A question of sugar
Consuming large quantities of sugar is bad for us. Health authorities are seeking ways to reduce consumption of sugar. Here’s how.
White or brown: A cube of sheer sweetness to be consumed in moderation. ©Shutterstock/5PH
Sugar is mainly extracted from sugar cane and sugar beet. Chemically speaking, sugar, or sucrose, is a combination of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, molecules with equal levels of sweetness.
According to Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization (WHO), “From a nutritional point of view, we don’t need sugar in our diet. If we do eat sugar, consumption should remain below 10% of our total energy requirements.” This corresponds to around one 500 ml sugary drink a day, or 50 grams (the equivalent of twelve teaspoons) of sugar a day. WHO also points out that ensuring our consumption of free sugars remains below 10% of our total energy intake considerably reduces the risk of dental caries, excess body weight, and obesity.
The term ‘free sugars’ refers to the monosaccharides (such as glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) naturally present in honey, syrups, fresh fruit juice and fruit juice made from concentrate, as well as to those added to drinks and food by manufacturers, chefs or consumers1. WHO recommendations do not apply to the sugars in fresh fruit and vegetables or milk, as there is currently no data proving their potential harmfulness, and the risk/benefit ratio remains in favour of the consumption of fruit and vegetables.
“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.
“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.