The truth about sugar

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 02 Sep, 2018

It's true to say sugar has dominated the headlines in recent years. It can be hard to know what the right approach should be -– does it deserve to be demonised and cut out completely or is there a place for sugar in our diet?

We will try to cut through the confusion and answer some common questions on the subject.

What is sugar and what foods is it in?

Sugar is the building blocks of carbohydrates – glucose is the smallest molecule, which makes up other simple sugars and starches. It is present in most foods to some degree – even chicken breast has a small amount of carbohydrates! We need glucose to fuel our brain – it is the only nutrient small enough for the brain to work properly, but we can get glucose from breaking down complex carbohydrates such as starches, as well as from sugary foods and drinks.

What's the difference between natural and added sugars?

Naturally occurring – are sugars naturally present in foods such as fruit and milk. These are not the sugars we need to worry about because we get other nutrients from the foods they are present in.

Added or 'free' sugars – have been added to the food by the manufacturer or cook. These are the sugars we need to look out for and reduce.

In terms of how our body uses the sugar once it is absorbed, there is no difference between the sugar added to foods and that which is naturally present. However the sugars found in fruits are contained within the cells of the fruit and are often consumed with other nutrients such as fibre. This means they are absorbed more slowly into our bloodstream meaning a smaller effect on blood sugar levels – unlike added sugars which can cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels, often followed by a dip in sugar and energy soon after.

Check out our handy infographic for more info on which foods contain which sugars and how much you should be having.

Does sugar cause diabetes?

Currently there is no proven link to suggest that someone who is slim, healthy and active, but eats a lot of sugar would be any more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes than someone who ate very little sugar.

This issue is to do with weight. There is a proven link between being overweight and developing type 2 diabetes – and this is where sugar comes into it. Foods high in sugar tend to be the things it's easy to consume too much of and they add excessive calories into our diet which can lead to weight gain. However, the link is overweight and diabetes, so other nutrients such as fat are also implicated.

Reversal of type 2 diabetes has also been shown in obese individuals who lose a substantial amount of weight – which further highlights the relationship between obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Does sugar cause obesity?

Obesity is caused by over consumption of calories and a lack of activity. It's not one single nutrient that is the issue but calories – too many calories. So in order to tackle obesity we need to address what it is that makes us consume too many calories.

This is where sugar comes in, sugar itself isn't making us fat. If we ate 1000 calories of pure sugar every day and nothing else we wouldn't be fat (we'd have no teeth left....but I digress). The issue is that foods high in added sugars tend to offer very little in terms of nutrition – often why sugar calories are called 'empty calories'. This is why there is a lot of focus on sugar and the foods which contain it. If we reduce our intake of these foods, we reduce our intake of empty calories and make room for more nutritious foods which our body actually needs.

Should I consider a sugar-free diet?

The diet you choose to follow, is of course, completely personal to you. However a completely sugar-free diet is unnecessary in terms of health. A little sugar in our diet is absolutely fine, and our body will use this as fuel for our working muscles and our brain.

Be cautious of sugar-free diets which require zero fruit intake – this can mean your body is missing out on the important minerals and vitamins in various fruits. It's not necessary to cut out these foods completely. Also be aware that some sugar-free diets often substitute white sugar with molasses, maple syrup or honey – which are all still simple sugars.

How to read labels and what to look out for

Knowing what to look out for on food labels can be tricky. It can also be hard to know what type of sugar is in your foods, because food labelling laws don't allow packaging to distinguish between added and naturally occurring sugars. Here are some helpful tips on what to look out for:

  • If 'sugar' is listed in the ingredients – then the product has added sugars.
  • Ingredients lists on products have to be listed in order of which item has the biggest percentage contribution to the food – so if 'sugar' is listed quite high up on the list, it's safe to assume the product contains a fair bit of added sugar.
  • Remember that sugar comes in many forms so you may not see the word sugar – but if you see syrup, honey, molasses, fructose, dextrose or concentrated fruit juice – read 'added sugar'.
  • If a product contains both natural sugars and added sugars for example fruit flavoured yogurt – the total amount of sugar will be listed in grams but you won't know how much of this is added. A good thing to do is to compare similar products and pick the one with the lowest overall sugar – as this is likely to have much less added sugars. Sugar in fruit yogurt will come from three sources – the milk, the fruit and often added sugar.

The bottom line!

Sugar is okay in moderation – as is everything! While you wouldn't be missing much nutritionally if you never ate sweets, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks again – you'd possibly be less content. Life is about balance to achieve an overall healthy and balanced diet... most of the time! We all enjoy the occasional sweet treats and it's really not necessary to remove these entirely from our diets.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.