Nutrition – a note on sugar

Tuesday 08 May 2018

This month I thought that I would talk about the subject of sugar. I was spurred on by the recent programme by Jamie Oliver about the association of eating sugar and disease. He is on a mission to reduce the amount of sugar in food because of its detrimental effects on our health and the financial burden on the NHS. Also the government has recently proposed new guidelines on the amount of sugar we should have each day. They propose that we should reduce our amount to 5 tsps a day only. As you will see in this blog this is a real challenge considering the amount of hidden sugar found particularly in processed food.

Do you know how much sugar is in foods?
I recently gave a fundraising talk and included the subject of sugar. I made up a quiz asking people to guess the amount of sugar in a dozen popular foods. It was amazing how many really had very little idea and I suppose unless you take the time to read labels on ready made convenience foods it is difficult to know. Even the ‘healthy’ snack bars were high, for example a Naked bar contained 4 tsps and a Eat Natural bar 3 ½tsps so by having one of these as a snack during the day would certainly make it very difficult to keep to the recommended 5 tsps a day.  Another surprising example was a Yeo Valley family pot of organic fruit yogurt contained 14tsps!!! .

Why does sugar matter?

Statistics tell us that sugar and sugary foods are one of the leading causes of ill health. This includes diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and some cancers. If we consider the subject of cancer you may have read or heard that cancer is supposed to feed off sugar. This is a bit of a wild statement but if we dig deeper we can understand why it has been made.

Normal cells have the ability to adapt and can use protein foods, fats and carbohydrates/sugars as a form of energy, so for example if we ate a diet void or very low in carbohydrates/sugars we would get our energy from fats or protein rich foods. Cancer cells however are not as flexible and can only really use carbohydrates to get energy, Hence the statement that carbohydrates feed cancer. Note that all carbohydrates will end up as sugar once eaten). Because of this the Ketogenic diet has been adopted by some. It is a diet high in fats, modest amounts of protein and minimum carbohydrate. The theory being of course that this diet will starve cancer of its fuel. I am not advising that everyone rushes out to do the Ketogenic diet as it is very tough to follow and not all health experts in the field of cancer would agree that this is the way to go. However I do think that it is a good idea to keep sugar and sugary foods to a minimum for many additional reasons.

• Sugar is known as a simple carbohydrate and so needs little digestion. Consequently it is rapidly absorbed into the body. This causes blood sugar levels to go very high very quickly and we respond by producing the hormone insulin which controls the level of sugar in the blood. Insulin does this by carrying the excess sugar from the blood into the cells where it is used as energy or stored as fat. This will naturally bring the level of sugar in the blood back to normal. Too much insulin production due to too much sugar in the diet causes problems because too much insulin creates inflammation in the body and inflammation drives disease.

• Insulin is also known as a ‘hormone disruptor’, as it interferes with the body’s ability to get rid of excess hormones.

• When we produce insulin we also produce a compound called  ‘insulin growth like factor’ (IGF-1) in the liver. This encourages cell proliferation which can lead to an increased risk of cancer.  According to the book Biochemical Imbalances in Disease by Lorraine Nicholle and Ann Beirne the process is very complex and involves a number of pathways.  Dr. Frank Hu, assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard University School of Health in Boston,  contributed to a research paper published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute linking elevated insulin levels with the production of free IGF-1.

But sugar gives me energy…. Or does it?

• Sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever.

• Contrary to the belief that sugar gives us energy, sugar in the diet causes great lethargy and fatigue. This can happen usually a couple of hours after eating a sweet or carbohydrate rich meal or snack. I am sure that you have experienced this yourself. Many people I know call it the four o,clock dip because about 4 in the afternoon seems to be the low energy time, particularly if you have had a carbohydrate rich lunch meal like a sandwich or a pasta meal.

• As I have explained excess sugar is easily stored as fat and this particular fat is known as a triglyceride. This fat tends to be stored around the middle and can have similar detrimental effects on our heart and circulation as too much processed fats i.e. Trans/hydrogenated fats.

• Sugar can also interfere with the natural balance of bacteria in our gut. This can have a negative effect on our immune system as 80% of our immune cells are in our digestive system. A strong immune system is essential to help fight the development of any disease.

• Remember that sugar also comes from fruit juice, cordials, energy drinks and alcohol.

So you can see now why the Government is trying to reduce the amount of sugar that we eat.

So if we have a sweet tooth what do we do?
There are some alternatives that you can buy from most leading supermarkets that can be used to replace sugar. These products are made from natural ingredients and have no or very little impact on the insulin response that I have been talking about. This is why they have become so popular. So they would be ideal to sweeten a food without the fear of an insulin rush. Not that I am encouraging a sweet tooth far from it but sometimes there is no substitute. I do understand.

Artificial sweeteners
Before I tell you more about these sweeteners it is important to know that they are not without their critics and some health professionals discourage their use. One reason is because although they are made from natural ingredients there is some degree of processing to get them to the products that we know.

Agave syrup is made from the cactus like South American plant. It can be used in the place of honey, used in baking, stewing fruit and sweetening porridge etc. It is 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar so less will be needed. It has the same calories as white sugar. The negatives are that it is up to 90% fructose. Fructose is metabolised in the liver and can be converted into fat in large quantities. It undergoes heavy processing to become the syrup that we know.

Stevia appeals to some because it is calorie free so ideal for those watching their weight. The Stevia plant comes from South America. You can buy granules or liquid. It can also be used to sweeten foods and drinks and for baking. It is a staggering 300 times sweeter than sugar so very little would be needed. It is criticised because the finished product that we buy does not really resemble the original Stevia plant and in its making has had many chemicals added to it. It is only partially digested in the gut and can cause stomach upsets. In trials it has actually been shown to increase appetite by inducing hunger pangs which may lead to us eating more food.

Xylitol is another popular sweetener. It has been used in sugar free chewing gum for a long time. It comes from the birch tree. However manufacturers have found that they can extract a similar product from corn and many go for the genetically modified varieties to save cost. It has the same calorie value of sugar but is not efficiently absorbed so can lead to bloating and diarrhoea.

Palmyra Jaggery and coconut sugar. Both have a relatively low impact on insulin release and both contain minerals and vitamins. They are ethically sourced and organic. They sound more appealing but the vitamin and mineral content is so small it would be insignificant. However may be a better option. Remembering that we are not encouraging a sweet tooth!!

Allulose is billed as the natural ultra-low calorie sweetener but is made from genetically modified corn and has only been approved for use by the USA.

So reading this, on closer inspection the alternatives to sugar do not seem to be as healthy as they could be but the bottom line here is that whichever way you choose to sweeten your food (if you need to) the sweeteners that have little or no impact on insulin would be my choice but in very small quantities and only occasionally.

Blog originally written by Caroline November 2015 - checked April 2020

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