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Sugar often has a bad reputation but we should consider that there are differences between natural, added and artificial sugars. In short, there is sugar and sugar, and each type affects our health differently.
It is now known that a high-sugar diet can pose health risks. Excessive sugar intake has been linked, for example, to an increased risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, inflammation, insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and heart disease.
A 2017 study published in BMJ Open found that cutting down on sugar is not only good for your health but could also save you a lot of money, as the aforementioned diseases are associated with high medical bills.
We must consider one important thing: the sugars found in a can of Coke or other carbonated soft drink are not the same as those contained in a cup of fresh berries.
Natural and added sugars: what's the difference?
Natural sugars are those found in whole, fresh and unprocessed foods, such as the fructose in bananas and other fruits or the lactose in a glass of milk.
"Foods with natural sugars tend to be low in calories and sodium and high in water and many important vitamins and minerals," explains Vanessa Voltolina, RDN, clinical dietician in Westchester, New York.
The fiber in fruit slows the rate at which the body digests it, so you don't get the same sugar spike you get after eating a donut, recalls the American nutritionist. And the lactose in milk comes along with a good serving of protein that provides long-term energy, so we feel full longer than when we drink a sugar-rich soda.
The added sugars, such as those found in snacks and "hidden" in many other products, are the ones to worry about the most.
These include the high fructose corn syrup, lurking in some ketchups and packaged breads, as well as honey or agave you might add to a cup of tea or smoothie.
Since they are often not found together with other nutrients that can offset their effect somewhat, such as protein and fiber, our body digests them more quickly, which can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. And over time, having a consistently high blood sugar contributes to health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
The consequences of excessive sugar consumption
The high amounts of refined and added sugars in snacks, sweets, and sodas have been linked to weight gain and the development of obesity in the United States (and beyond), as they tend to be calorie dense with none of the benefits. nutritional, remembers Dr. Voltolina. These types of sugars therefore, as mentioned, can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which can increase the risk of insulin resistance and ultimately lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
The added sugar can also increase the risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as increased triglyceride levels, which can contribute to cardiovascular disease. In a statement published in February 2021 in the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association (AHA) linked high intakes of added sugar with high rates of obesity and heart disease.
To avoid these risks, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend limit added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories.
The AHA recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day (approximately 25 grams) and that men should limit their added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons or less (approximately 36 grams).
Basically, if you add 2 teaspoons of sugar to your daily coffee, eat cereals or muesli that contain added sugar, and dress vegetables or salads with ready-made dressings and sauces, you may be close to your daily sugar limit as early as lunchtime and even without having consumed candy or dessert.
How to spot added sugars in processed foods
Just because you may not eat sweets like cakes, cookies, donuts and candies doesn't mean you don't consume sugar throughout the day. Added sugars lurk in a seemingly unsuspected series of foods, such as frozen processed foods, baby food, nuts, cereals, granola, instant oatmeal, salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauces, pasta sauces, flavored yogurt, protein bars and more. They are also found in organic foods.
Read also: Too much sugar hidden in food and drink, 5 tricks to find it (and avoid it)
The good news is that counting "added sugars" on packaged foods just got easier, that's enough read the label and nutritional table carefully.
Sugar can appear on the label with different names. Here are the most frequent:
- Sugar cane
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Barley malt
- Fructose sweetener
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Turbinado sugar
To identify added sugar, look for words ending with “-ose” and phrases that contain “syrup” or “malt”.
Always remember then that the ingredients of a packaged food are listed in descending order in terms of weight, therefore when you see these names at the top of the ingredients list, the product contains a lot of sugar.
The situation is different with natural sugars, for example those present in fruit, which are part of a healthy diet and should not be on the list of "bad" foods.
For some time now, international recommendations have advised us to consume at least 2 portions of fruit and 3 of vegetables every day. Fruit provides us with a good dose of natural sugars which, as already mentioned, have a decidedly different impact on our body since they are natural and accompanied by the presence of fibers.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes
As Dr. Voltolina recalls, the scientific community still does not agree on some artificial sweeteners on how safe they are.
There are sugar substitutes classified as "natural", such as stevia or "synthetic", which can include aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame, neotame and sucralose.
While people often choose artificial sweeteners to lose weight and reduce calorie intake, some research has found that artificial sweeteners can increase cravings for sugar and stimulate appetite. Simply replacing your sugary drinks with diet versions may not give you the positive results you are trying to achieve. An observational study found that diet soda consumption was associated with a 36% higher risk of metabolic syndrome and a 67% higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
A review of 35 observational studies, published in 2019 in BMJ, found that the use of sugar substitutes rarely led to beneficial health outcomes. Some participants lost weight and others improved their fasting blood glucose levels, but overall, the improvements in their body mass index (BMI) were not significant.
Bottom line, unless a doctor recommends switching to sugar substitutes for health reasons, it's best to eliminate artificial sugars altogether or at least minimize them.
And if you really don't know how to give up a little sugar in your coffee, add as little as possible, slowly getting used to its original flavor. In short, try to satisfy your desire for sweet foods by eating fruit or other foods that contain them naturally.
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