Sugar is a sneaky little ingredient that's in a considerable amount of foods in many forms. Despite its delicious and innocent taste, sugar has addictive properties and is linked to a variety of preventable health conditions. Although it's easy to label all sugar as "bad", there are types that, when eaten in moderation, may have nutritional benefits.
Types of Sugars
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate found in both food and beverages. Once eaten, sugar is broken down into glucose which is ultimately used for energy. Let's break it down some more with the most common types & examples:
1. Monosaccharides » glucose, galactose, fructose
2. Disaccharides » sucrose, lactose, maltose
3. Oligosaccharides » maltodextrin, raffinose
4. Polyols (sugar alcohols) » sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol
Natural vs. Added Sugars
These are naturally occurring in foods (i.e. not added). Carbohydrates (simple and complex) are naturally occurring in some shape or form in practically all whole fruits, vegetables, dairy and grain products.
+ fruit: primarily contains fructose
+ potatoes and yams: contain starch which are made up of glucose molecules
+ cow's milk: primarily contains lactose
These not only add sweetness to foods, but manufacturers add them into products to serve various other functions: preservation, texture and mouthfeel, volume, and rich colour resulting from caramelization. They can be found in:
+ soda/pop drinks
+ sweetened coffee or tea drinks (lookin' at you, Starbucks)
+ energy or sport drinks
+ fruit juice
+ many store bought cereals, soups, salad dressings, and oatmeals
+ dairy-based desserts such as ice cream or pudding
+ candies such as gummies or halloween candy
+ commercially baked goods such as cookies, muffins, cakes etc.
What about coconut sugar? coconut sugar, while it may have a small trace amount of minerals, is nutritionally identical to white granulated sugar and is best consumed in the same level of moderation
Effects of Excess Added Sugars
+ type 2 diabetes: has been linked to the habitual consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
+ weight gain: is connected to excessive intake of sugar. Having excess weight or obesity increases the risk for chronic illnesses such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and various forms of cancers.
+ fatigue: simple sugars can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels, which can come crashing back down making you feel tired and groggy. Complex sugars and carbohydrates break down slower, keeping the blood sugar more stable.
+ cavities: there is a strong association between sugar-sweetened beverages and dental cavities in children though adults can get cavities just as easily.
+ maple syrup
+ blackstrap molasses
+ agave syrup
+ corn syrup
Ultimately these liquid sweeteners are sugars, too. They contain about the same amount of calories as white sugar and are generally metabolized in the same way. Some have trace minerals in very small amounts. We still love to use these sweeteners for their wonderful flavours and consistencies in particular recipes; however, they should still be consumed in moderation.
+ acesulfame potassium
+ cyclamate (Sweet'n Low)
+ saccharin (Sweet'n Low)
+ stevia/steviol (Truvia)
+ sucralose (Splenda)
These sugar substitutes are zero- or low- calorie alternatives to the sugar options mentioned above. Because of this, companies market their products as "sugar-free", "diet" or "no calories". They are found in many diabetic products because they have little or no effect on blood sugar levels. Some can be made from natural leaf extracts, and some are manufactured. Most artificial sweeteners are also remarkably sweeter when compared to table sugar, meaning smaller amounts can be used to create the same sweetness level.
Considerations with artificial sweeteners
a. conflicting evidence
According to the most recent meta-analysis, artificial sweeteners have not been linked to health outcomes such as diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers or dental health. However, according to other analyses, they have been associated with increased BMI and other complications. In short, there are biases and limitations to the studies conducted so far and more research is needed.
b. compensating for other sugary foods
In our experience, when people consciously know they are having artificial sweeteners with no calories, they mentally feel they can compensate with something that does have sugar later on. This is similar to exercising and then treating yourself with an indulgent food as a result.
c. potential GI intolerances
Some artificial sweeteners include sugar alcohols, which if consumed in large amounts (say, in a beverage) can have a laxative effect.
d. can it really trick the brain?
Consuming artificial sweeteners lights up similar regions of the brain in terms of satisfaction as with all other types of sugar. Therefore, artificial sweeteners may not actually help curb sugar cravings from the root because we still tend to crave something sweet. In fact, one study suggests that we use sweet taste to predict the calories in a particular food. And when our bodies receive these non caloric sweeteners instead, it realizes the discrepancy and continues to crave, and can potentially eat even more.
Bottom line: we recommend whole food sources above processed foods including added sugars or artificial sweeteners. There is not enough conclusive evidence to lean one way or the other in terms of long term health effects. Therefore, if you enjoy the flavour and find you do not compensate for sugar elsewhere in your diet, including artificial sweeteners is likely safe include in small amounts.
Spotting Hidden Sugars in the Ingredient List
When it comes to the ingredient list of foods, only added sugars are listed. Granulated sugar is easy to spot in the ingredient list. But, food manufacturers can still add sugar in many other sneaky ways. Here are some more common types of sugar that can be added:
+ evaporated cane juice
+ dextrose or dextrin
+ cane sugar
+ invert sugar
+ liquid sweeteners (mentioned above)
Hint: any ingredient that ends in 'ose' or has 'syrup' in the title is likely a source of added sugar
10 Tips to Manage Sugars
1. Reduce: for most recipes, you can reduce the amount of sugar by at least 1/4 without noticing a large difference in the taste or texture.
2. Substitute: try using dried fruit puree, applesauce, dates, or mashed banana to replace some of the sugar in recipes such as muffins or cookies.
3. Spices & extracts: using spices such as cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice, and pure extracts such as vanilla, almond or lemon can help give flavour without adding sweeteners.
4. Hydrate: a sugar craving can also be mistaken for thirst. Try drinking a glass of water first, if you are craving a sweet beverage.
5. Speaking of fluids: limit sodas and energy drinks. Try these ideas instead:
+ jazz up your water by adding sliced strawberries or cucumbers
+ dilute 100% fruit juice with water to give it some flavour and cut down sweetness
+ try flavoured unsweetened carbonated water
+ if buying a flavoured coffee/tea beverage, request 1/2 or 1/4 sweet (fewer pumps of syrup)
6. Do-it-yourself: purchase unsweetened yogurts and plant-based milks when possible. You can add your own fresh fruit or drizzle of desired syrup to the yogurt to give it a touch of sweetness.
7. Incorporate fruits: if you crave something sweet after meals, try to include some type of fruit in the mix.
+ chocolate dipped strawberries
+ frozen banana halves dipped in yogurt with a sprinkle of almonds
+ baked apple pieces with sprinkle of cinnamon
+ frozen grapes
8. Sneaky condiments: condiments can have a surprisingly high amount of sugar added to them. When possible, make your own salad dressings, jams, and spreads so that you can control the sugar. Try our 2 ingredient jam recipe or our delicious chocolate spread.
9. Read them labels: We can't emphasize the importance of reading the labels to spot these sugar disguises enough. Know when to spot these sugars, especially when they are among the first few ingredients listed.
10. Give it time, it'll change the taste buds: once you've decreased the amount of high sugar foods in your diet and substituted home-made versions or whole food options, you might even notice that those intense sugar cravings gradually disappear. We "re-train" our tastebuds to appreciate the natural sweetness of foods and may not even desire highly sweetened foods after a while.
1. Health linkages: Excessive sugar intake in the form of added sugar, specifically in sugar sweetened beverage can contribute to an increase risk in weight gain, diabetes, cavities and other chronic illnesses.
2. "A rose by any other name...": Sugar can be disguised as many things, and it's valuable to be able to spot a source of sugar in an ingredient list to know what you are buying.
3. When you can, go for homemade: You have more control over what goes into your recipes and meals when you are in control of the ingredients. This allows you to sweeten dishes using food sources such as fruits in place of refined sugars when possible.
4. Not all sugar is "bad": natural sugars from food sources, like fruit, are delicious and have added benefits of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Restricting absolutely all sugar from the diet is practically impossible and certainly not recommended.
Want To Learn More?
» Read our previous article called HEALTHY FOOD HACKS » + printable guide
What About You?
What are your favourite tips for beating sugar cravings? Let us know in the comment below or share your recipes with us on Instagram with the hashtag #pickuplimes.
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia