Sugar explained, how labels are changing, and current recommendations
By Paris Owen, Nutrition Student
Sugar has received a lot of attention over the past few years. Although it may not seem like it, there are actually many different types of sugar in our diet! Some good, some bad. This really depends on the food the sugar exists within, rather than the actual sugar itself.
WHAT ARE SUGARS?
Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. There are two main types of carbohydrates- simple and complex. Sugars are simple carbohydrates and are the building blocks of larger complex carbohydrates, known as starches. Sugars will end in the letters ‘ose’ i.e. lactose, glucose, sucrose. These should not be confused with other types of sugar substitutes including artificial or natural sweeteners-that’s a whole other story!
WHAT MAKES A SUGAR "GOOD"?
Good sugars are those found naturally in foods. These foods contain other nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and have a low Glycemic Index (GI). This means they provide sustained energy over a period of time. Low GI foods have also shown to help with weight maintenance and they can keep you fuller for longer.
These are sugars found in:
o Vegetables- Both glucose and sucrose exist naturally in vegetables. Glucose is formed in plants by a process known as photosynthesis. Sucrose exists naturally in foods such as beetroot, carrots and peas or it can be extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet to make table sugar.
o Fruit- The sugar in fruit is known as fructose. This should not be confused with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a sweetener made through refining corn crops and is a mixture of both fructose and glucose. Fructose is the sweetest naturally occurring sugar- so head for the fruit bowl when you’re craving that sugar hit!
Research has however shown that re-occurring gastrointestinal discomfort may be caused by fructose. If you experience symptoms like abdominal cramps, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea and don’t know why, it may be due to fructose malabsorption.
To find out more, head here.
o Dairy- The main sugar in dairy is lactose. Dairy is also an excellent source of calcium and protein. If you have lactose intolerance, it’s best to find dairy-free alternatives, however yoghurt and hard cheeses are usually well tolerated!
o Grains- Consist of mostly glucose. Although this sugar is usually absorbed by the body the quickest, wholegrains and fibre within these products ‘trap’ the sugar, which slows its absorption.
WHAT MAKES A SUGAR "NOT SO GOOD"?
Bad sugars are those which are added into food products. These sugars do not come with any additional nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. You would therefore say these deliver ‘empty’ calories and play a major role in the increasing rates of diet-related diseases.
These are sugars found in:
o Soft drinks and cordials- In Australia, sucrose is the most common sugar in these products. This is derived mostly from the sugar cane, where it is then highly refined and bleached to resemble white crystals. This is because we grow lots of the sugar cane crop, which means it’s cheap for manufacturers to use. As for the US, their main source of sweetener is HFCS as they grow lots of corn crops.
o Lollies- Mostly contain glucose. Unlike grains, lollies do not contain any fibre to slow glucose from being absorbed. That’s why you get that huge energy spike after eating them!
o Biscuits, Cakes & Pastries- Like soft drink, a white refined type of sucrose is used called castor sugar. As it is such a fine consistency, it dissolves very quickly and therefore is commonly used to make meringues.
SO WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THIS!?
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ)- the overarching body of our food supply- is currently in the process of reviewing our food labels. Among other changes, their aim is to ensure added sugars can be easily identified on food labels. The term ‘sugars’ stated in the ingredient list will be changed to ‘added sugars’ followed by a bracketed list of the sources. i.e. sugars (fructose, glucose syrup, honey). Although food companies will still be allowed to add sugars to our foods, it’s a start. For the time being, get to know food labels including the ingredient list and the nutrition information panel!
Don’t know how? Head here:
TIPS FOR CUTTING OUT ADDED SUGAR
o If you add sugar to hot drinks such as tea or coffee, try to gradually reduce the amount you add until it is cut out altogether.
o Choose fruit-infused water over soft drink or cordial.
o Buy unsweetened fruit juice or choose freshly squeezed options.
o If fresh fruit isn’t available, choose unsweetened tinned fruit, which is stored in fruit juice, rather than syrup.
o When you are craving something sweet, chop up some fruit and add a little natural yoghurt on top.
o Choose wholegrain cereals like buckwheat, quinoa or oats over processed varieties.
The National Health and Medical Research Council currently recommended to limit foods and drinks high in added sugars. If you however want an actual figure- the average adult should aim for less than 90g of sugar per day. You might however need more or less based on your age, height, weight, sex and how much activity you do.
To find out your individual amount, head here.
NHMRC 2013, Australian Dietary Guidelines 1-5, Eat for Health, viewed 16 November 2014, <https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/australian-dietary-guidelines-1-5>.
Dietitians Association of Australia 2014, Daily Intake Guide, DAA, viewed 16 November 2014, <http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/daily-intake-guide/>.