Sugar has enjoyed the spotlight in recent months. More clients have been coming in confused or fearful about the white stuff. Sugar tax, a Maroon 5 song, That Sugar Film and countless other publications have contributed to this being the case. Often in the world of nutrition, the world takes a very black or white standpoint. Something is either a super food or its toxic. Sound familiar?
There is danger in this though, because all context is ignored when we give a food a rigid label. In the world of science, and nutrition is very much a science, context is everything.
So, is sugar really that bad?
The simple answer: It depends. Let’s take a moment and consider the facts.
Before we get to sugar, let’s zoom out for a moment and talk about carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are a group of substances which include sugars, starches and fibres. Fibres and starches contain hundreds of sugar molecules and sugars contain one or two sugar molecules. Our bodies digest sugar and starches to simple sugar molecules, called glucose, which our bodies use as energy. Fibre is indigestible, but is very functional in the absorption of certain substances, slows the absorption of sugars and serves as a medium for probiotic growth.
We can categorise sugars in different ways. Added or free sugars vs natural sugars and refined vs unrefined.
In simple terms, added sugars would be sugars added to products, most often sucrose, whereas natural sugars would include fructose and lactose, naturally present in fruit, vegetables and dairy. If lactose or fructose would be added to products during manufacturing, they would then be considered added sugars.
Fruit juice would be seen as an added sugar, because juice isn’t the natural form of fruit.
Examples of refined and unrefined sugars are the following: refined sugars would be white sugar (cane sugar or high fructose corn syrups for example). Unrefined sugars or raw sugars include honey, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, cane juice, date sugar and molasses. The difference? With the exception of dates, which contains micronutrients and fibre, these sugars are not nutritionally superior. They would also be classified as added sugars when added to recipes. The energy content is the same, but the presence of the term “no refined sugars” on menus or packaging sends the message that a product is healthy. The price of these sugar alternatives also contribute to its perceived health status. Some studies suggest that we eat more of a product when we perceive it as being healthy- in this case, that very perception could lead to weight gain.
Combating the black and white approach to nutrition:
There is a big movement towards sugar free diets. It’s not always clear what is meant by this. Certain diets advocate quitting added sugars, while others promote cutting out most fruits and many vegetables as well as dairy to decrease sugar intake.
What’s the harm?
These recommendations are often not backed up by science or ignore the many proven benefits to eating a diet containing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and unsweetened dairy products. Aside from this, these fear mongering diets cause obsessiveness and anxiety around food, as well as a vicious cycle of restricting and overindulging. It is true that many South Africans do consume too much sugar. These sugars are mostly consumed in fizzy drinks, energy drinks and highly processed foods. We can safely limit these foods without permanently going sugar free.
Let’s get comfortable in the grey. Let’s not talk about quitting sugar and other potentially triggering diet mentality labels, but rather focus on the quality of the foods we are eating. Let’s not be fooled when fancy sugar alternatives are used in recipes or appear on ingredients lists. Let’s include a treat ever so often- even if it contains some good old fashioned cane sugar- and enjoy it mindfully and without guilt or fear.