“We eat far too many free sugars,” says Nathalie Jobin, coordinator of Extenso, the nutrition reference centre at the Université de Montréal. “Not only are these sugars unnecessary, but a high intake of free sugars increases the risk of excess body weight and obesity, which in turn heightens the risk of diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.” According to this specialist, favouring water, coffee, tea, milk or fortified plant-based drinks over sugary drinks or juices will reduce intake of free sugars. Meanwhile, fresh fruit, yoghurt or compote are ideal for dessert.
The debate concerning dietary allowances and the harmful effects of excessive consumption of sugar has intensified over recent years. The International Sugar Organization (ISO) observes that a growing number of companies are looking to reduce the amount of sugar in their food. Several countries have even introduced a sugar tax. In 2012, France, for example, introduced a ‘soda tax’ on drinks containing added sugar. By increasing the price of these products, authorities hope to dissuade consumers from buying them. Similar measures have been taken in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Other approaches are in the pipeline to reduce the intake of free sugars through food and drinks. WHO mentions revising food labelling, limiting the advertising of sugary food and soft drinks to children, as well as establishing a dialogue with the food industry with a view to reducing the quantity of sugar in processed food.
‘Slow’ sugar, ‘fast’ sugar: athletes’ allies
Athletes are well aware of the distinction between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ sugars. Doctors classify sugars from a nutritional standpoint according to their glycaemic index. In other words, sugars are grouped according to their effect on glycaemia (blood sugar level) over the two hours following their ingestion. Sugars with a glycaemic index below 55 (out of 100) are considered as ‘slow’. This group includes rolled oats, wholemeal bread, lentils, pasta and wholegrain rice. By contrast, ‘fast’ sugars present a high glycaemic index (above 70). Several studies have shown that food containing ‘slow’ sugars tends to be better for our health than food high in ‘fast’ sugars, which seems to favour obesity, the development of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
“Nowadays, we no longer talk of ‘slow’ or ‘fast’ sugars, but of complex and simple carbohydrates, and especially the glycaemic index,” confirms Valérie Ducommun, a dietician specialised in sports nutrition in Geneva. The glycaemic index of a foodstuff may vary depending on how the food is cooked. The longer pasta is cooked, the higher the index (pasta cooked al dente has a lower glycaemic index than pasta cooked soft). The presence of proteins or fat can also influence blood sugar levels.
“In practice, we favour food with a low glycaemic index in our day-to-day diet but, as we get closer to an intense training session or competition, we integrate food with a high glycaemic index,” continues Valérie Ducommun. “The digestibility of the food is also an element which must be taken into account, as a matter of priority.” She recommends eating rice, pasta and white bread three hours before intense physical exercise. Proteins and fats should be consumed sparingly. Likewise, chocolate and biscuits should be avoided before exercise, as they are high in fat and slow down digestion (some low-fat cakes and biscuits, such as gingerbread, can however be consumed). Surprisingly, sugary drinks are recommended before and especially during intense physical exercise, as they not only hydrate the body, but also provide energy through the sugar. However, it is important to choose wisely: Athletes should avoid fizzy drinks during a workout and check the dilution and composition of the drinks. Finally, never test a drink for the first time during a competition.
We consume a significant amount of sugar in processed food that is not generally seen as high in sugar. WHO uses the example of a heaped tablespoon of ketchup, which contains around 4 grams (almost a teaspoon) of free sugars. The International Sugar Organization estimates that 172 million tonnes of sugar were produced worldwide in 2014 and consumption of sugar has increased by around 2% over the past decade. Developing countries now account for 67% of the total consumption of sugar worldwide and this level will likely continue to grow in the years to come, particularly in Asia. This high demand and the resultant production constraints have resulted in a surge in sugar prices. However, it has also led producers to develop new sweetening products that are potentially less harmful to our health.
Sweeteners do as their name suggests. They give food a sweet taste. Some do not contain any calories, while others have fewer calories than table sugar. Some do not favour dental caries, while others are even sweeter than sugar! Sweeteners include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, potassium and stevia, a plant from South America with a low carbohydrate content but which contains chemical compounds with particularly high sweetening properties, making it an interesting substitute for sugar. WHO is currently carrying out various studies on how sweeteners other than sugar, including stevia, affect health.