sugar in our diet

Author: Carmen Miletta Cossa 

The first evidence of crystalline sucrose production appears about 500 BC in Northern India [1]. Before this time, honey would have represented one of the few concentrated sugars to which "Hominins" would have had access. Although honey likely was a favoured food by all "Hominin" species, seasonal availability would have restricted regular access. Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers show that gathered honey represented a relatively minor dietary component over the course of the year, despite high intakes in some groups during short periods of availability.[2]

In the last 50 years, our consumption of sugar has increased exponentially. Initially table sugar was a luxury commodity, but it soon became cheaper and formed a large part of the diet of working families in the newly industrialised cities. In the 1970 another sweetener was introduced in the market: "High Fructose Corn Syrup" (HFCS).

HFCS is a fructose-glucose liquid sweetener alternative to sucrose (common table sugar). It is used as a sweetener in a wide range of processed foods, from ketchup and cereals to crackers and salad dressings and all king of soda drinks.

Recently, there has been much debate among scientists, nutritionists and consumers about the dangers of the Corn syrup for public health. Research has shown that high-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar. Controversy exists, however, about whether the body handles high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar.

At this time, there is insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners.

However, there is scientific evidence indicating that use of too much added sugar of all kinds (not only corn syrup) can contribute to health problems, such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels that boost your risk of heart disease.

So do we really need all of this sugar in our diet?

In the body, glucose is used by all cells to provide energy, and blood glucose or blood sugar is kept under control by hormones such as insulin and glucagon. The glucose in the blood can, however, be derived from starchy foods in the diet or from breakdown of body fat stores. No sugar is needed in the diet except in a few unusual situations such as insulin overdose in diabetics or after extreme physical exercise. Too much sugar, particularly if taken in small but frequent amounts between meals, undoubtedly leads to tooth decay [3].

It is also very important to make a difference between natural and added sugar. Added sugars are the ones we have spoken about  above and are found in a lot of processed food.

The natural sugars are the onesderived mainly from fruits and vegetables.

So how much sugar can we eat?

Natural sugar is part of any balanced diet. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables, rich in natural sugars will provide also a valuable source of vitamins and minerals. These natural sugars are not the source of health problems; the added sugars are responsible for the negative consequences of excess sugar in the diet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of total daily energy intake in both adults and children.

WHO suggests a further reduction of the intake of added sugars to below 5% of total daily energy intake. For an average adult not doing much exercise, this would be equivalent to about 6 teaspoons or cubes of added sugar per day, which is less than the amount in one can of regular soft drinks.

How to minimize sugar in your diet?

The first and best way is avoid processed foods as possible and instead trying to satisfy your desire for sweet with fruits.

It is anyway not easy to avoid completely processed foods but we can avoid buying food that contains a lot of added sugars by reading labels and by taking informed and healthy decisions. Be aware that there are many different names for sugar: white sugar, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dehydrated cane juice, glucose, dextrose, syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, fructose and others.  

Here are some tips to minimize sugar in the diet:

  • Avoid food that contains sugar in the first 3 ingredients.
  • Avoid food thatcontains more than one type of sugar.
  • Be aware that other sugars often labelled healthy like agave, organic cane sugar, coconut sugar and honey enter in the same category.
[1] Galloway JH. 2000. Sugar. In: Kiple KF, Ornelas KC, eds. The Cambridge world history of food. Vol 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000:437– 49.
[2] Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century - Loren Cordain, S Boyd Eaton, Anthony Sebastian, Neil Mann, Staffan Lindeberg, Bruce A Watkins, James H O’Keefe, and Janette Brand-Miller
[3] Nutrition and Wellbeing – University of Aberdeen  - Sugars in the diet  - Geraldine McNeil, 2015