The bittersweet truth about sugar

Posted on 8 August 2016

On average, South Africans consume 24 teaspoons of sugar per day – more than double the World Health Organization guidelines for maximum daily intake! Registered dietician Jandri Barnard of Mediclinic Newcastle talks us through statistics and the new sugar tax, the good and the bad of sugar, and healthier alternatives.

South Africa, more than 20% of adults and up to 9% of children between the ages of seven and nine are overweight. There has also been an increase in the prevalence of diabetes, with two people being diagnosed every 10 seconds and an estimated 8–10% of South Africa’s population being affected.

From 1985, when 30 million people had diabetes, its prevalence has increased six-fold and today more than 230 million people worldwide are affected by diabetes. This number will increase to more than 350 million within the next 20 years – thus more people will have diabetes in 2025 than the current populations of the United States, Canada and Australia combined!

Sugar tax

Without effective prevention, the incidence of diabetes is likely to continue rising in South Africa and globally. But the new sugar tax, effective from April 2017 in South Africa, may help to reduce our sugar intake and decrease the prevalence of diabetes. This new regulation is in line with the Department of Health’s strategic plan to decrease obesity in South Africa by 10% by 2020.

We consume added sugar in tea, coffee or porridge, and as an ingredient in baking. But the big culprit is hidden sugar – found in processed foods, cold drinks, fruit juices, tinned foods and cereals – which forms a large part of our daily intake.

A higher tax will be suggested for sugary drinks without a nutritional analysis label in order to motivate companies to supply the public with the necessary information to make informed decisions. Natural sugars found in fruit juices will be excluded from the tax, but fruit juices with added sugar will be taxed the same as fizzy drinks and energy drinks.

Any sugar ingredient high in kilojoules, such as sucrose, corn syrup and concentrated fruit juice, will also be taxed under this new regulation. Hopefully this will assist in reducing South Africans’ average sugar intake.

Is all sugar bad for you?
Registered dietician Jandri Barnard of Mediclinic Newcastle says sugar can play a positive part in our diet as a source of food energy, but in general our sugar intake should be decreased.

Sugars found in food can be divided into four categories:
•    Glucose: in fruits, vegetables, table sugar, honey, milk products, cereals
•    Fructose: one of the main sugars in fruit, also in vegetables and honey
•    Galactose and Lactose: mainly in milk products
•    Sucrose: in fruits, vegetables, table sugar, honey

Sugar has many applications in cooking and baking, being an essential ingredient for:
•    improving taste and texture
•    providing sweetness
•    serving as a preservative in jams and jellies
•    increasing the boiling point or reducing the freezing point of foods
•    allowing fermentation by yeast
•    reacting with amino acids to produce colour and flavor compounds important to the taste and golden-brown colour of baked goods
•    making foods that have limited moisture content crisp.

The dangers 

During digestion, all food carbohydrates (starches and sugars) break down into single-molecule sugars. These sugars are absorbed from the intestine into the bloodstream and travel to the cells, where they are used to provide energy for cellular functions and support our daily activities.

Although fructose is naturally present in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, an excess of fructose can cause a health hazard. While the glucose in sugar is metabolised throughout the body, fructose is processed mainly in the liver, into fats that can build up there and also enter the bloodstream. The resulting risk is obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

If sugar is so bad for us, why do we crave it? The short answer is that an injection of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. All tasty foods do this to some extent (that’s why they’re tasty!), but sugar has a sharply pronounced effect.

Sugar counts 

Use this guide to calculate the amount of sugar you take in daily:
•    1 can regular soda = 9 teaspoons sugar
•    1 can diet soda = ½ teaspoon sugar
•    1 glass fruit juice = 3–5 teaspoons sugar
•    1 slice bread = 1 teaspoon sugar
•    1 glass sweet wine = 2 teaspoons sugar
•    1 glass dry/low-kilojoule wine = ½ teaspoon sugar
•    1 slab milk chocolate = 13 teaspoons sugar
•    1 small packet jelly sweets (70g) = 9 teaspoons sugar
•    100g low-fat yoghurt = 2 teaspoons sugar

Substitute sugar
Here are some examples of foods that containing hidden sugars – and healthier alternatives you can opt for.

Fruit juice: Infuse fresh water with slices of fresh fruit and vegetables such as oranges, apples, berries or cucumber.
Fizzy drinks: Infuse sparkling water with lemon, sprigs of mint or fresh fruit; or rather choose unsweetened, flavoured sparkling water.
Cereal: Swop your morning cereal for a bowl of rolled oats naturally sweetened with dried cranberries or apple slices.
Alcoholic beverages: Choose a drier variety of wine and add ice cubes to make it last longer; even better, cut out the booze.
Flavoured yoghurt: Stick to plain yoghurt and add chopped fresh fruit.
Canned soup: Opt for a homemade version and check labels carefully before you buy.
Salad dressing: Make your own by adding a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, instead of store-bought versions.
Tomato sauce: It can contain as much as 12g of sugar in half a cup! Read labels carefully and be on the lookout for hidden sugar such as corn syrup. Opt for tomato paste and fresh herbs instead.
Energy bars: These ‘convenient’ snacks are usually marketed as low fat and healthy, but the sugar in one serving can be as much as a chocolate bar! Why not try making your own?
Bread: Store-bought bread can be packed with sugar. Be mindful of the type of bread you buy for daily consumption.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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