Know The Facts - About Sugar

Cubed refined white Sugar.
(pic from

I read from different sources (all the time) about sugar and the dangers it possess to health, but these sources are largely from organisations dedicated to certain causes such as obesity, diabetes etc. So when recently I read on a national newspaper that sugar is now regarded as the new tobacco, I just knew that I had to take even more serious look into this substance and how it can impact on me, my cooking and my health... (Read report here).

So the report states that the constant consumption of sugar and its presence of in virtually everyday food is being blamed for many human ailments. Question is; what is so bad about sugar? Is sugar really a menace to health? I researched to dig out some facts.

What is Sugar?
Sugar generally refers to the water soluble substance, produced from sugar cane or sugar beet, used to sweeten foods and drinks. Sugar, also known as sucrose, falls under the category of Simple Carbohydrate which the body breaks down to glucose and fructose.

How is Sugar Made?
Sugar is made by extracting the juice from either sugar cane or sugar beets and boiled down to remove moisture. This process yields crystallised sucrose. Further refining is carried out to bleach and granulate sugar to result in the bright white colour substance sold everywhere across the world.

Types of Sugar
Sugar comes in different types and varieties based on the processing it has undergone or the form in which it is packaged. The most common form is the refined, white, sugar, also formed into cubes, granulated, or finely ground into caster sugar or powdered icing sugar. There is also unrefined or unprocessed sugar which has undergone limited processing and has retained some of its natural nutrients. Sugar can also exist as syrups or nectar.

Nutritional Data
Common white Sugar (sucrose) provides the body with empty calories. Empty because it contains no protein, fat, vitamins or minerals. Based on 100g of commercial white sugar ( teaspoon of sugar (4g) yields 16kcals)

Calories - 387kcal
Protein - 0g
Carbohydrates (of which sugar) - 99g
Fat - 0g
Dietary fibre - 0g
Minerals - None
Vitamins - None

Health Concerns
It has to be pointed out that glucose (a component of sugar; all sugars are broken down to glucose in the body) plays a key role in some functions of the body. For example, the brain needs glucose as its only source of energy. This is true for some other body organs and tissues that depend on a reasonable supply of glucose to carry out their normal functions. All physical body activities that require movement or strenuous work require glucose energy. So lets establish the fact that glucose is important in the body in moderate quantities (which depends on age, sex, lifestyle).

Sugar High/Insulin Response:
All dietary carbohydrates (simple or complex carbohydrates) are ultimately broken down to glucose in the body, some quicker than the others. Simple carbs are quickly broken down and absorbed in the body while complex carbs take longer and slowly release glucose to the body.

The common sugar (sucrose) when consumed, is quickly absorbed into the blood and can significantly increase blood sugar levels instantly, causing a condition called hyperglycaemia.

A sudden hike in blood glucose level triggers the production of insulin (a hormone produced in the pancreas which is responsible for maintaining the balance of blood glucose level). When there is a surge in blood sugar levels, the body actually sees this situation as an emergency so insulin is produced quickly and often in dis-appropriate proportion to remove the excess sugar. Insulin initiates the process of removing and storing excess sugar as fat. The continuous storage and non usage of this fat (through leading an active lifestyle) leads to obesity.

When insulin is produced disproportionately, removal of sugar from the blood creates a decrease of blood sugar, a condition called hypoglycaemia. So the body will crave more sugar. Consuming simple carbs again will cause an instant increase in blood sugar and the insulin production cycle is repeated.

When this happens too frequently, it overworks the pancreas and over time, the body’s ability to handle all sugars, simple or complex, begins to weaken. The body becomes less sensitive to the production of insulin and this results in type 2 diabetes - insufficient insulin is produced to remove excess sugar from the blood stream.

Too much sugar in the diet is also linked to other medical conditions like Hyper activity, Tooth decay, Haemorrhoids, Eczema, Food allergy, Dehydration, Migraine, some types of Cancers, Cardiovascular disease and the list is growing!

The fact is that all types of sugars will cause an elevation in blood glucose level, so medical practitioners across the world are advising on the need to cut down sugar intake by at least 30%. It is also advised that consumption of complex carbs (which release energy slowly) should exceed the consumption of simple sugars.

When is Sugar too much?
According to the UK Food Standard Agency, any food which has more than 15g sugar per 100g total weight is considered to be high in sugar. A food is low in sugar if there is 5g sugar or less per 100g total weight.

Glycaemic Index (GI)
This is a measurement of the relative ability of a carbohydrate to raise blood glucose (sugar) levels. Foods absorbed slowly have a low GI rating, while foods that are more quickly absorbed have a higher rating.

Foods are given a GI number according to their effect on blood glucose levels. The higher the GI the quicker it is digested and absorbed into the blood stream. Foods with lower GI release their energy slowly and better regulate blood glucose levels.

Foods with GI over 70 are considered to be high. Moderate food have GI between 56 and 69 and low GI foods have an index below 55.

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of sugar (this depends on age, sex. lifestyle and level of activities/fitness)
Male: no more than 70g per day
Female: no more than 50g per day.

Examples of some everyday food, with high levels of added sugar, to watch out for (always read the labels): Soft (fizzy) drinks, malt drink, flavoured water, energy drinks, all manner of sweets and chocolate confectioneries, breakfast cereals, cakes, puff-puff, chin-chin, biscuits, ice-cream, packaged fruit juices (even those labelled as 100% squeezed), non-alcoholic fizzy drinks (e.g. flemish), Five Alive, all juice drinks (like Chivita, Caprisun), zobo drink, health smoothies, yoghurt, tomato sauces, barbecue sauces, pasta sauces, salad dressings, dips, and many many more.

All carbohydrates are broken down into sugar in the body. Complex carbs take longer to break down and release energy slowly. Simple carbs are broken down quickly and immediately impacts blood sugar levels.

How To Reduce Your Sugar Intake
  • It can be extremely difficult to avoid sugar completely especially when it lurks in virtually almost all types of foods, and for some people may be practically impossible because they have become sugar addicts!
  • The very first steps towards reducing sugar intake is to gain a full understanding of what sugar is and its effects to health. Embark on your own personal research into the properties of sugar and the knowledge you acquire will inform your every day choice/decision concerning sugary foods.
  • Swap the use of white processed table sugar for less refined natural sweeteners (such as molasses, palm sugar, maple syrup, agave or coconut nectar, honey ) which offer sweetness AND other nutrients.
  • Endeavour to enjoy the natural tastes of your foods and drinks and do not rush to add sugar to them.
  • Endeavour to cook your own food, bake your own cakes/biscuits, bread etc, because this way you can control the amount of sugar or type of sugar/sweetener you add.
  • Make your own sauces/condiments with any opportunity you have so as to avoid excessive intake of sugar from heavily processed sugar laden ones. Not always convenient but essential if your are serious about cutting sugar intake.
  • As much as possible, do not "drink" your fruits, eat them! This way you are guaranteed your intake of fibre from the fruit, which is really very essential for digestion and metabolism. Fruit juices have high concentration of sugars (even shockingly as high as fizzy drinks), though natural sugars but still have similar effects on the blood stream as refined sugar.  
  • Reduce snacking and focus on eating three main meals which contain lots of complex carbohydrates, proteins and good fats.
  • If you must eat a dessert or sweet treat, watch your portion and limit the frequency at which you have one. Moderation should be your watch word!

Check the labels!
If content of a food item states that there is more than 15% sugar (i.e. 15g of sugar per 100g weight of product), then that item is high in sugar! Some terms used to indicate the presence of sugar listed in the ingredient list of a packaged/processed food item, include:- glucose, sucrose , maltose, corn syrup, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, fructose, dextrose.

Sugar Alternatives
I have found several other alternatives to sugar and I vary them depending on what I am cooking. There is a wide range of artificial sweeteners (saccharine, splenda etc.) but I tend to avoid them because most of them have associated health issues of their own.

I always opt for natural sweeteners because they are able to offer the desired sweetness in addition to natural nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Also most of them have lower glycaemic indexes compared to sugar.

Some of my favourites are

Honey: (Honey is perceived as the all time healthy alternative to sugar because it is believed that raw natural honey provides sweetness as well as numerous beneficial nutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes, flavonoids, antibacterial chemicals, pollen and antioxidants). Though it has a relatively high GI of 58 like sugar, its by far the better choice in your tea, coffee, desserts etc.)

Agave nectar: (When agave was introduced to the market, I rushed to purchase to discover its properties which include its very low glycaemic index. Agave nectar is made from juice extracted from agave cactus plant, and touted to be a healthier sugar alternative. However, there are some concerns about its very high fructose content.)

Sugar cane juice: (Sugar cane juice is so refreshing and I love to use it in cocktails and drinks instead of fructose syrups. Its is however not easy to come by. Raw juice is extracted from sugar cane with the use of heavy duty metal press. Its definitely a healthier alternative to table sugar. Contains reasonable amounts of sugar cane's natural vitamins and minerals.)

Maple syrup: (Made from the sap of the sugar maple tree. Maple syrup has a high GI with similar effects on the blood as sugar, but it has some small amounts of minerals and vitamins to compensate)
Coconut sugar: (Similar to palm sugar but made in a slightly different way from the sap of coconut flowers. This sugar contains higher amounts of nutrients compared to other sugars with respectable amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, chlorine, magnesium, sulfur, and other micro nutrients. Particularly good for cooking as it has a subtle flavour)

Molasses: (I used to overlook molasses until I discovered new information about it. Also referred to as treacle (particularly in the UK). Molasses is a by-product of sugar cane refining, very high in B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chromium, manganese and zinc. Its quite dark in colour so can easily change the colour of the food you add it to.)

Demerara: (I use this all the time. Its not the same as brown sugar though. Demerara is made from sugar cane juice heated until it turns into crystals and does not undergo rigorous processing as white sugar so retains lots of its minerals (in particular potassium) and vitamins. Has a high GI similar to sugar though and is packed with calories but use moderately.)

Palm sugar: (Discovered this through my Thai sister in law. Palm sugar is produced from the sap of a range of palm trees such as the date palm, coconut palm or sago palm. Palm sugar is high in amino acids, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron and has some vitamin B1, B2, B3, and B6. Has a relatively low GI with an absorption rate slower than that of white sugar.)

Date sugar: (Really excited to find this sweetener. It is made from ground and dried dates and is so rich in nutrients and fibre. It is metabolised more slowly than sugar and has a low GI)

Stevia: (Really excited to discover a natural sweetener with zero calories!!! Stevia is produced from a plant source and is most definitely a better choice over aspartame, saccharin or splenda. It's a bit of an acquired taste and requires getting used to. It's not really ideal for baking.)

Other uses
It will interest you to know that sucrose (sugar) is also widely used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries for making medicines. Check the labels!

  • Wikipedia
  • Dailymail Online
  • BBC website
  • UK NHS Service
  • UK Food Standards Agency website

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