Is Sugar Bad For You? What Does Sugar Do To Your Body?

Sugar: it makes you fat, rots your teeth and we all eat too much of it. So what’s the main attraction to the substance, and how much do we really indulge?

Pretty much everything tastes better with sugar in it or on top of it. At least that’s what food and drink manufacturers seem to think. They season heaps of stuff you eat daily with sugar, even savoury foods like tomato sauces and salad dressings. So it’s highly likely you’ll be consuming much more sugar than you believed you were.

The UK has recently announced the introduction of a sugar tax in the form of a sugar levy on soft drinks from 2018 – and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has urged Australia to do the same. Your sugar addiction could end up costing you a lot of money down the track.

Sugar is one of the body’s main energy sources, so we need to eat some sugar as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. But too much sugar can lead to health problems, so it’s important to be aware of sugar content in your diet, particularly the ‘hidden’ sugars that are in processed foods.

Although sugar provides the body with less energy than fat, it still contributes to the ‘energy density’ of foods and drinks. This is the amount of energy that a food releases once it is digested, and it is measured in kilojoules (kJ). A gram of sugar releases 17kJ of energy, while 1 gram of fat releases 37kJ. Sugar is a carbohydrate that can be absorbed very quickly by the body and converted into energy. That explains why you get that instant sugar ‘hit’ with a hot chocolate and cake. But it doesn’t last. You’ll soon slump again and probably have to use another sugar hit to rally. Therein begins the cycle.

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How much sugar is okay?

Before we dive into the perils of sugar, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about. Sugars are carbohydrates, and “sugar” is essentially an umbrella term for any sweet carbohydrate. A carbohydrate is a source of energy, which sounds all well and good, however most common sugars are what we refer to as “empty calories”. This means that they contain a lot of energy, without having any of the essential nutrients that our bodies need, such as proteins, essential fats, vitamins or minerals.

Most of the sugar we consume on a regular basis is “refined” (read: processed), which means it falls neatly into the “empty calories” category. When you consume sugar, your body is faced with a choice: burn it for energy, or set it aside for later in the form of fat. Obviously the former option is much more attractive, but some bodies are just genetically unfortunate and are predisposed to convert the sugar and store it as fat. On top of that, our bodies are physically unable to use certain types of sugar as an energy source, and store them as fat by default.

There isn’t currently a recommended daily intake level of sugar in Australia, however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a new guideline strongly recommending that we reduce our ‘free sugar’ intake to be no more than 10% of our total kilojoule intake. This new guideline is based on solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars below 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of obesity as well as tooth decay.

‘Free sugars’ refers to sugars added to foods and drinks by manufacturers, cooks and you, the consumer, as well as those found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It doesn’t, however, refer to the sugars found in fresh fruits and vegetables, or those naturally present in milk.

If you’re interested in figuring out how much sugar you should be eating based on the new WHO recommendations, you can start by calculating your recommended daily energy needs on the Eat For Health website. Remember there’s one gram of sugar to every 17kJs.

For most adults, this works out to be no more than 50g or 12 teaspoons of sugar per day (1 teaspoon holds about 4g of sugar), from all sources of food and drink. However, Australians currently consume about 30 teaspoons of sugar a day on average – more than double the recommended amount!

Some not-so-sweet surprises

Most of the sugar we eat doesn’t come from us sprinkling it on food, it’s added before we buy it. Here are some common food items and their sugar ingredients.

Cereal

You might be wary of brightly coloured, sugar-frosted cereals, but your concern shouldn’t stop there. Healthier-looking cereals such as Nutri-Grain and flavoured Special K varieties pack a whole lot of sugar, and should be avoided. Look for breakfast cereals that are low in sugar, or even sugar free! Cheerios are a great choice, along with shredded wheat cereals such as Weet Bix.

Yoghurt

Typically, the lower a yoghurt is in fat, the higher it is in sugar or artificial sweeteners. One small tub may contain as many as six teaspoons of sugar (some in the form of natural sugars from fruit and milk, some added sugar).  For a healthier snack, choose plain natural yoghurt with active live cultures and add your own fruit.

Muesli bars

Healthy looking on the outside, absolute chock-full of sugar on the inside. The fruits, oats, and seeds you see in most muesli bars create the illusion of health, however most muesli bars pack several teaspoons of sugar, which is way too much for a snack. Look for muesli bars that are truly healthy, with small amounts of sugar.

Remember, “no added sugar” doesn’t mean that there isn’t too much sugar in the product.

Bread

Regardless of what type of bread you’re eating, you’re most likely getting a serious sugar hit from your sandwich. Everyone knows by now that white bread is full of processed sugar, but it’s important to know that most loaves that are labeled “whole grain” or “wheat” aren’t much better. A Harvard Study found that foods which claimed to be whole grain were actually higher in sugar and calories than standard white bread.

Be sure to check the list of ingredients, and only buy bread that doesn’t feature sugar in the first three ingredients, and has whole grain/whole wheat as the first ingredient.

Muffins

Don’t be fooled into thinking a muffin is a healthy snack just because it says it’s low in fat or high in fibre. In terms of sugar, most commercial muffins contain about eight teaspoons, making them no better than a piece of cake.

Pasta sauces

You might not see any harm in buying a jar of tomato paste to make spaghetti, but beware; the acidity of tomatoes often leads manufacturers to add a whole lot of sugar to their tomato purees. Look for one that has no added sugar, or even better, make your own at home.

Dried fruit

A long-time favourite for snacking on, dried fruit seems harmless enough doesn’t it? It’s still fruit isn’t it? Well, not exactly. Many varieties of dried fruit are absolutely packed with sugar, especially tart fruits like cranberries. Along with that, remember what we said about the dangers of fructose? Those warnings go double for dried fruit, because the high levels of fructose coupled with our body’s inability to say “stop eating fructose” create potential for some seriously harmful over-eating.

Fruit Juice

A large freshly squeezed medium fruit juice from the local juice bar typically contains 11 teaspoons of sugar, and while it may be natural and not refined cane sugar, ultimately, it’s still sugar with none of the fibre you’d get from eating the whole fruit. Stick to a small size and combine the fruit with vegetables.

Coca-Cola

This one’s a no-brainer. With 15 teaspoons of sugar, one bottle of Coke will put you over your limit for the whole day and, worse still, any sugar that isn’t used by the body will be stored as fat. Plus, as your dentist will tell you, this excess sugar will also increase your risk of dental plaque. Avoid at all costs!

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More sugar (food) for thought

Bearing in mind the majority of us should only be consuming 12 teaspoons of sugar per day, here are some more familiar products and their sugar content to factor in to your calculation of how much sugar you are really consuming on a regular basis.

Some scary examples:

  • 375mL can of Cola – 10 teaspoons of sugar
  • Two rows of milk chocolate – 8 teaspoons of sugar
  • Two chocolate biscuits – 4 teaspoons of sugar
  • 600mL bottle of Lemonade – 15 teaspoons of sugar
  • One scoop of regular ice cream – 3 teaspoons of sugar
  • 500mL bottle of Energy Drink – 13 teaspoons of sugar
  • 600mL bottle of Sports Drink – 9 teaspoons of sugar
  • Two small lollies – 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • Tomato sauce, 1 tablespoon – 1 teaspoon of sugar.
  • 200ml popper of apple juice – 5 teaspoons of sugar.

Calorie King Australia and Rethink Sugary Drink websites

Sugar quantities sourced from Calorie King Australia and Rethink Sugary Drink websites.

Why are sugary soft drinks so bad for you?

Sugary soft drinks are packed full of ‘empty kilojoules’ which means they contain a lot of sugar but have no nutritional value. A 600ml bottle of soft drink contains 15 teaspoons of sugar and about 1,000 unnecessary kilojoules.  These excess kilojoules can lead to weight gain and obesity. This is because people do not generally reduce how much they eat to allow for the extra kilojoules in the sugary drink.

That’s okay, I’ll have ‘diet’ soft drink instead…

Although diet soft drinks do not contain the same level of kilojoules as sugar-sweetened versions, it’s still wise to choose water or low fat milk instead. Water is the preferred source for hydration and low fat milk provides important nutrients such as calcium and protein, especially for children.

Diet soft drinks have been associated with over-eating and weight gain. It is not clear whether this is because chemicals in artificial sweeteners stop you feeling full, or whether people feel free to eat more because they have had a diet drink.

Be ‘sugar aware’

Paying attention to, and understanding food labels will go a long way towards helping you work out how much sugar you are eating every day, and whether you need to switch to alternatives or cut back on some products.

Sugars added to food include:

  • table sugar (sucrose) in all its forms (e.g. raw sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar)
  • concentrated sources of sugar like fruit juices, molasses, corn or rice syrup, or honey
  • sugars that ends in ‘ose’ (e.g. glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose).

Look out for all these sources of sugar when you read a food label. The ingredients in processed or packaged foods are usually listed on the label in order of much of each ingredient is present in the product. The ingredient present in the largest amount is listed first. So if sugar is near the top of the ingredients list, the product is probably high in added sugar.

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