Is it possible that a cupcake with buttercream icing is not just naughty, but potentially harmful? Sugar may be the most maligned, argued about, avoided and craved foodstuff of all time.
In a lecture that quickly went viral, paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig goes as far as to call it a poison. Other experts say that, apart from rotting your teeth and expanding your waistline, sugar isn’t harmful.
So who’s saying what, and why? Here we tackle 4 big sugar shockers.
Is sugar responsible for obesity?
David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, points the finger squarely at sugar for the rise in obesity levels over the past three decades.
"We can eat as much sugar as we can shove down our throats and never feel full for long,” he says. “It is impossible not to get fat on a diet infused with fructose.”
Nutrition Professor at the University of Sydney, Jennie Brand-Miller, disagrees. She says it’s not just excess sugar, but any excess kilojoules consumed, that cause weight gain.
The body is efficient. If you consume kilojoules excess to demand, then your liver will convert the extra into fat and store it, like a squirrel hoarding nuts for winter. Only for us, there is no winter, and nourishment is in supply year-round, making extra kilos hard to budge.
Brand-Miller is more concerned about refined starch than sugar.
“We eat twice as much refined starch as refined sugar,” she says. “Rapidly digested starch increases blood glucose levels more than sugars.”
Brand-Miller suggests sugar be used only to complement nutritious foods, like honey on natural yoghurt or chocolate flavouring in milk.
Why is it so easy to overeat sugar?
We eat far more sugar than we realise as it appears in unexpected places.
In Australia, the sugars that occur naturally in milk, fruit, vegies and grains account for half of the sugar we eat. The other half is from refined sugar that’s added to processed foods.
Beware of seemingly innocuous foods like salad dressings and cereals. Always check the ingredients. A product is high in sugar if it is listed in the first 3 ingredients.
Here are 3 foods to wheel your trolley by.
Fat-free flavoured yoghurt. Yes, there’s some calcium and other good stuff, but in a small tub, there can be as many as 6 teaspoons of sugar. A better option? Low-fat Greek yoghurt with fresh fruit.
Microwaveable porridge. Unprocessed oats are highly nutritious, full of insoluble fibre. Pre-packaged flavoured porridge is a refined product, meaning it’s been stripped of much of its original nutrient content and fibre. There’s a whopping 9.2g of sugar per serve in some products.
Try our Bircher muesli for a fresh and naturally sweet alternative.
Sauces. Barbecue sauce is one of the sweetest condiments on the market. Many of the barbecue sauce products on the supermarket shelves are more than 50% sugar.
"It has more sugar than chocolate sauce,” says David Gillespie.
Tomato sauce isn’t much better. Try using other tasty condiments such as:
- Wholegrain mustard
- Lemon juice
- Fresh and dried herbs and spices
- Homemade relish
- Homemade tomato salsa
- Low-fat Greek-style yoghurt
Does sugar cause premature ageing?
We know that too much exposure to the sun results in looking old before our time, but there’s another age-accelerator to worry about: refined sugar. Is drinking soft drink akin to sunning yourself to a crisp?
It can be, but sugar is not the only culprit.
Eating too much refined carbohydrate (including sugar) results in high blood glucose levels, which in turn leads to increased glycation, a process that increases the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). These AGEs contribute to premature ageing by attaching to proteins in the cellular matrix in the deep layers of the skin, making them stiff and malformed.
The result? The collagen and elastic become weak and discoloured, which means wrinkles, sagging and dullness.
That said, glycation is a part of ageing, and it happens to everyone over time. And not just to your skin, but to your entire body.
You can help offset the damage of glycation by eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and other unrefined foods and avoiding refined sugar and starches.
Is sugar addictive?
Researchers from Princeton University have described sugar as being as addictive as cocaine.
Ordinary people also describe themselves as being addicted to sugar, but there’s no known physical reason for these cravings in the way there is for, say, nicotine. So do we need to go to rehab?
Here are 3 reasons why you might crave sugar.
- Most drugs of abuse increase dopamine in the brain. Research suggests that sugar cravings come from the dopamine release that occurs after eating refined carbohydrates in the area of the brain that plays an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, aggression, fear, and the placebo effect.
Our bodies are genetically hardwired to seek out sweet things. In caveman times we could afford to stock up on high calorie foods to maintain the energy we had to expend to procure them. But now that sweet tooth has been exploited by way of highly salty and/or sugary processed foods, and we don’t know when to stop.
- Using sugar as an emotional crutch. Do you promise yourself a packet of chocolate buttons to get through the afternoon? A bowl of ice cream after a bad day? On her blog Sarah Wilson, ex-sugar addict and journalist, suggests overcoming cravings by cleaning your teeth after meals.