Sugar – to eat or not to eat? That is the question! A very long time ago it was said that sugar was good for you, nowadays many people give up eating sugar altogether. Is sugar really that bad? What types of sugar can be found in food?
What is sugar?
Depends on who you ask! Sugar is a condiment, a preservative, a fuel for our body, but biologically speaking, sugars are carbohydrates that we can find in food and drinks. When we eat it, it is broken down in the body to glucose and becomes fuel for us. We can distinguish between several types of sugars: simple sugars like glucose or fructose, complex sugars like lactose, sucrose or starch and polyols like sorbitol or xylitol.
Natural sugar vs. added sugar
Natural sugars can be found in a variety of foods such as fruit, potatoes and cow’s milk.
Added sugars are those that are added to food during production or processing. This is done for various reasons. Sugar is used as a concentrate, flavour enhancer and can be used to improve the texture of food. It is added to products such as sodas and cola drinks, fruit juices, jams, baked goods, breakfast cereals, sauces, ice cream, ketchup, yogurt and even tinned vegetables. In general, it can be added to virtually anything.
However, for the sake of your health, you should try to limit sugar in your diet.
Liquid sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave syrup or date syrup are still sugar, just in a different form. These sweeteners have about the same amount of calories as regular, refined sugar, and the process of making them is similar. Some of these sweeteners have small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately – although it looks healthy – it is after all brown and recently advertised as a ‘healthy sugar replacement’, it actually has very trace amounts of vitamins and minerals in it, and like white sugar should be used in moderation.
These are sugar substitutes that have zero or very few calories. By using these sweeteners, companies advertise their products as ‘no added sugar’, ‘low calorie’ or ‘diet’. They can also be found in many products for diabetics, as they have a very low glycaemic index and this means that their consumption does not cause insulin spikes in the blood and the pancreas does not suffer. Some are made from natural raw materials, others are produced artificially. Interestingly, most sweeteners are much sweeter than refined sugar. The most popular sweeteners are: stevia, aspartame, saccharose, cuklarose, erythrol (erythritol) and some other E.
Inaccuracies associated with sweeteners
Well, there are some inaccuracies and ambiguities when it comes to the effects of sweeteners on our health. Some studies and sources state that studies have not shown a link between sweetener consumption and diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure. Unfortunately, other sources and doctors claim that such a link does exist. And who to believe?
Compensation – there is also a risk that people who use sweeteners will feel that it is “unpunished” or that they have won a real lottery ticket, after all, who wouldn’t want to eat sweets that are low in calories and don’t cause a storm in our body?
This can lead to later compensation with products that actually contain refined sugar. Because after all, “what I ate before doesn’t count”.
NOTE: Some sweeteners consumed in large quantities (drunk in sweetened drinks, for example) can have a laxative effect.
Brain on sweeteners
Consuming sweeteners has the same effect on our brain as consuming regular refined sugar. The centres responsible for the feeling of pleasure are activated – thanks to dopamine and serotonin. The conclusion is that replacing sugar with sweeteners will not help to control our craving for sweets. We will still crave something sweet. In addition, when we eat something sweet, our body prepares itself for a dose of calories and… if we do not provide these calories (and sweeteners have few of them) we will still walk around unsatisfied and maybe even hungry.
These are chemical compounds that resemble alcohol in structure, but have more hydroxyl groups. In practice, they are a great alternative to sucrose and fructose – they are very sweet but less calorific.
Polyols that are good to use:
Xylitol – otherwise known as birch sugar, used to sweeten food as a sugar substitute. It is especially used in the production of chewing gum, drops and jelly and even toothpaste, as it has anti-caries properties.
In addition, it is less calorific than regular sugar and has a lower glycaemic index.
Unfortunately, it is quite expensive. For a kilogram, we will pay from 5 to 25 Euro depending on its quality and country of origin.
Caution: for some people, excessive consumption can cause painful bloating and gas.
Erythritol – This is the substitute that really deserves to be called ‘healthy sugar‘. Why?
It’s low in calories, doesn’t cause tooth decay, doesn’t trigger insulin spikes – its glycaemic index is zero, making it safe for diabetics. It is excreted in urine, so even with excessive consumption we are not threatened by bloating or diarrhoea. It has even been classified as an antioxidant.
It tastes a little different to regular sugar and I guess it takes some getting used to. What’s strange is that its relative sweetness is specified as 70% everywhere (assuming white sugar is 100%), but for some people, it’s sweeter than refined sugar!
Names under which sugar is hidden – watch out!
- sugar: beet sugar, invert sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, grape sugar,
fruit juice, concentrated fruit juice, juice concentrate
- glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, starch, maltodextrin, barley malt
- syrups: glucose, glucose-fructose, agave, maple, date, rice, corn, honey, caramel
- Sweeteners: acesulfame K (E950), aspartame (E951), cyclamates (E952), saccharin (E954), sucralose (E955), thaumatin (E957), neohesperidin DC (E959), neotame (E961), steviol glycosides (E960), advantam (E969), aspartame-acesulfame salt (E962).
Remember: consuming too much sugar, especially refined and added sugar, can promote the development of certain diseases such as obesity, dental caries, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and atherosclerosis.