It may be that you’ve heard a lot of conflicting views on sugar. What is it, and how much is too much?
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that comes in two broad varieties: naturally occurring and added.
Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits, grains, beans and legumes, dairy products and starchy vegetables. These sugars are part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are found in regular (non-diet) soft drinks, sweets, candies, chocolates, baked items, fruit beverages, sweetened yogurts, ice cream, frozen yogurt and sweetened breakfast cereals. These sugars should be limited as much as possible.
The important sugar-fibre relationship
An important consideration for slowing down the absorption and digestion of food is fibre, which can lower the glycemic index (GI) of sugary foods. For example, an apple contains sugar, but also boasts a modest fibre content, which helps slow down its digestion. This results in a slower release of energy compared to processed apple juice from which the fibre has been removed.
Added sugars are those that have been extracted from the original fibre source and therefore will be absorbed rapidly and produce a higher glycemic response – hence the recommendation to limit added sugar intake.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance. For most women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about six teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or roughly nine teaspoons.
Sugar and your long-term health
Research suggests that a diet rich in highly processed, carbohydrate-rich foods may contribute to weight gain, interfere with weight loss and promote diabetes and heart disease. Instead, try to choose unprocessed (or minimally processed) whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. These natural foods will support your health by providing vitamins, minerals, fibre and other vital health-promoting compounds.
Nutritive vs artificial sweeteners
It’s also important to make another distinction, between two major types of sweeteners: nutritive and non-nutritive (also commonly referred to as artificial sweeteners).
Nutritive sweeteners provide calories (or energy) at about four calories per gram. Examples of nutritive sweeteners include agave, brown sugar, white sugar, raw sugar, maple syrup, molasses and honey.
Non-nutritive sweeteners, more commonly known as sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners, do not provide calories and will not influence blood sugar levels. Examples of non-nutritive sweeteners, along with their common brand names, include aspartame (Equal), cyclamate (Sucaryl, Sugar Twin, Sweet’N Low), saccharin (Hermesetas), sucralose (Splenda) and steviol glycosides (Stevia).
Health Canada approves all nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners that are sold in Canada, meaning non-nutritive sugar substitutes are considered safe to consume – for now.
Recent research, however, has shown that some non-nutritive sweeteners may play a role in disrupting gut microbiota, so stay tuned for more research in this area.
Somewhere in between are sugar alcohols, a subcategory of nutritive sweeteners. Common types include lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, polydextrose and isomalt. Sugar alcohols come from some fruits and vegetables and have been chemically altered.
Sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners provide fewer calories than regular sugar and can therefore help with weight control and management of blood sugar. Sugar alcohols, however, are also known to cause gas, bloating or diarrhea if more than 10 grams are consumed per day. Talk to your registered dietitian to see if they are right for you.
Be sugar smart
Ultimately, all nutritive sweeteners will have the same effect on blood sugar levels. Non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols do not provide as many calories and hence will not influence blood sugar levels to the same extent. That said, choose the sweetener you personally prefer, but above all try to limit the total amount of sugar you consume.
Learning how to read food labels on processed foods is an important skill. While the nutrition facts panel will show you an item’s total sugar content, you need to read the ingredient list to identify the source(s) of that sugar. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Sugar, by any name, appearing in the product’s first three ingredients indicates that the total sugar content is primarily derived from added sugars. If you choose to consume these items, consider reducing your portion size and/or frequency of consumption. Remember, when reading nutrition facts, every four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon.
If you’re concerned about your intake of sugar or sweeteners, or you want more advice on reducing your sugar consumption, book an appointment with a Copeman Healthcare Registered Dietitian today!