When we think of sugar, we think of sugar crystals, either in the white or brown form. Table sugar is called sucrose, which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Sugar is really a general term for simple carbohydrates that are sweet, they can be processed into crystals or syrups from a variety of plants, namely sugar cane, sugar beets and corn starch, and exist in many foods we eat, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products.
You may have also heard of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which has been increasingly used in the food and drink industry since the early 1980s. HFCS is 45% glucose and 55% fructose. It is sweeter, cheaper to use than sugar; hence the food technology industry loves it. However, the process of creating HFCS involves genetically modified corn and is not a naturally occurring substance in corn, going through many conversions to get to the end result. Hence it is a highly processed product.
Sugars are popular in the processed food industry generally because they add taste, colour, bulk and thickness to food products. They also prevent mould forming; prevent freezer burn, and acts as a preservative. There is an argument as to whether the introduction of widespread use of HFCS in food and drinks, is one of the main reasons for the obesity epidemic, as the timeline has an association. However, the consumption of sugar generally is also far greater, so it perhaps simply an issue of greater calories? Too much sugar in any form, beyond our need for fuel, will result in excess being turned into fat.
The ratio of glucose to fructose in table sugar, honey & maple syrup suits our bodies needs better than high fructose syrups. Glucose raises blood sugar quickly and gives us immediate energy, fructose releases energy more slowly as it has to be broken down by the liver. This gives us a maintained energy level. Higher fructose containing sugars such as HFCS and even agave nectar are considered potentially problematic for the liver, because more fructose must be metabolised with the potential of greater fat production with fatty deposits in the liver, in the blood and in our tissues.
In Australia, the consumption of soft drinks has increased by 30 per cent in 10 years. Sweetened drinks are heavily advertised, cheap and commonly available. Ten years ago, soft drink was available in 375ml cans. Soft drinks are now commonly sold in 600ml bottles, which provide at least 12–15 teaspoons of sugar. For an average 14 year old girl, a 600ml bottle of soft drink will alone provide more than 12% of her daily energy needs. This means she would exceed the recommended energy intake from refined sugar, based on the WHO recommendation of a limit of 10%.
It is well accepted that too much sugar in the diet can contribute to health problems including obesity and tooth decay. Sugar is also addictive, the more we have the more we want. Have you noticed how easy it is to put a little more sugar in your tea or coffee over time and then you realise you need to scale it back? Scientific evidence points to sugars as having similar effects on the brain as pain killing drugs, particularly opioid drugs, including the receptor sites used in the brain and similar withdrawal patterns.
The main nutritional concern about the most common forms of sugar, being table sugar and HFCS, is lack of nutrition. These forms of sweeteners are simply empty calories; they are also super processed and very acid forming to the body which depletes minerals, particularly calcium, from our bones. Their consumption is thus pointless, as we should aim to eat and drink things that have nutritional benefits. Though limiting sweeteners is a good thing, we don’t want to avoid sweet things altogether, we need sugars for energy and sweet foods are joyful to taste, we just don’t need ridiculous amounts of them.
The best thing is to use sweeteners as close to their natural source as possible and in moderation.
Sweeteners to avoid