Sugar has had a lot of bad press in recent years, and for good reason. As human beings we are designed only to tolerate very small amounts of sugar at any 1 time – 1-2 tsp max. Any more than this can cause our blood sugar levels to rise, which can deeply affect our metabolism (leading to diabetes), impair brain function and make us much more susceptible to obesity, heart disease and cancer. Sugar is also highly addictive – in fact, it lights up your brain on an MRI in the same way as cocaine, and studies on rats have shown that it is eight times more addictive! We all know what sugar is bad for our health, but another concern is that all sugar is being treated equally. So which sugars should we be avoiding, and which ones are acceptable?
The worst kind of sugar
Any processed or refined sugar is toxic to the body, and unfortunately, it is present in nearly all man-made foods – not just in cakes, sweets and desserts, but also in seemingly ‘healthier’ options such as cereals, salad dressings, pasta sauce, bread, ready meals and tinned foods like baked beans and soups. This is the sugar that can cause disease and should be avoided as much as possible.
You may be surprised to know though that the worst kind of sugar is actually fructose, the sugar molecule found in fruit. Fructose is the only type of sugar that we don’t have a ‘full’ switch for, which means we can just keep going and going! In addition, the majority of the fructose we consume is converted directly into fat. This puts extra burden on our liver and can lead to a whole host of diseases including fatty liver and nerve problems. Watch out for added fructose when making your food choices.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT FRUIT IS BAD FOR YOU. When we eat fruit whole, as nature intended, it has the necessary fibre, vitamins and minerals accompanying the sugar to help our bodies understand when we are full, and to slow down the release of sugar into our bloodstreams.
Healthy sugars – truths and myths
- Agave Syrup: whilst extracted from a plant, agave syrup is heat and chemically treated which destroys the health benefits of the plant. It is heavily processed and contains around 80% fructose! Contrary to popular belief, agave should be avoided.
- Maple Syrup: retains many nutrients and antioxidants when 100% natural, and has a fructose percentage of 40%, but it can be quite expensive. Watch out for cheap imitations as they may have added fructose.
- Date Syrup: not a bad choice, with a 30% fructose content, but not as sweet as others so you may be inclined to add more.
- Brown Rice Syrup: made from fermented cooked rice and 100% fructose free! It’s a great, cheap alternative to maple syrup, and can be found in health food shops.
- Coconut Sugar: derived from the coconut palm tree. More nutritious and lower GI than regular refined sugar, but still shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities.
- Raw Honey: a good source of antioxidants, and has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
My top five sugar tips
- Limit fruit to 2-3 pieces a day (but obviously an extra piece of fruit is a healthier choice than other sugary treats). Fruits with a lower GI make the best choices, such as berries, grapefruit and stoned fruits.
- Add healthy fats and protein when eating fruit such as nuts and seeds as this can help to reduce sugar highs and lows.
- Be wary of ‘low fat’ labels – which often means the food has added sugar to make up for the flavour.
- Restrict fruit juices, which contain the same amount of sugar as a can of pop!
- Avoid artificial sweeteners, which can be just as harmful for your health.