Sugar… The Low Down

It is well documented that excess consumption of sugar on a regular basis can increase the risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, and other non-communicable diseases.

What is sugar?

Sugar is the general word for sweet tasting molecules that can be found in many different foods. Sugar, also referred to as glucose, is what many carbohydrates are broken down to by our bodies. This sugar then enters the bloodstream (hence the term blood sugar levels).

Unfortunately, sugar is becoming more and more difficult to identify in products due to the vast number of names which it’s hidden under. As a result, there is a table below to keep you up to speed.

SugarGlucoseCorn syrupMaltoseBeet sugarCane sugarGolden syrupMaple syrupDate syrup
High-fructose corn syrupBrown sugarMolassesSucroseRefiner’s syrupSorbitolGlucose syrupSourghum syrupMannitol/ Ethyl maltol
Brown rice syrupRice syrupCastor sugarFructoseDextroseHoney DextranMaltCarob syrup

What foods is sugar found in?

Whilst we tend to go straight to the obvious foods such as sweets and cakes but we often forget that ‘sugar’ is actually found within any foods that fall into the carbohydrate food group. These include fruits, vegetables, starchy foods such as bread, and milk products. There are different types of sugar. We have naturally occurring sugar and added or free sugars.

Natural sugars

These are the sugars that are found within whole foods (fruits, vegetables, dairy and natural grains).
Sugars found in fruits and vegetables – known as fructose.
Sugars found in milk and dairy products – known as lactose.
Sugars found in starchy carbohydrates such as bread, rice and pasta – known as glucose.
Free/added sugars – these are the sugars that we add to dishes or foods to get the sweet taste – table sugar, honey, syrups– known as sucrose. Any food products that contain free or added sugars are also included here – such as chocolate, cakes, sweets etc. These sugars count as part of the daily allowance of between 5-7 cubes of sugars per day.

Although, it’s important to note that not all sugars are the same.

Ultimately, the body will break down all of these different sugars into glucose, but the type of sugar and the way you eat your sugar makes a big difference on what effect it can have on your body.

All carbohydrates have a glycaemic index (GI) which tells us how quickly the sugar will enter the bloodstream, after ingesting it. The more the carbohydrate has been processed and broken down before we eat it, the easier it is for our body to break down, and the faster it will raise our blood faster (high GI). The more unprocessed the food is, and the more fibre that remains within it, the harder it is for the body to break down, and the slower it will enter the bloodstream (low GI).

High GI foods include white bread, white pasta, white rice, sweet, table sugar, honey, chocolate, cakes.

Lower GI foods include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, brown rice, wholegrain pasta, wholegrain bread.

The GI can tell us how quickly it will raise blood sugar levels, but another term, the glycaemic load (GL), considers the GI and how much carbohydrate the food contains. So the GL is a much more useful index for us to use.

It’s important to note that sources of natural sugars provide essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and trace elements such as calcium, however foods which contain added sugars, usually offer minimal or no nutritional benefits. Therefore, when discussing ways to reduce sugar intake, we should always address the sources of added sugar in our diets first.

Things to look out for or be aware of:

Yoghurts – go for natural/greek yoghurt. Normally the flavoured ones contain some kind of added sugar. If there is no sugar or sweetener in the ingredients list, the sugar is naturally occurring (lactose).

Sauces – many sauces and condiments are where sugars are lurking. Always check the ingredients and nutrition labels of sauces to see how much sugar they contain. Anything with over 5g of sugar per 100g is considered a high sugar product. Ketchup, hoisin, sweet chilli and teriyaki are some of the sauces which are higher in sugar

Cereals – whilst cereals are often marketed as healthy and fortified with essential nutrients required in children’s development they’re also often loaded with sugar. Opt for low sugar options such as porridge and oat bran for low sugar options.