What You Need to Know About Sugar

What are sugars?
Sugars are part of the carbohydrate family of nutrients and are often referred to as simple soluble carbohydrates. Common sugars are glucose, fructose (found in fruits), sucrose (table sugar), maltose (all found naturally in fruits and vegetables) and lactose (found naturally in milk).
What is the difference between natural and processed sugars?
Sugars are naturally present in fruits and vegetables, and are part of our everyday diet. “Processed sugars” is a term assigned to natural sugars that are extracted from high sugar content plants (fruits and vegetables) such as sugar cane (which is actually bamboo grass) and sugar beet (a vegetable), both of which contain about 16% sugar. The extracted sugar-rich juice is concentrated, refined and dried, and traditionally sold as white table sugar (regular sugar), which is used as an ingredient i.e. “added sugar” in processed foods and beverages. In the USA, most of the added sugar used in foods and beverages comes in the form of a low cost high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which, as the name implies, is man-made from corn starch.
What types of sugar are the worst?
No one particular sugar is worse than another. All sugars, natural and processed contribute 17kJ of energy per gram and not much else in terms of nutrition for the body. If you regularly consume more sugar in your diet than your body can utilise, it ultimately gets stored as fat, which can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
How much sugar should we have on a daily basis?
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for an average normal weight adult is about 50g or 10 teaspoons. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently come out and declared that if the worldwide obesity epidemic is to be reversed, then the RDI for added sugars should be reduced to 5 teaspoons or 25g. The suggested limits apply to all sugars that are added – in a packaged product or by consumers – and include honey, syrups and fruit concentrates (many products make it seem that they are using “healthier sugars” by adding these). To put it into perspective, a standard can of 11% sugar soft drink would contain about 40g of sugar (8 teaspoons) or almost double the WHO recommendation.
In a normal daily diet, how readily would you achieve the WHO RDI of 25g/ 5 teaspoons of sugar?
You’d be surprised, but it can be easily achieved with a normal diet. For example, an average apple (10% sugar content) contains about 19g of natural sugar. A banana (12% sugar content) contains about 10g of natural sugar. A 30g serve of sultanas (with a whopping 64% sugar content) contains around 19g of natural sugar. All this adds up to 48g of sugar, which is almost equivalent of 10 teaspoons. So it is quite obvious that from a nutritional perspective, it is unnecessary to add additional sugar in our diet through the consumption of high-sugar food and beverages.
What are the most detrimental effects of consuming processed sugar in excess?
Disease and disorders that have been attributed to the regular consumption of excess sugars (both processed and natural) are obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. More recently, premature skin aging (poor complexion and wrinkling) has also been linked to excess sugar consumption.
What types of foods containing natural sugars are best to have?
Plenty of vegetables and fruits (including dried fruits) are good sources of natural sugars. If you need to sweeten a beverage, dessert or a baked product use a sugar substitute, preferably one containing Stevia. Keep in mind that excess sugars, including natural sugars, can be detrimental to your health. Consuming moderate amounts of dietary sugars is the key to a healthy diet.
Will excluding all sugars (including natural sugars) from your diet have any detrimental effects?
Excluding all sugars from your diet would be difficult, if not impossible, given that all fruits and vegetables contain some natural sugars, from as little as 4% in red capsicum, 4.7% in carrots, 8.5% in oranges and 15.5% in grapes. Also, the body needs some “free sugars” in the everyday diet as a source of instant energy and to provide glucose for the brain, which is the only organ in the body that needs glucose to function properly. However, excluding “added sugars” from your diet is quite possible and indeed a good, healthy option. One needs to be very vigilant and read the ingredient list for all processed foods because sugar is used extensively throughout our food supply.
How do I know how much sugar is in the foods I buy?
For all processed and packaged foods, the Nutritional Information table (usually on the rear label) will list the major nutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrate). Sugar content (both per recommended serve and per 100g (which indicates the % sugars in the product) will be listed immediately below Carbohydrates content because sugars are a subset of carbohydrates.
What is the best way to eliminate processed sugars?
Where possible, avoid adding any sugars to your food, including those “dressed up” to appear natural and good for you, such as agave syrup, rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, malt, glucose syrup and even good old honey – they are all predominantly composed of sugars. Check the Ingredients list on any processed foods that you buy for the presence of sugars or their pseudonyms (as above). Make fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts and grains the major components of foods you eat. If you still want to enjoy your snacks, treats and beverages, choose those that are labelled ‘No Added Sugar’. For example, a normal dark chocolate contains about 30-40% sugar, so a 15g portion contains 4-6g of sugar, which is about 1 teaspoon. Well Naturally No Sugar Added 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate contains about 0.7% sugar, so a 15g serve contains 0.1g of sugar, which is significantly lower than the natural sugar content of most fruits and vegetables.
What ingredients are used to substitute sugars in both processed foods and as tabletop sweeteners?
Traditionally, the most common ingredients used as sugar substitutes are Polyols (commonly referred to as sugar alcohols) and various soluble dietary fibers. Common Polyols are maltitol, erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, sorbitol and xylitol. They resemble sugar in appearance and behave similarly to sugar in most food and beverage recipes. The most commonly used soluble dietary fibers are inulin (extracted from chicory root) and polydextrose (manufactured from corn starch). Maltitol and xylitol have almost the same sweetness intensity as sucrose (table sugar). The other sugar alcohols vary from 50-70% sweetness of sugar. Intensive sweeteners (300-700 times sweeter than sugar) such as Stevia, Sucralose, Aspartame and the like, are used to boost the sweetness profile of the above sugar substitute ingredients.
What are the detrimental effects of being reliant or addicted to processed sugars?
The concept of “sugar addiction” has been a topic of intense debate over the past 2-3 years, however there is no strong clinical evidence to prove that sugar can be addictive. Anecdotally, it is recognised that one can develop a craving for something sweet when sugar levels in the bloodstream are low but this hardly relates to addictive behavior. It has been suggested that changing eating habits by eating less sweet flavoured foods will reduce the “craving” for sweet products in time, however this “cold turkey” approach is difficult and can result in binge eating episodes of sweet snacks. Substituting No Sugar Added or Low Sugar versions of your favourite sweet snacks and beverages, and using non-sugar sweeteners such as Stevia in foods and beverage preparation at home is an easier option and has been successful in reducing overall added sugar intake in one’s diet.
Does all sugar immediately turn to fat?
No, the body “burns” (utilises) sugars as an immediate source of energy for all the various bodily functions requiring energy to function properly. Additionally, when we increase our physical activity levels, and decide to go for a walk or run, the body requires even more energy in the form of glycogen (which is ultimately what sugars are converted to when consumed) which the muscles in our legs, arms and all other moving parts of our body use to generate energy (much like a car needs petrol to run, to do so our muscles require glycogen to operate to move our limbs etc.). Any unused glycogen is stored in the liver for later use, or as fat in the adipose tissue in our bodies. Many of us will be familiar with the latter scenario – it’s evident when your pants begin feeling too tight around your waist.
Will cutting out all sugars (natural and processed) help you drop weight quickly and effectively?
The short answer is YES! And IT WILL! The best proposition for dropping weight quickly and effectively, however, is to significantly reduce the amount of added sugar in your daily diet and increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and lean meats which provide all the key nutrients you need, including soluble dietary fibre (an important component of a healthy diet). Additionally, increase your exercise regime to at least three sessions per week of aerobic activity such as fast walking, jogging, swimming and cycling.
61 alternative names for sugar.
They sound harmless enough: agave nectar, barley malt, cane juice, dextrose, fructose, maple syrup, molasses. But these ingredients all have one thing in common – they are all just different forms of sugar and have much the same impact on our bodies. And many of us are none the wiser. Sugar is increasingly hard to identify. It is found in everyday foods in different forms, under at least 61 different names:

  1. Agave nectar
  2. Barbados sugar
  3. Barley malt
  4. Barley malt syrup
  5. Beet sugar
  6. Brown sugar
  7. Buttered syrup
  8. Cane juice
  9. Cane juice crystals
  10. Cane sugar
  11. Caramel
  12. Carob syrup
  13. Castor sugar
  14. Coconut palm sugar
  15. Coconut sugar
  16. Confectioner’s sugar
  17. Corn sweetener
  18. Corn syrup
  19. Corn syrup solids
  20. Date sugar
  21. Dehydrated cane juice
  22. Demerara sugar
  23. Dextrin
  24. Dextrose
  25. Evaporated cane juice
  26. Free-flowing brown sugars
  27. Fructose
  28. Fruit juice
  29. Fruit juice concentrate
  30. Glucose
  31. Glucose solids
  32. Golden sugar
  33. Golden syrup
  34. Grape sugar
  35. HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
  36. Honey
  37. Icing sugar
  38. Invert sugar
  39. Malt syrup
  40. Maltodextrin
  41. Maltol
  42. Maltose
  43. Mannose
  44. Maple syrup
  45. Molasses
  46. Muscovado
  47. Palm sugar
  48. Panocha
  49. Powdered sugar
  50. Raw sugar
  51. Refiner’s syrup
  52. Rice syrup
  53. Saccharose
  54. Sorghum Syrup
  55. Sucrose
  56. Sugar (granulated)
  57. Sweet Sorghum
  58. Syrup
  59. Treacle
  60. Turbinado sugar
  61. Yellow sugar