What You Should Know about Sugar

December 8, 2015

Sugar has been getting a lot of negative attention lately. American cities have tried to ban extra-large soft drinks. The Canadian Diabetes Association and some municipalities want a tax imposed on sugar-sweetened beverages. Some articles claim certain kinds of sugar are worse for you than others. The New York Times posed the question: “Is Sugar Toxic?”

If you’re trying to be practical about healthy eating, what is it you should know to make smart choices?

The bottom line, as with many foods, is that eating too much can have a negative impact on health, said Kathleen Turner, a Registered Dietitian in the Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre at the Ottawa Heart Institute.

“Eating too much sugar may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and dental caries,” she explained. And people living with diabetes or obesity are at higher risk.

Some Sugar Basics

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that provides energy but no other nutritional benefits. Other carbohydrates, such as starch and fibre, do have nutritional benefits. There are two types of sugar. Monosaccharides are the most basic sugars and include glucose, fructose and others. Disaccharides consist of two monosaccharides and include table sugar, maltose and lactose.

For the most part, all sugar affects your body in pretty much the same way – as long as you don’t have more than the recommended amounts, said Turner.

The sugar we consume is either a natural part of the foods we eat, such as in fruit, dairy and grains, or is added during manufacturing, cooking or other preparation, such as putting sugar in your coffee. These added sugars and other concentrated forms, such as syrups, honey and fruit juices, are the ones we need to pay attention to.

“The sugar that occurs naturally in whole foods comes with other nutritional benefits which can include fibre, vitamins, fats, and other types of carbohydrates,” Turner explained. These foods are healthy because the other components have nutritional value and help make you feel full, helping you limit the amount you eat.

It’s easy to over-consume the sugars in soft drinks, prepared foods and even some of our own cooking because the amounts of sugar can be very high. The Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates that Canadians get up to 13% of their total calories from sugars they add to their own food.

People who consume from 10 up to 25% of their total calories from added sugar have a 30% higher risk of death from heart disease or stroke than people who consume less than 10%. For those who consume 25% or more of calories from added sugar, the risk is nearly tripled, according to Heart and Stroke.

Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and juices are big culprits when it comes to getting too much sugar.

“Liquid calories such as pop, juice, energy drinks, or vitamin waters can really add up quickly,” Turner said. A single 355 mL can of sugar-laden pop contains about 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of sugar, making it easy to go above recommended levels. Plus, they don’t have any health benefits.

Recommended daily levels of sugar vary from person to person, depending on their energy needs and metabolism.

The World Health Organization and Heart and Stroke both suggest daily added sugar intake be no more than 10% of your total daily calories, and ideally less than 5%. This equals about 50 g (12 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Reducing Sugars in Your Diet

“Use less sugar in your cooking, buy fewer pre-made products, reduce the sugar in your coffee, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, including pop, sweetened vitamin waters and juice,” Turner recommended. “Also, there is evidence suggesting that eating less added sugar might help to reduce your risk of chronic disease.”

She suggests cooking more often at home using fresh, whole foods. When you can’t cook your own meals, look at the sugar content on product labels.

High-fructose corn syrup is a type of sugar that has received particularly negative media attention. It is widely used in food manufacturing. According to Turner, the evidence for whether it is worse for you than other forms of sugar is still unclear.

“The better thing for people to focus on is reducing their overall sugar intake regardless of the source. So, it’s not better to eat sucrose versus fructose. Its overall consumption of all types that is important,” she said.

Excess calories from sugar are stored in the body as fat which can contribute to obesity and increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

So, when it comes to reducing sugar, cook more often at home, use less processed food, and eat a variety of whole foods. Use less sugar in your cooking and limit your sugar-sweetened beverages. For easy to remember ideas about eating better, check out the Heart Institute’s 10 Tips for Healthy Eating.