We have heard an awful lot about sugar recently, but is it really as bad as is claimed? We take a look at some of the myths and truths of sugar and the foods to limit and to enjoy when it comes to negotiating a healthy diet.
Why are we concerned about sugar?
Too much sugar has a serious impact on teeth. Eating sugary foods encourages the growth of bacteria in our mouths. These bacteria produce acids that damage teeth and can lead to tooth erosion and decay. Healthy teeth as we get older are strongly linked with better nutrition and better overall health so looking after teeth is essential for a healthy smile now and a healthy body in the future.
In Western countries people are eating around 23% more calories than we did in the 1970s. These are equally spread over fats, carbohydrates (including sugars) and protein. Sugars added to foods can add calories and eating sugary treat foods like sweets and chocolate or consuming soft drinks all add extra calories. Reducing sugar from these foods is one way to help people limit their calories and may help to manage a healthy weight as well as look after teeth.
Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common. It is linked to gaining weight and losing muscle which is why it is more common in older people. However, younger people who become very overweight may develop the disease. Strategies to help reduce obesity (such as reducing calories by reducing sugar) may also help to reduce type 2 diabetes as well.
How Much Sugar?
The World Health Organisation currently recommends that we limit sugar to 10% of our daily calories. This works out at around 14 teaspoons of added sugar per day. The WHO is considering reducing this to 7 teaspoons per day or around 5% of calories. Remember: this is not a recommended amount but a limit! In Ireland, we currently eat around 18 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
Added versus natural sugar
The guidelines around sugar are for added sugar. So we should limit added sugar to 14 teaspoons per day at most (but feel free to eat less than this). The sugar that naturally turns up in fruit, milk and plain yoghurts has not been added and doesn’t count. The trick is to read the food label: if there is no sugar in the ingredient list, then any sugar on the nutrition table is natural and not added. Although do look out for different names for sugars on the ingredient list: lactose, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, glucose and syrup are all names for different kinds of sugar.
So, looking at a natural yoghurt, it will typically have around 2 teaspoons of sugar (4g = 1 teaspoon). This is all the natural milk sugar so it doesn’t count (unless you have diabetes and need to count all your carbs). For low-fat natural yoghurts, there can be 2.5 teaspoons of sugar. Don’t panic – they haven’t added any sugar! The reason sugar is higher on the label is that the label is actually talking about percentages of the nutrients in the food. When they take the fat out (to make it low-fat) then the percentages of the other nutrients have to change to make up the difference. If you look at the same label for protein you will see that the protein is also higher in low-fat yoghurts than in full-fat. Of course, if you go for the caramel-toffee-crunch-crisp yoghurt there may be more than a few teaspoons of added sugar in there…
If you add a sugar to a food, then it is an added sugar, no matter where it came from. This means that honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar and all the others count as added sugars just the same as ordinary table sugar. So you need to count these in your daily limit.
Luckily, there are lots of foods out there that are natural low in sugar. Anything with less than 5g of sugar per 100g or 2.5g of sugar per 100mls is low in sugar.
Sarah Keogh in association with John West
Consultant Nutritionist - MSc., BSc., MINDI
Sarah has a degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from Trinity College and a Masters in European Food Regulation.
She runs a food and nutrition consultancy giving one-to-one advice on nutrition and diet as well as working with some of Ireland's leading food companies.