Sugar has always been an integral part of human diet. Initially only in its natural form in fruits and nuts, later through its extraction from sugar cane, thought to have started in Polynesia over 2500 years ago. It was not until the 11th century AD that western Europeans discovered refined sugars. Up to the second half of the 18thcentury it was extremely expensive and known as “white gold”.
Consumption has increased dramatically since then and this trend shows no signs of a reversal. By 1700 the average person in the developed world consumed 1.8 kilograms of refined sugar per year. In 2012, the average person in Europe consumed 39 kilograms per year. The effects of over-consuming refined sugars on health have been at the core of much debate over the years, however, both the rising epidemic of non-communicable diseases and continuous scientific research point to the devastatingly negative effects of refined sugar on the human body.
When we talk about refined sugar, we usually refer to sucrose. Sucrose is a molecule composed of one glucose and one fructose monosaccharide. Sucrose is obtained from sugar cane and sugar beets. Refined sugar has undergone an extraction and purification process, turning into crystals that are easy to add to foods. During the refining process the sugars are processed to the point where the naturally occurring nutrients from the cane and beets are lost. Sugar is often bleached white, or sold as a brown crystalline substance.
Many of the processed foods we eat have added sugar, which supplies energy in the form of calories, and little else – so we end up absorbing more than we need. If you live in Europe, for instance, there’s a good chance that your refined sugar daily intake is high – even if you don’t eat a lot of sweets. Refined sugar is hidden in more foods than you might think – ketchup, white flour, yoghurt, sodas – just to name a few. To give an idea, only one can of Coca Cola has 39 grams of sugar. According to the WHO, an adult should ideally consume less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of sugar per day. Ingesting too much refined sugar can have devastating effects on your health – raising your blood fat level, which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as filling your mouth with cavities.
Natural sugars are found in fruit mainly as fructose (and glucose) and in dairy products, such as milk and cheese, as lactose. The vitamins and minerals present in fruit and dairy products assist in thousands of cellular chemical reactions, fibre in fruit is food for your large intestine and helps slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption, and antioxidants protect against oxidative damage and premature aging in your tissue, including muscles, liver, heart and brain.
What’s the difference?
Whilst on the molecular level both natural and refined sugars consist of fructose and glucose, the main difference between them is how each one delivers these to the body. Fruits, for instance, are not simply fructose and glucose in different shapes. They contain a pile of nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants and fibre, whilst your typical table sugar does not. It is much harder to overdose on fructose and glucose in 10 oranges, compared to drinking 10 oranges worth of fruit juice with added sugar, as you will feel fuller quicker and longer when eating the oranges. Your tongue often cannot tell the difference between these sugars, but your body certainly feels it.
There’s such a thing as too much of natural sugar. Natural sugars are certainly better than refined sugars for your health, however, we cannot forget two crucial factors: amount of intake and a person’s activity level. Fructose and glucose can also be harmful if it is consumed in excessive amounts from natural sources. Overloading the body with fructose and glucose means the liver cannot use it all and stores it as fat.
How can I regulate my refined sugar consumption?
Luckily for you, once you’re aware of how widespread refined sugar is, it’s relatively easy to reduce intake. First, make sure to check the ingredients list, and if the product contains large amounts of added sugar, seek out healthier options.
- Don’t make the mistake to look for low-fat diet foods, which tend to be high in sugars.
- Be suspicious of sugar-free foods, these often contain artificial sweeteners.
- Swap white bread, pasta and rice for wholegrain versions like wholemeal breads, brown pasta and brown rice.
- Balance your carb intake with lean protein like chicken and white fish, helping you to feel full longer.
- Instead of sugar, add spices to boost flavour and taste in your cooking.
- As a snack, have a piece of fruit with a handful of nuts.
- Dilute your fruit juices.
At the end of the day, to get the energy that your body needs, it is best to turn to the purest and most simple forms of carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy products. Not only will they help you to prevent overdosing on sugar, but also provide you with other vital nutrients. The rule is simple: eat natural.
The Author: Julia Rahmani
Julia is one of the partners at Mani and is a healthy food enthusiast. She encourages you to dig deeper and understand what it means to eat a healthy diet and live a balanced lifestyle.