If you search sugar on the internet, the hits that result are a worrisome collection of information touting sugar as the new poison. But is this an accurate description? We’ve known for a long time that sugar is a taste that we have an innate preference for – that is, humans have a preference for sweetness from infancy. Our taste buds tell us that sweetness is pleasing and we tend to crave foods that are sweet, or have a significant amount of added sugar.
Let’s talk about added sugar. Sugars occur in our diet naturally, such as in fruit, some vegetables and milk products. Sugars are also added to foods, hence the term “added sugar” and are found in foods like cookies, cakes, soft drinks, fruit flavoured yogurt and so on. This is pretty obvious to most of us – the foods with added sugar tend to be on the less healthy side.
So why is this important? Statistics have shown that these added sugars are being consumed in larger and larger amounts and it may not be surprising to most of us to see its effect on ballooning weight and body fatness. New studies, however, are indicating increased risks for chronic diseases and mortality. One study published last month in the Journal of American Medical Association Internal Medicine used the very large & thorough NHANES database (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) on which they based their analyses. The study concluded that people tended to have higher heart disease risk with increasing sugar consumption. What these studies can’t prove is that eating sugar will cause a heart attack – it’s an increased risk of heart disease – certainly not something to fear but neither to dismiss.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has even weighed in on the issue by releasing proposed draft guidelines for sugar consumption. This update of their sugar guidelines will supersede their 2002 guidelines recommending no more than 10% of total daily calories to come from sugars. The newer guideline goes further by recommending no more than 5-10% of calories from sugar. Five percent is equivalent to about 25 grams of sugar a day or about 6 teaspoons of added sugars. For clarity, this is how the WHO (2014) defined sugar: “The suggested limits on intake of sugars in the draft guideline apply to all monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) that are added to food by the manufacturer, the cook or the consumer, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates”. The American Heart Association (AHA) has similar recommendations to the WHO, recommending no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men (about 150 calories) and no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women (about 100 calories).
Let’s clear up the confusion on grams and teaspoons of sugar in some foods. When reading labels, one teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams of sugar.
What do these numbers look like in different foods?
40 g sugar in a can of cola = 10 teaspoons of sugar
22 g in 1 cup of cranberry cocktail = 5.5 tsp of sugar
22 g in a pineapple chicken frozen dinner = 5.5 tsp of sugar
14 g in half a cup of tomato soup = 3.5 tsp of sugar
4 g in 1 Tablespoon of ketchup = 1 tsp of sugar
0 g in 1 packet of (regular) instant oatmeal = 0 tsp of sugar
The bottom line:
Not all sugars are created equal. It is well established that naturally occurring sugars in fruit (and some vegetables), milk, and milk products, including plain yogurt aren’t considered “added sugars”, so not worrisome for our risk for diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Drinking large amounts of fruit juice (even 100% juice), however, can contribute to weight gain and in one study, increased the risk for diabetes when compared with people who ate more whole fruit containing fibre, which juice is lacking.
Many foods with added sugars bring us pleasure and it would be unrealistic to eliminate these foods completely from your diet. We come back to the notion of moderation – having some treats while still focusing on good, healthy, whole food choices with little to no added sugar.
We recognize that the sugar issue isn’t going away anytime soon as more research studies continue to uncover the impact on our body and our risk for disease. These studies offer us a glimpse of what may soon be concrete information to base solid, evidence-based sugar recommendations. Stay tuned!
Next time: what about other sugars like brown rice syrup, beet sugar, agave and honey? Are they nutritionally superior and better for our health? Answer: it depends. Details to follow soon.