The big, fat guide to sugar: is it healthy or unhealthy?

spoonful of sugar being tipped into cup
Photo: Tom Stainer

I get my hands sticky and delve into the good, the bad and the downright ugly world of sugar

 

No one is whispering sweet nothings about sugar these days. Described as ‘toxic’ and the ‘new tobacco’, even Sugar Puffs has changed its name to ‘Honey Monster Puffs’ in an effort to escape the dirty word.

With all the negative headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was latest narcotic on the drug trafficking scene but in reality we’ve been craving the sweet stuff since we were cavemen.

“Our need and desire for sugar is primeval,” says Cheshire based nutritionist Debbie Gallimore. “Our hunter gatherer ancestors required sugar to manage their fight or flight response, providing a quick injection of energy in order to run from danger.”

Today with our sedentary lifestyles and stresses derived from the daily commute rather than sharp-toothed predators, sugar is propelling us towards even bigger dangers – but in our haste to demonize it, is this just another health fad gone too far?

 

Caveman candy

First, let’s sherbet dip into our ancestors’ sugar bowl.

“When we were stumbling around in caves 100,000 years ago, life was hard, food was scarce and people died of starvation if they didn’t get enough calories,” says Dr Martin Rutter, senior lecturer in Cardiometabolic Medicine at the University of Manchester. “There’s a theory people who liked sweet food would search it out, gain weight and be more likely to survive and pass their genes on.”

Indeed sugar still plays an important role in feeding our muscles and ensuring all of our body tissues have the energy source they need to work efficiently and effectively, says Liverpool based British Dietetic Association dietician Gemma Sampson.

“To say sugar is unsafe ignores how our bodies utilise it,” she says. “To follow a truly sugar-free diet, you would be limited to only eating protein and fats and exclude a huge range of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.”

It is the body’s natural sugars that are also forming part of pioneering research into heart disease, with scientists at The University of Manchester striving to discover how they can be used to create stem cell treatments.

So why the hoo-ha?

The problem lies with ‘added’ or ‘free’ sugars: those moreish little grains found in refined cakes, biscuits and sugary drinks.

“A few hundred years ago, honey was the main way foods were sweetened until Indian tribes discovered how to crystallise sugar from sugarcane juice in the 5th century,” says Dr Rutter.

Now we’re completely addicted.

“Few of us would sit down and enjoy a bowl full of sugar on its own, or a bowl full of cream – but put the two together and you have the most delicious combination,” says Sampson.

The problem is compounded by the fact in the Western world we no longer burn energy foraging for our food.

“And neither do we die from starvation,” adds Dr Rutter. “Therefore all the survival benefits of inbuilt ‘sugar cravings’ are wasted on us. In fact, they lead us to overeat and develop serious illnesses.”

The bittersweet reality is that our bodies make all the sugar we need without scoffing the additional 60g of free sugars (around 160tsps) it’s estimated we consume each week.

 

Marvellous molecules

But are all sugars created equal? At a molecular level there are hundreds of types of sugar but broadly speaking they can be split into single molecules or ‘monosaccharides’ (glucose found in fruits, vegetables and honey), galactose (found in milk) and fructose (found naturally in fruits).

“Most added sugars are made up of two sugar molecules linked together called disaccharides,” says Dr Rutter. “Examples are sucrose (made up of fructose linked to glucose), which is found in sugar cane and sugar beet, and lactose (made up of galactose and glucose), which is found in milk.”

Commercially, sugar is also milled and modified to give all sorts of different textures and tastes – from white granulated (a mixture of washed, sliced and extracted sugar cane and sugar beet) and caster sugar (which is ground more finely) to rich brown demerara (that sees minimum refinement), sticky muscovado (where the molasses are retained) and powdery icing sugar – but much of it ends up ‘hidden’ in processed food, where we happily glug massive doses.

If you had to choose an ultimate villain, fructose would be the saccharine scoundrel because it’s the hardest to metabolise. In his groundbreaking work on sugar metabolism, Dr Robert Lustig, a professor at the University of California, suggests after eating fructose, 100 per cent of the metabolic burden rests on your liver and while glucose is naturally ‘burned off’, fructose turns into fatty acids and damaging cholesterol.

“Ironically, it’s thought we evolved to crave fructose because it helped our bodies store fat,” adds Dr Rutter. “Which is why we have such a strong craving for it.”

Eat more sugar and you’ll ultimately crave more too, thus setting up a deathly cycle. It’s why the WHO has suggested a 5% daily limit on free sugars, and campaigning groups are calling on the government to introduce a ‘sugar tax’, which would regulate the amount of sugar used by the food and drink industry.

 

Fad or fiction?

But with fat, salt and alcohol being the targets of the health police over the years, should we take the latest negative press with a pinch of, well… sugar?

Sampson says focusing on single nutrients is never the best way to approach health, as we don’t know what impact it can have overall.

“The message was to reduce fat intake by increasing fruit and vegetables but while the fat intake dropped the carbohydrate and sugar intake increased to replace it. What will happen by cutting carbohydrate and sugar from the diet? We don’t entirely know,” she says. “It’s quite trendy to follow a sugar-free diet these days…but it’s easy to focus on a number without looking at the context.”

Dr Rutter, who is also an honorary consultant physician at the Manchester Diabetes Centre at the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is crystal clear.

“This is not just another fad. Sugar is bad for us and always will be while it makes our food taste good and drives us to eat more,” he says. “There is no biological need to add any sugar. Add it if you like, but you don’t need it!”  

Originally published in Bitten magazine 2016

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