Sugar is very much the hot topic of this century. There’s refined sugars, unrefined sugars, natural sugars, natural sweeteners, fructose, glucose, sucrose, agave, maple syrup, honey and many more. It’s evident that people are being mislead about which of these sugars are better for our health.
Added sugar, however, is added sugar. There is still difference amongst food quality, however whether your sugar came from a plant, or a manufacturing plant, it’s still sugar. Let’s not forget that even cane sugar is a natural product.
Then, just to confuse us even more, there’s artificial sweeteners. The promise of an empty calorie food product that still sweetens our food without the guilt? You would think it’s too good to be true. Turns out, it is. Studies at The University of Washington have found that consuming ANY kind of sweetener, sugar content or not, may still cause a blood sugar spike. This is because just a sweet taste alone can trigger insulin and metabolic responses. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of research done on artificial sweeteners but I always find myself referring back to an old study from 1993. They attempted to administer aspartame to a group of 40 people with depression, and to a group of 40 without depression. The study was halted by the Institutional Review Board when 13 of the participants in the depression group had severe reactions. As a result, the particular board dealing with the study have recommended discouraging the use of this particular artificial sweetener in those with psychiatric disorders. Psychiatric disorders can include anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, autism and so on.
So, do we need sugar?
Well, we certainly don't need added sugars but if your overall total diet doesn't usually contain them, having an ice cream as a Friday afternoon soul food certainly isn't going to hurt you. Nutrition is not that black and white. It's very much about your overall diet and less about one particular food being inherently evil. Eat the ice cream but don't eat it all the time.
So what about fruit? I'd hate to think that this fear around eating fruit has scared people into putting down their bananas and mangoes. Fruit contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and other important compounds that are health SUPPORTIVE and are certainly not the most concerning thing about the western diet. They're not even close. They're not even concerning? If you want to monitor your overall sugar intake and create healthy trends, eat natural plant based foods MORE (which includes fruit!) and eat foods that contain added sugars less.
The science got extremely misinterpreted when sugar was vilified and fruit fell into this category. Yep, added sugar can be a real problem to your health (amongst so many other factors - let's not single out one thing) and added sugars must be broken down and metabolised by the liver, which can be a burden on this organ when there's too much of it. When your liver has to metabolise too much sugar, it creates a long list of waste products and starts turning this sugar into fat. But that is by no means the single reason you have anxiety, eczema, PCOS, acne or are feeling fatigued.
So how do we know what type of sugar we’re eating?
My advice is to stick with sugars that are naturally present in food, but to also not feel too guilty if you don't. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Just monitor how much you are consuming overall. That means that if you're monitoring your added sugar intake, you'd need to look out for any added sugars or sugar derivatives in the ingredient list of your food. If there are no added sugars in the ingredients list, yet there is still some grams of sugar in the nutritional panel, then the sugar is naturally present in the food and has not been added. For example, a banana bread that is made purely from bananas, almond flour and eggs will not have any added sugars in the ingredient list however the nutrition panel will still have a gram figure of sugar because of the banana. All foods have a sugar content, even vegetables, so I'm definitely not telling you to start avoiding vegetables because of sugar. I'm telling you to learn how to recognise added sugars from sugars naturally present in food.
Here are the ingredients you want to look out for if you’re trying to avoid added sugars. A few may surprise you! The food industry has worked tirelessly to make sugar seem like ingredients that are anything but sugar:
Brown Rice Syrup
Cane Juice Crystal
Corn Syrup Solids
Evaporated Cane Juice
Fruit Juice Concentrate
High-fructose Corn Syrup
Organic Raw Sugar
So why has sugar been so vilified and what does it actually do to our body?
A high fructose diet, which is found in the majority of the added sugars listed above, can actually lead to (amongst other things) Non-Alcoholics Fatty Liver Disease and we are seeing more and more of it in clinics. Having too much sugar in the blood is also a large complication associated with conditions such as diabetes and its associated blindness. Too much sugar is also associated with metabolic dysfunctions, the most common one being insulin resistance. This means our cells become resistant to insulin and no longer move sugar from our blood into our cells so it can be utilised as energy. Insulin resistance can cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Sugar intake has also been correlated with cancer. Cancer is characterised by uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells and insulin is one of the key hormones in regulating this sort of growth. The type of cancers that are being correlated with (not caused by - just correlated with) a high sugar intake are colon, prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer. Personally, this kind of research was enough for me to start really looking into what amount of sugars are being added to my diet. We all have our own journeys, family histories and genetics to take into consideration.
How to avoid added sugars (if that's what you need/want to do).
Almost everything packaged, bottled, canned or in a glass jar has added sugar. I’m talking tomato pasta sauces, curry pastes, cereals (even your organic “natural granola” ones), canned fruit, salad dressings (especially your fat free ones), muesli bars, bread, smoothies from health food stores, cheese crackers and some protein powders.
To avoid added sugars, sweeten your foods with fresh fruit and try as much as possible to make your sauces, cereals and everything listed above from scratch. And if you can't be bothered to do that, then just monitor your overall intake. One piece of cake wont kill you. And it would be a crime to not participate in all things chocolate at Easter.