Sugar is the big news that refuses to leave the headlines. Foods containing this type of carbohydrate can be classified into two groups. Natural sources of sugar found in foods such as fruit and milk are deemed to be the better choice over those that are added to foods, which in the UK we refer to as NME (non-milk extrinsic) sugars.
Often the sugar added to foods is hidden and exists in different guises such as corn sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, molasses or sucrose. Most of the added sugars in our diet comes from processed foods and soft drinks. Although healthy, fruit juices and smoothies are also classed alongside added sugars and should be limited to just one-a-day.
Don't be fooled by marketing spin about the latest trendy sweetener as there's no such thing as a healthy sugar when it comes to those intended to be added to foods. Whether you choose white sugar, agave, honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar they're all still sugar.
Added sugars should not make up more than 5% of your total calorie intake for the day, which works out at around 30g for anyone over the age of eleven. However, the findings of the last UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), released in 2014, showed that most of us are eating much more than this and especially children who are getting 15% of their daily calorie intake from these foods.
There has been much controversy about artificial sweeteners over the years but research has confirmed that they're safe for humans and findings also show that there's no evidence linking them to diseases such as cancer (a common concern). Sweeteners such as Stevia, sorbitol and xylitol have undergone rigorous testing before being allowed to be used in food products and have been shown to pose no harm to health.
Sweeteners can be useful for those looking to lose weight and control diabetes as they don't affect blood sugar levels in the same way as sugar. Some even carry positive health claims relating to oral health and blood sugar levels.
Legislation requires food companies to label the front of their products with information about the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a single serving. This makes it easier for consumers to make healthy choices when deciding what foods to eat. If you're looking to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet then opt for products labelled green and amber.
Health risks of too much sugar in the diet
The main health concern about too much sugar in the diet has traditionally been related to poor oral health, particularly in children. However, excess sugar can also lead to weight gain as too much carbohydrate in the diet will be stored as fat. Being overweight increases your chances of a number of diseases including heart disease and diabetes.
All carbohydrates are broken down to glucose (sugar in its simplest form), which is the body's preferred source of energy. As glucose levels in the blood rise the body responds by releasing a hormone called insulin. Sugary foods and other quickly digested carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta can lead to 'blood sugar highs' that are quickly followed by 'crashes' as the body releases insulin to drive glucose out of the blood and into cells for energy. This can leave you feeling lethargic and inclined to seek out more of the same foods to help you feel more centred (the downside of relying on sugary snacks).
Switching to wholemeal varieties of carbohydrate foods such as brown rice and wholegrain bread can help lessen the effect on blood glucose levels as can teaming these foods with a good source of protein and healthy fats that help keep you feeling 'fuller for longer'. If you do fancy the occasional sweet treat, then try eating with your main meals to lessen the effect of blood sugar imbalances.
Too much of any carbohydrate in the diet (as well as any other nutrient containing calories) will encourage weight gain. Insulin also signals the uptake of glucose into fat cells for storage, which is the process that forms the basis of low carbohydrate diets that encourage the body to use fat stores for energy in the absence of carbohydrate. However, this doesn't make all carbohydrates bad and comparable to sugar. Unprocessed varieties (such as brown rice, quinoa and brown bread) eaten in sensible portion sizes as part of a balanced diet provide valuable nutrients including fibre and B vitamins.
It's also worth noting that sugary desserts and confectionary often contain other high- calorie ingredients that will only add to your daily intake.
The main sources of added sugars in the UK diet (taken from the NDNS survey)
Chocolate, sweets and table sugar (27%)
Soft drinks, fruit juices and other non-alcoholic drinks (25%)
Alcoholic drinks (11%)
Dairy foods such as yoghurts (6%)
Savoury foods such as condiments and cook-in-sauces (5%)
How to cut down your sugar intake
It's important to try and cut down on your intake of sugar but be realistic as a little sugar in the diet is absolutely fine and going cold turkey will likely result in reverting back to old eating habits. Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet can be difficult but gradually eating less will reduce your taste for sweet foods.
Top tips to cutting down on added sugar in the diet
Don’t cut it all out at once. Make small realistic changes to your diet to cut down gradually.
Check the food labels for green and amber traffic lights, especially foods such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts and cook-in-sauces.
Try cooking from scratch to limit the amount of sugar in your food.
Cut out fizzy drinks and opt for watered down fruit juice or naturally flavoured water.
View sweet snacks and desserts as occasional treats and try to eat with main meals to avoid blood sugar highs and lows that can lead to hunger pangs and cravings.
Use ingredients such as coconut, vanilla pod and cinnamon for natural sweetness.
Swap sweet cakes and biscuits for fruit buns or malt loaf served with low fat spread