Most of us will have had it drummed into us from a young age that sugar is bad for us. But despite our best efforts, it is so easy for us to be consuming excess sugar without even realising it. Sugar is incredibly addictive and marketing is getting smarter at fooling us into thinking we are picking the ‘healthiest’ option, when in reality it’s often packed with the sweet stuff.
Consuming too much sugar significantly increases our risk of obesity and other chronic diseases, negatively influences our hormones and metabolism, increases our risk of dental issues, can worsen mood disorders and inflammatory conditions, as well as being problematic for our skin.
So we’re going deep on sugar and what are commonly considered as sugar alternatives, and what the science says about which is better for your health.
What is sugar?
All sugars are a type of carbohydrates, which are the primary source of energy for our body. Broken down into their simplest form, sugars are building blocks that can come together in to create different types of carbohydrates.
To help people understand which types of carbohydrates they should be regularly consuming in their diets and the ones that should be limited, we rank them in terms of their glycaemic index, or GI. Simply put, GI is a value used to measure how quickly foods increase our blood sugar levels. Foods are classified as low, medium or high, using a scale of 0-100. The higher the GI of a food, the greater the impact on our blood sugar. High GI foods are digested and absorbed rapidly, which results in large, fast changes in blood sugar levels, in comparison to low GI foods which are digested and absorbed slower, resulting in gradual rises in blood sugar levels.
It probably comes as no surprise that fruit juice, table sugar and dried fruit have a high GI, whereas whole grains and legumes have a lower GI.
How much sugar should you eat per day?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines currently don’t state a recommended daily intake of sugar, but the World Health Organisation recommends that ‘free’ sugars make up no more than 10% of daily kilojoule intake to prevent weight gain, chronic disease and dental issues. For a healthy Australian adult, that translates to 50 grams of free sugars, which is equivalent to 12 teaspoons per day.
While that might initially seem like a lot, you would be amazed how quickly most people meet and exceed that limit. It’s also important to remember that these recommendations are a limit, not a target.
Natural sugars versus free sugars
First things first, it’s important to clarify the difference between naturally occurring sugars and free sugars.
Naturally occurring sugars are sugars that are naturally present within foods, such as the fructose in fresh fruit, or the lactose in dairy products like milk and cheese. These sugars are carefully packaged up with other nutrients that neutralise their effects in our body and therefore aren’t the sugars we need to be concerned about.
Whereas free (sometimes referred to as ‘refined’ sugars) are sugars that have been added to foods. These sugars are derived from sugar crops, fruit juices or concentrates and are then added into foods and drinks by manufactures. It is these sugars that you find in soft drinks, cakes, pastries, sauces, cereals, and processed meals, and are the ones to limit.
There are over 40 different names for refined ‘free’ sugars (no wonder it is so hard to read labels!). Here are some of the most common ones to look out for: Dextrose, Fructose, Galactose, Glucose, Maltose and Sucrose.
1. Natural sweeteners
Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, molasses, palm sugar.
We’re afraid this is where it gets a bit confusing as many of us deem these sugars as “natural” sugar alternatives and therefore a healthier option, due to their source. While these natural sugars aren’t processed and do contain a few more vitamins and minerals than the classic refined sugars we see added to foods, it’s important to remember that the sugars they comprise of are still processed the same way by the body and therefore they still count as free sugars.
2. Dried fruit
Dates, apricots, mangos, figs, raisins, sultanas.
The process of drying fruit results in the contents within the food becoming highly concentrated, which increases the sugar content by approximately five times! This doesn’t mean avoiding dry fruit altogether as dried fruit still contains fibre and other beneficial nutrients, but it does mean being conscious of overdoing marketed ‘sugar-free’ teats and desserts, such as bliss balls which are often packed full of dates and therefore offer a big sugar hit.
3. Non-nutritive sweeteners
Stevia, xylitol, saccharin, aspartame, neotame, sucralose.
Non-nutritive sweeteners (also known as artificial sweeteners) provide a zero-calorie alternative to foods and beverages, while still giving them a sweet taste. Seems like the ideal option for sugar addicts, right? Enjoying your favourite sweet food and drinks without the consequences. But the reality about these sugar alternatives isn’t so sweet. Many studies have found no link between non-nutritive sweeteners and long-term improvements in weight management, with some studies even showing sugar substitutes may cause people to crave more sweet and sugary foods.
Additionally, there’s emerging evidence to show these sweeteners could negatively alter our gut microbiome. So, while these sugar alternatives may seem like a great option and may be a good substitute for some people, they certainly aren’t the answer to everyone’s sugar addictions and should still be had in moderation at best.
The take home
So as with most things in the world of nutrition, moderation is key. Our bodies can cope with small amounts of sugar in reasonable amounts. While it can be tough to dial down the sugar, you will be amazed at how much better you feel once you do. Sugar packaged up in its whole food form such as fruit? No need to worry. Sugar packed into products and making up the majority of the ingredients list? Definitely a sometimes food, regardless of whether it’s sugar from a date or table sugar.