Let’s Talk Sugar

Hi guys,  This is a feature I wrote for a “Writing for Publication” course I’m doing at the University of Edinburgh. There’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to sugar, so I’m planning to write more blog posts on the subject. Till then I need to do more research and more “investigation.”  (I’m not a nutritionist, dietitian or health expert. I’ve been interested in the topic as I lost my grandpa to type 2 diabetes, and my granny is a type 2 sufferer, and I enjoy reading on the topic) Thanks guys for reading!

Is 2015 really the year of healthy? Sugar has been in the limelight in the media in 2015. It has been trending among health bloggers and Instagrammers. Social media is buzzing with pictures of healthy meals and ab selfies. Nutritionists, health specialists are frowning at high sugar consumption. Jamie Oliver started his crusade against sugar, lobbying for a sugar tax to save the nation. Newspapers and magazines have been giving increasing attention to health conditions linked to excessive sugar consumption such as: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, obesity.

Unfortunately statistics and social media trends are not in alignment. According to the NHS the obesity level trebled in the last 30 years, while the number of people who live with type 2 diabetes doubled since 1996. There are 3.9 million people in the UK living with diabetes, 90% of which are type 2 sufferers. As November is the National Diabetes Awareness Month let me take you on a journey to discover the modern-day life of sugar.

Is there such thing as healthy sugar?

“Sugar is sugar, whether it’s white, brown, unrefined sugar, molasses or honey, don’t kid yourself: there is no such thing as healthy sugar.” – Catherine Collins, NHS dietitian

Although it is not known where sugar originated, it is thought to have been used, along with honey as natural sweeteners for thousands of years. Sugar, once a luxury product known also as ”white gold,” enjoyed by a few only a couple of centuries ago, is now added and hidden, without any exaggeration, in most of our foods and drinks.

When we talk about sugar we need to differentiate between two types of sugar: natural and added sugars. Sugars found in vegetables, fruits (fructose), dairy products (lactose) are naturally occurring sugars, or “natural sugars.” Following the vocabulary of the NHS and World Health Organization, “free or added sugars” are sugars that are added to food in order to sweeten, enhance flavour, improve texture and preserve food.  Free sugar also naturally occurs in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. They offer “empty calories” and no nutritional value and thus eating, drinking too much of them will result in adding extra calories and gaining weight.

How much is too much?

WHO recommends us to reduce our free sugar intake to less than 10% of our total energy intake, and encourages us to reduce it below 5% to gain further health benefits. Let’s talk facts: 5% of your daily calories is about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of sugar. NHS claims that Britons eat more than three times more of the recommended sugar intake, about 700g of sugar a week that is 140 teaspoons per person.

Always check the ingredients list: if one of the various forms of sugar is high up on the list, it is high in sugar. “High-sugar food” contains more than 22.5g per 100g, on the other hand “low-sugar food” contains less than 5 g per 100g. Look for food with 5 g or less sugar in it per 100g. “High-sugar drink” contains 11.25g per 100 ml, a “low-sugar drink” contains less than 2.5g per 100ml.

Why does added sugar cause so much trouble?

To fully comprehend what sugar does to our body, we need to talk about sucrose, glucose and fructose. They are commonly referred to as “simple sugars” and are important carbohydrates. While they taste the same to our tongue buds, our body can differentiate between these sugars and are used and processed by our body differently.


Sucrose is commonly known as table sugar, and is obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets. It is also found naturally in fruits and vegetables. When sucrose is consumed an enzyme separates it into glucose and fructose. Glucose, also known as blood sugar, circulates in our blood. Our body processes most carbohydrates into glucose and it is either used immediately for energy, or stored in our muscle cells, or in the liver as glycogen for later use. Fructose is found naturally in many fruits, and it is also added to soft drinks, fruit flavoured drinks, biscuits, cereals under the name of high-fructose corn syrup, a fructose-based sweetener. The absorption of fructose to our blood is very fast if the source is high-fructose corn syrup. Fructose can only be processed by the liver and thus it can increase its workload. It is highly addictive and makes us eat more as it has no corresponding “we’re full now, stop” switch in the brain. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association looked at brain imaging scans after eating either fructose or glucose:

“fructose, but not glucose, altered blood flow in areas of the brain that stimulate appetite. When we take in high-fructose corn syrup and fructose, it stimulates appetite and causes us to eat more.”

Eating too much of the sugary stuff may affect your cardiovascular health and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It may also lead to liver damage according to a research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It is a major contributor to tooth decay, weight gain and obesity. Added sugar boosts the levels of dopamine in the brain.

“Dopamine gives you a high, and that’s why the more sugar you eat, the more you think you want.” – Dr David M. Nathan, a Harvard Medical School professor and the director of the Diabetes Centre

War against sugar: Is “sugar tax” the answer?

“We need lots of different approaches to help people reduce their free sugar intake. Although a taxation program wouldn’t solve the entire issue, using money raised could help improve nutrition education for the next generation or even subsidise fruit and vegetable for all.” – Lucy Jones, Dietetian

We saw how Jamie Oliver declared war on sugar earlier this year with his “Sugar Rush” campaign. Some argue taxation is not the way and money should be raised through different sources to support NHS and food education. Jamie Oliver argues that along with food education higher tax should be introduced on sugary drinks and foods to discourage people from consuming these products, just like in France, Mexico and Hungary.

The world-known chef, to prove his seriousness and passion, introduced a self-imposed levy in his restaurants from 1 September 2015. It is a levy of 20p/litre on soft drinks with added sugar. That is approximately 7p for a 330 ml can of fizzy drink. He says, “The levy is about raising money, but also about raising awareness of what sugary drinks do to our bodies.”

“I’ve never said ban sugary sweetened drinks, I’ve never said stop using it. I think there’s honest sugar and dishonest sugar. Surprisingly, I think a chocolate bar is quite honest, always being what it is. We’ve always  known a cake, or a bit of chocolate to be an indulgence. And, when there’s a humongous amount in sugary sweetened drinks, which just to remind you is the largest single source of sugar in our children’s and teenagers’ diet… that’s why I believe they earned the right to higher responsibility and in my opinion tax.” – Jamie Oliver

I had the chance to do an interview with a manager from one of Jamie’s Italian restaurants. I was really interested whether the self-imposed “sugar tax” made any difference so far and what was the reception among customers. ‘In general people are okay with the decision. Many of the customers saw the show on TV and they have a general idea what Jamie’s trying to do. Of course, there’re always people who don’t understand.’ said the manager. Change in the amount of soft drinks consumed in the restaurant due to the levy ‘is not noticeable,’ says the manager. Jamie claimed, during his hearing in front of the Health Select Committee in October, that there was a 6-7% drop in consumption of soft drinks in 46 restaurants. ‘At the moment 650 forward-thinking restaurants’ joined his movement and he is hoping this number will rise.

He is passionately campaigning for a healthier country, for a healthier next generation. He sees his tax plan as ‘incredibly pioneering,’ a solution to the devastating health state of the UK.

Let’s food educate!

The first and most important step when it comes to cutting down on sugar is food education: check the ingredients and the nutrition information panel. We consume more added sugar through processed food and sugary drinks than we might think: cakes, biscuits, cereals, chocolate, savoury food, non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks.

Manufacturers are not making our life easier. They can list sugars added to food and drinks under various names: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, syrup, honey, fructose, molasses, fruit-juice concentrates, brown sugar, agave nectar, barley malt, evaporated cane juice, starch, maple syrup, rice syrup, ethyl maltol, corn sweetner.

Nutritionists, scientists, professors and personal trainers all agree that we can consume sugar in moderation. The key is treating sugary foods as a treat and not an everyday option for hydration and nourishment. We should opt for sugars that have less fructose content such as rice malt syrup, which is 100% fructose-free, or stevia, a plant-derived sweetener, which contains no sugar of any kind.

People do not like to be told what to eat or not to eat, and they should not be. Healthy means different to everyone. There has to be freedom of choice, but I firmly believe without food education and clarity in food labelling we cannot make the right choices. I cheer all the magazines, newspapers, health bloggers and Jamie Olivers for spreading the word, educating and inspiring us to live and eat healthier.


pictures: from Pinteres

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