Let's get granular with sugar
Sugar is a funny old foodstuff. It used to be that chocolate and fizzy drinks were the ones to watch, but now, there are panicked whispers about the sugar in fruit juices. We’re warned about hidden sugars in cereals, breakfast bars and even savoury sauces. There are good sugars and bad sugars, glucose and fructose, refined sugar and natural sugar. Where on earth do we start if we want to ensure our diets contain just enough of this controversial carbohydrate?
Let us help you see past the headlines and debunk the confusing jargon, to find out the real truth about sugar.
Added vs. natural – what’s the difference?
The clue is in the name: added sugar is artificially occurring, and is placed in food by either manufacturers or ourselves. Added sugars come in the form of everything from granules to syrups and have no nutritional value. For example, the sugar we add to our tea.
Natural sugars, on the other hand, occur naturally in foods like fruit and milk, and are much less detrimental to your health. For starters, they aren’t created using chemicals – as many added sugars are – and occur alongside essential nutrients such as vitamins, antioxidants and fibre, which balance them out.
Glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose
These four confusing buzzwords trip off the tongues of scientists and health experts across the world, but what actually are they?
A sugar produced by our bodies when we digest carbohydrates. Glucose enters our cells to be used as energy, so is a key part of our diet, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the good guy.
Things like white flour and added sugar cause a sharp, yet short-lived, spike in glucose: an energy burst, followed by a crash. What we need instead are foods that release glucose steadily, helping us function at our best throughout the day. Wholegrains, vegetables and fresh fruits contain beneficial levels of glucose, but remember: fruit smoothies and juices could do more harm than good. During the blending process, the sugar is released from the structure of the fruit, which could damage our teeth.
Fructose is the natural sugar found in fresh, whole fruit, and is incredibly sweet. In fact, it is said to be one and a half times sweeter than table sugar!
Unlike glucose, fructose is absorbed by the liver. When we eat too much of it, our liver can’t keep up, creating unhealthy fats that are released for storage in the body. So, why isn’t fresh fruit off the menu? There is nothing wrong with consuming fructose as part of a balanced diet. Moderation is key: around 2 – 3 servings of fruit per day.
Sucrose is crystallised white table sugar. It’s made up of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose, so consuming too much can be a dangerous game.
Such high levels of pure glucose can create the spike and crash in energy we mentioned earlier, while the high fructose content goes straight to your liver. Virtually all fibre, vitamins and minerals have been removed from sucrose, so the sugars are left to run wild with no buffer.
Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk. It is slowly broken down by the body and absorbed into the bloodstream, a process that also aids the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc.
How do I know whether sugar is added?
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to tell when foods contain added sugar or natural sugars. It isn’t directly stated, but there are things you can look out for.
Ingredients lists are a dead giveaway. Manufacturers are required to include all added sugars in the ingredients lists of their products. They feature the largest ingredients first, which means that if you spot sugar at the top of the list (in one of its many guises), your chosen food is likely to be high in added sugars. The higher up they appear, the more sugar is present.
What to look for in a label
When we talk about added sugar being labelled in many guises, we don’t just mean ‘glucose’, ‘fructose’, ‘sucrose’ or ‘lactose’. Sugar can feature under a vast range of aliases. Cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, hydrolysed starch – these are all the same foodstuff… sugar.
There are other clues to look out for, too. Under ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’, you should be looking for a number below 5g per 100g. This is a low sugar product, while anything more than 22.5g per 100g is very high in sugar. Then there is the traffic light system: green sugar labels are good, amber range around the middle, while red is most definitely bad.
However, it’s worth remembering that this colour-coded system is based on total sugars, leading to some foods being labelled as amber despite incorporating only natural sugar (such as natural yoghurt).
With the help of this advice, and a little bit of research, you’ll soon find you can use your discretion and fill your shopping basket with delicious, nutritious produce. Lowering your sugar intake doesn’t have to be as complicated as the media cracks it up to be!