Sugar has been the subject of scrutiny from health authorities and people worried about their health for quite some time now. This has been mainly because of its link in the development of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. This topic has been raising a lot of questions lately, should we avoid sugar completely? Just how sweet is too sweet?
Having a preference for sweet foods is not just something people with a “sweet tooth” claim to have. There is no doubt that a sweet taste can increase the pleasure of eating, therefore it is sought after.
Sweeteners can be grouped in nutritive and non nutritive.
Nutritive sweeteners provide energy. They can occur naturally in foods or they can be added when processing foods and by consumers to modify taste. A high intake is associated with a higher energy intake and lower diet quality. In other words, they do not pack a lot of nutrients but still contribute calories. And a lot! It may not come as a surprise to find out that the main contributor of added sugar is soda and energy or sports drinks. The rest come from grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, and candy. Health authorities advise to consume about 10% of total energy from added sugars or less, while the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicated that children, teenagers and adults (men even more so than women) generally surpassed this, especially teenagers with more than 25% total energy from refined sugars.
Sugar causes dental problems as well. Dental caries is caused by the destruction of dental hard tissue; this happens when bacteria consume the sugar left in teeth from intake and ferment it, producing acid which in turn destroys teeth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends reducing sugary snacks. A child, they report, consumes more than 3 of these a day, increasing the risk for dental problems.
It is important to check food labels for sugar processed foods. You can only avoid it if you know where to look. Read the ingredient list, any word with the suffix -"ose" is a sugar. Some examples are fructose, dextrose and glucose. Other forms of sugars are nectars, syrups, and fruit juices (sidenote: organic or not, they are still sugars). Cutting back on high caloric sugary foods and drinks, including milk, sport drinks, sodas, gourmet coffees and grain or dairy desserts will prevent sugar from stacking up.
What about the "alternatives"?
Non Nutritive Sweeteners are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and have few or no calories; they provide the sweet taste without adding up the sugar. They do tend to decrease energy intake when substituted for higher energy foods and beverages, although evidence is limited on their effectiveness in weight management. Even though their use has not been linked to any health problems, consumption of some of these, such as sugar alcohols has been known to produce GI problems; therefore consumption should be limited. There is great discussion on whether they could cause or not any conditions that we don´t know about yet and therefore some consider them an alternative. I prefer to avoid participating in human experiments, do you?
There´s no way of sugar coating this, chewing on fruits and vegetables, avoiding foods with a label, exercising regularly and training your taste buds to avoid any kind of sweeteners is a good bet on health.
To a long, productive, healthy and happy life.
Lucía Chávez, Nutritionist