While shopping for food products at the grocery store, have you noticed a new section on the Nutritional Facts panel: added sugar? That’s because it has become mandatory for companies to list how much added sugar is in every product.
Well, this is enough to make you wonder, “Is sugar really bad for the body?” We’ll start by saying YES and No! We know there is diverse information about sugar on the internet, but in this article, we shall separate the facts from fiction and tell you the truth about sugar and it's true place in our lives.
Before we talk about how sugar impacts the human body, we need to first understand what sugar exactly is. We advise that you read patiently till the end so you understand why we said sugar is both good and bad.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a type of simple carbohydrate that occurs naturally in different foods, from fructose in fruits to lactose in milk.
Basically, we have two types of sugars:
- Natural sugar such as fructose and lactose found in natural foods, including fruits, dairy, vegetables, and others.
- Added sugar, such as sucrose (refined table sugar) and concentrated sources like syrups.
When we discuss how good or bad sugar is to our health, we aren’t bothered about the naturally occurring sugar in your natural foods. Of course those sweet strawberries that you toss on your salad for lunch are very healthy.
More so, if you consume fruits, such as mangoes, oranges, pineapple, and others, you’re not only consuming sugar (as fructose), but also vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. All of the nutrients help feed your gut bacteria to metabolize the sugar in the fruit to keep you satiated for a longer period.
The main bone of contention is added sugar that most manufacturers put in their food products during the production process, either to enhance flavor or sweeten it.
Are there differences in composition between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar in food?
Most sugars today are essentially a combination of fructose and glucose in different ratios. So, the sugar found in natural foods such as apples is quite the same as that found in table sugar added to your burgers. Both are known technically as sucrose and are broken down by the intestine into fructose and glucose.
However, fructose is mostly handled by the liver, while glucose can be metabolized by any body cell.
So, What’s the Problem with Added Sugars?
When you take a soft drink loaded with added sugar (sucrose - glucose + fructose), for example, the liver processes the fructose content, but it does not know whether the fructose content is from a natural food, such as apple, or a soft drink, such as Pepsi.
So, what happens? According to Dr. Kimber Stanhope, an expert researcher at the University of California, “the way the liver processes fructose could be affected by some nutrients in fruits, including fiber, minerals, vitamins, and other bioactive components, which are not present in soda.” She added, “We don’t know if and how these nutrient components may counteract the negative effects caused by fructose overload in the liver.”
The main issue with added sugar is that it contains a high amount of fructose in comparison to glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is the main type of sugar added to processed foods, from soft drinks to sauces, breads, salad dressings, and snacks. This form of added sugar is made from cornstarch and it is much cheaper than regular sugar – the main reason manufacturers use them more.
Although high-fructose corn syrup contains the same sugar component as table sugar – glucose and fructose, the proportions are quite different.
One study analyzed many soft drinks and found that those sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, including Coca Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Arizona Iced Tea, and Sprite – contained roughly 60% fructose and 40% glucose. Whereas the regular sugar contains equal parts of fructose and glucose.
What’s the Implication of this High Fructose to Glucose Ratio in Added Sugars?
When you eat too much sugar, it means you’re consuming a high amount of fructose and glucose. Remember that the liver is involved here. So what happens is that your liver metabolizes the high-fructose content and converts it to fat.
Little wonder studies have shown that drinking a sugary beverage causes a rapid spike in the amount of triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream, as well as a reduction in HDL cholesterol, which is the good kind.
This higher triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol is one of the main reasons added sugar puts you at risk of heart disease. On the other hand, research has shown that when people reduce their sugar intake, it improves their overall cholesterol profile.
Natural foods with naturally occurring sugar almost always contain fiber, save for foods like honey, which have no fiber. The fiber content in these foods helps slow down the rate at which sugar is digested and absorbed. Also, fiber limits the amount of sugar you can consume in one meal.
A medium apple contains about 4 grams of fiber (roughly 20% of a day’s worth of fiber) and 19 grams of sugar. But not many people would eat three apples in one sitting. In the cases of soft drinks, a large percentage of adults and children can drink a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi, which contains 55grams of added sugar – this is roughly the amount of sugar you get in three medium apples, but no fiber.
The absence of fiber means more sugar will quickly leave your intestine to your liver, where it will be converted into fat.
People cannot stand getting that much sugar from fruit, but most people do not have a problem consuming high sugar contents from a soft drink or brownies or cookies.
Does Added sugar Cause Weight Gain
There have been a lot of discussions around whether added sugar contributes to weight gain. Well, after many decades of research, the truth is that sugar itself is not inherently “fattening.”
What actually causes weight gain is calorie surplus – consuming more calories than you burn. As more manufacturers include added sugar to their products, people consume foods with high calorie content, and often in higher amounts since it tastes a little better.
Unfortunately, the high calorie content in processed foods causes weight gain.
What is the Implication of Weight Gain to Overall Health?
One of the major concerns about added sugar is that it often leads to weight gain, and weight gain in turn increases your risk of several diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer.
What Does the FDA Require for Added Sugars in Food Products?
The Food and Drug Administration recommends the daily limit for added sugar to be 50 grams or roughly 12 teaspoons daily – 1 teaspoon of sugar is approximately 4.2 grams.
According to the U.S Department of Health Services (HHS) and the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), your added sugar should not exceed 10% of your total daily calories. This means on a 2,000 calorie diet, you should limit added sugar to 50 grams per day.
The American Heart Association recommends that men should not consume more than 36 grams of added sugar per day, and women should stay under 24 grams of added sugar per day.
How to Keep a Check on the Amount of Sugar You’re Consuming
Added sugar comes in various names, including fruit juice concentrate, confectioners sugar, molasses, barley malt, galactose, treacle, turbinado sugar, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, maltose, dextrose, maple syrup, brown rice, wheat, corn sorghum, caramel, and tapioca.
These added sugars are added to cookies, yogurts, smoothies, BBQ sauce, soft drinks, and other sweetened foods and drinks.
You need to be careful because some manufacturers label their products sweetened with fruit puree or fruit juice as “No Sugar Added” because they fall under FDA’s definition of naturally occurring.
Here are a few tips to keep a check and eat less added sugar:
- When you buy products off the shelf, ensure you check the ingredient list carefully
- Choose water instead of sugary drink
- Buy whole foods and cook from scratch instead of eating highly processed foods
- Add less sugar to your tea or coffee
By now, you should understand clearly why we answered “Yes and No” to the question, “Is sugar bad for the body?”. Of course we need sugar to survive. In fact, it is the primary source of fuel for our brains. Lack of sugar in your bloodstream can cause fatigue, an irregular or fast heartbeat, irritability and other symptoms.
However, consuming excess added sugar in your diet is bad and can lead to a wide range of conditions, including weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes, amongst others.
So the key is to consume sugar moderately. It is better to take it in natural foods such as fruits and veggies. But if you sometimes crave for some sweet treats, ensure you don’t go beyond the recommended daily limit. Always read labels carefully!
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