An increasingly faster pace of life is what defines the modern human of today. Our need for convenience means we’re often eating on the go, at our desks or in front of bright screens. We are jumping on public transport or driving everywhere because we want to get to places quicker. Constant exposure and promotion of unhealthy foods on TV, billboards, supermarket shelves and at sporting events, means certain brands are at the forefront of our minds when making daily food choices. Add in the increasing accessibility to nutrient poor processed foods, which are often cheaper to purchase, and we are left consuming added sugar at an alarmingly high level.
The sweet, soluble carbohydrate that’s got everyone talking appeared on the scene in New Guinea in 8,000 BC and arrived in Europe by the 12th century; at this point it was status symbol for royalty. In 1955 the sugar vs. fat debate started, but up until this time sugar was still a treat. As a result, the low-fat movement begun, the amount of fat in our food system was reduced and all the while, sugar continued to creep in.
Made up of two simple sugar molecules — fructose and glucose — it’s the ingredient that nobody needs yet everyone craves. Everything in moderation is my motto, but we are human after all and certain factors like our environment, chronic stress and poor sleep can all play a part in what and how much of it we choose to put into our bodies. So, what exactly happens when we overindulge?
Glucose has the ability to raise and spike blood glucose levels, and overtime this can lead to insulin resistance. Fructose is much sweeter than glucose and can overload the liver. The average Australian consumes 14 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which is over twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for health benefits. And with around 80% of processed foods now containing added sugar, how can we make sure that we are not consuming too much of it?
The issues surrounding why and what people eat are complex. As the nutrition consultant for That Sugar Movement, I receive thousands of public requests for information from people who want access to clearer information. The feedback I’m getting is that people just don’t know how much sugar is in their products purely because they can’t decipher the information found on the food labels. Companies use confusing messaging and marketing ploys to fool us into thinking that our sugar number is lower than what it really is. Did you know that there are over 70 different names sugar can be disguised under? Some like brown, cane, and coconut palm sugar you would have heard of, but what about diatase, ethyl maltol or maltodextrin?
Natural vs Added
In my opinion, understanding the difference between natural and added sugars is really important and still a concept that a lot of people struggle with. The fact that added sugars are not separated from natural sugars on the nutrition panel in Australia doesn’t help consumers make informed decisions. I hope this is something we will see on packets soon.
Natural sugars refer to fructose from whole, unprocessed fruit and vegetables, and lactose from dairy products. For most people, they are not of concern and are safe to eat thanks to the fibre and water in the fruit and vegetables, and because lactose is metabolised differently to other sugars. Therefore, natural sugars in these forms do not contribute to our daily added sugar intake.
Conversely, added sugar refers to sugar that is added to food by the manufacturer or consumer during processing or preparation. Here, we also need to include free sugars such as honey, and fruit juice, concentrates and syrups. The sugar has been stripped of its natural packaging and as a result, they have the same impact on the body as an added sugar.
Let’s not forget the front of pack claims some products proudly display. While they might be ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ it that doesn’t mean they are healthier or low in sugar. The best way to avoid the label confusion is to eat mostly fresh, minimally processed foods that don’t need an ingredients list, and come in their actual ‘natural packaging’ like skins and peels.
Common claims and what they simply mean:
- No added sugar- no sugar can be added but free sugars can be such as fruit juice, concentrates and syrups.
- Gluten free (endorsed)- validates that the product is safe for those who have coeliac disease.
- Low GI- indicates it will have minimal impact on blood glucose levels.
- Organic- grown or manufactured free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibodies.
- Lite or light- often presumed it is referring to fat or kilojoules, however it is an ambiguous term that could refer to colour, flavour, texture or another nutrient.
- Natural- could refer to any ‘natural’ aspect of a product.
Jennifer Peters is a Public Health Nutritionist with extensive experience in the health & food industry. She is That Sugar Movement’s nutrition consultant and is responsible for designing their consumer, corporate wellness and early learning programs.