is to reduce food to its constituent parts so that these may be absorbed into our blood stream.

As a result, sucrose goes directly into our blood, which gives us much energy very quickly. This is beneficial at times when we need it fast, as in the case of low blood sugar levels when we feel faint. However, a high level of blood sugar also causes a very rapid drop in sugar levels, which results in fatigue. Then, the only way to get more energy is to eat more sugar. If we continue this way then we will crave the substance in order to feel energetic.

This does not happen when we eat foods like fruit and honey as the sugars are not refined. This means that our digestive tract functions properly by breaking it down and releasing it into the blood at a much slower rate.

Artificial sweeteners

The most common artificial sweetener contained in most diet drinks and foods is saccharin. These products are primarily marketed to women in the name of looking thin and attractive.

Saccharin is a chemical that is absorbed by the blood and is excreted in the urine unchanged (i.e. it cannot be reduced to its constituent parts during digestion).

Cyclamate is another sweetener used in many Australian products. It has been banned in the U.S.A.

The effects of longer-term use of artificial sweeteners on people are still inconclusive. However, how many of us are willing to be the guinea pigs?

We do need sugar in order to maintain good health. However, it is the naturally occurring sugars that we should aim to include in our diets. Small amounts of refined sugar will not pose a threat to our health, especially since it is derived from naturally occurring sugars in the first place.

It is important to know that the consumption of large amounts of any one type of food can cause problems – it does not matter how healthy they are meant to be. There are many potentially toxic substances in quite healthy foods like almonds, which contain cyanide, cabbages contain a substance toxic to the thyroid gland and mycotoxins are produced by moulds that develop in unprocessed foods. The only reason we do not suffer any adverse effects when eating these foods is that we don’t ingest enough of the harmful chemicals.

Eating in moderation is the key and sugar is no exception, despite certain claims made by advertising companies.

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Sources:

Gough S, 1986, Sugar, Sydney, Hodder & Staughton.

Nottridge R, 1992, Food Facts: Sugar, London, Wayland Publishers.

Reid R, 1984, Healthy Eating in Australia, Melbourne, Hyland House Publishing.

Wahlquist M & Briggs D, 1990, Food: Questions and Answers, Melbourne, Penguin Books.

© New Age Power (Helen Papadopoulos) 
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