What does sugar-free mean?

In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) halved their recommended daily sugar intake, which will leave many people reaching for alternatives. Here are 12 sweet little facts all consumers should know. 

1. There is no such thing as a sugar-free diet 

Sugar is basically carbohydrate, and is naturally present in most foods, including dairy. There are several different names for sugar, the most common being glucose and fructose, vegetable and fruit sugars that are a by-product of plant photosynthesis. Lactose is a natural dairy-based sugar, while sucrose is more commonly known as table sugar, refined from sugar cane or beet. It is actually a mixture of glucose and fructose. Maltose is found in malts, like beer and cereal. Whether you add sugar to your food or not, you are always eating it. 

2. It’s all glucose to me

The majority of carbohydrates we eat are metabolised into glucose inside our body. So should we even worry about different types of sugar? A 2011 study from Harvard says yes, noting that while glucose can be broken down by most cells in the body, only the liver can handle fructose. The paper claims that because the liver turns fructose into fat, it can actually be damaging for that organ. Auckland-based dietician Julie North argues that the nutritional source of sugar is more important than what happens to it in the body. “I wouldn’t want people to avoid dairy or fruit, that have naturally occurring lactose and fructose sugars, when those are important food groups,” she says. “Sugars derived from wholefoods, particularly fibrous fruits and vegetables, do a bigger job than is clear from just looking at the way the sugar is processed.” 

3. What is free sugar?

This is the term used for sugar that is extra – added to food to change the taste – rather than sugar that is naturally occurring. The WHO recommend that only 5 percent of your daily calorific intake come from free sugars – but that’s not just about that spoonful of white stuff in your cup of tea. “Free sugars include sugars added to packaged products during the production process,” says Sarah Hanrahan, Dietician for The NZ Nutrition Foundation. Most processed foods contain some added sugar to help with flavour and consistency, but that doesn’t mean all processed foods should be avoided. “Weetbix is a good example,” says Hanrahan. “The second ingredient is sugar, which makes you think ‘wow!’ but when you look at the percentages it’s actually only 3 percent of the product, which is 97 percent wheat – and it’s unclear how much of that is naturally occurring.” Sarah says there is more sugar in the milk you add to Weetbix than in the cereal. “Two biscuits have 0.8g of sugar. Plus milk, it goes up to 6.8g, but it’s still a healthy breakfast.”

4. Sugar easily hides

While the picture with Weet-Bix is pretty straight forward, not all packaging is so easy to read. Last year, Robert Lustig M.D of the University of California made a presentation that listed 56 different names for added sugar, commonly found on food labels. Dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, rice syrup and agave nectar could, and probably should, all appear under the title ‘sugar’. “If you divide sugar in ingredients into their component parts, then they appear quite low on the list of ingredients,” says Lee-Anne Wan, nutritionist to The Warriors. “Whether that’s the intention or not, it gives the consumer the impression there is less sugar in the product than there actually is.”

5. Sucrose vs fructose

Fatty liver disease aside, fructose is generally touted as a much healthier sugar than its heavily refined sister. “When people say sugar free, they usually mean refined sugar free – or sucrose free,” says Sarah Hanrahan. Many ‘healthy’ recipes use dried fruit, agave syrup or coconut sugar as an alternative, especially in baking. “But those products are very high in fructose – agave syrup has more fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup.” Hanrahan is concerned that because people don’t associate fruit-based sugars with the same health concerns, they aren’t monitoring their daily sugar intake effectively. “Talking about sugar is going down the rabbit hole,” says Hanrahan. “It’s very confusing for the consumer, but added sugar should be treated the same whether it’s fruit based or not.”

6. Beware of booze

A study carried out on behalf of The Telegraph newspaper in London found that some alcoholic drinks contain an entire day’s allowance of sugar. The investigation, published in March 2014, showed that while the average 175ml glass of white wine contained just half a teaspoon of sugar, a pint of cider contained around 5 teaspoons of sugar, and a gin and tonic three and a half teaspoons. The WHO recommend no more than six teaspoons of free sugar each day.

7. Death by Aspartame

Since the 1970s manufacturers have been actively finding new ways to sweeten food without sugar, and the popularity of products like Splenda have rocketed in the West. Most artificial sweeteners work on the basis that the body can’t metabolise them, so you get the sweet taste without the calorific load. Recently though, the spotlight has been turned on the safety of sweeteners, beyond the well-documented laxative effect. Saccahrin, for example, has been linked with bladder cancer, and Acesulphame-K, an increase in cholesterol in rats. Aspartame in particular has borne the brunt of the bad press, with one 2007 study suggesting it is carcinogenic and studies from 2010 blaming the additive for neurological disorders. Peer reviews are non-conclusive, and most medical professionals would encourage moderate use of sweeteners for anyone trying to reduce their sugar intake on health grounds. “Sweeteners certainly have their place,” says Julie North. “There is no robust science to discredit their use and they provide good options for moderating sugar intake.”

8. Soda-sturbing

Whether you are an avid consumer of fizzy drinks or just find yourself reaching for the occasional soda hit, you probably think that the diet versions are better than their full fat counterparts. However, logic-defying research from Purdue University has shown that drinking diet soft drinks, as little as one a day, can actually lead to weight gain and contribute to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s believed that the artificial sweeteners often used in zero-calorie drinks interfere with the body’s learned responses, leaving it unable to balance calorie intake and metabolism. Because you’ve tricked your brain into thinking that you’ve consumed a huge amount of calories to fuel your body, when those calories don’t arrive you begin to have cravings, increasing your appetite even if you’ve just eaten a meal. While using sweetener in place of sugar doesn’t seem to have the same effect, drinking a diet fizzy with your dinner might actually lead to midnight snacking.

9. Sugar addicts

It’s easy to be dismissive of your overweight, cake-munching aunty who brazenly tells you she’s addicted to sugar, but many a true word is said in jest. According to the book Sugar free; The complete guide to quit sugar and lose weight naturally, the consumption of sugar triggers the release of dopamine – the chemical in the brain responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Research from the National Institute of Health in America shows that while naturally occurring sugars consumed as part of whole foods satisfy a sugar craving, high intensity sugars actually cause some of our dopamine receptors to shut down due to over stimulation – meaning you need increasingly large amounts of refined sugars to get the same high.

10. Blooming awful

Most women have probably experienced the discomfort that comes with a mild bout of thrush, or the athletes foot that seems to plague even the least sporty people. Candida, a genus of yeast that commonly lives on the skin, can cause unpleasant symptoms when overgrowth occurs. In 1986, The Yeast Connection, by William Crook, suggested Candida sensitivity could cause chronic symptoms including bloating and skin infections. While there is still little hard science to back this claim up, it is known that candida overgrowth is made worse by a diet high in sugar – particularly if it is low in protein and minerals. Sugar feeds the organism, making it easier for it to grow. In addition, a lack of Iron, Zinc and vitamins A and B make it harder for the body to fight overgrowth. A diet low in sugar and yeast can improve symptoms. 

11. Empty plates

Research by Defra (Department for environment, food and rural affairs) in the UK shows that calorific intake has decreased by 28 percent since 1974, yet 26 percent of Britons are obese, and around 50 are overweight, costing the country more than $10 billion each year. “People don’t understand: obesity is a symptom of poverty. It’s not a lifestyle choice where people are just eating and not exercising,” says chef Tom Colicchio. “It’s because kids are getting sugar, fat, empty calories… but no nutrition.”

12. Chain gang

Julie North feels strongly that the debate over sugar is off target. Instead of thinking about what types of sugar we are eating, as many diet trends do, we should be looking at the complexity of the sugar source. “Simple, or short chain carbohydrates are very easy for the body to break down, flooding your system and causing a blood sugar spike.” Simple carbohydrates are things like the refined white sugars we traditionally use in baking, honey, lollies, jam etc. It doesn’t matter if your sugar comes from agave nectar or coconuts, if it’s refined then it probably has just two molecules that can easily be processed by your body, leaving you craving more and turning the excess into dangerous fats. “Complex carbohydrates have more molecules, and therefore longer chains,” explains Julie. “It takes more effort and time for your body to process them, keeping your blood sugars stable and reducing cravings.” Dairy products, eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruits are all complex carbs, and along with meat and fish, make up the core constituents of a simple food model based around whole foods. “Swap out energy dense foods for nutrient dense foods,” says Hanrahan. “Whole foods are rich in fibre, antioxidants and the naturally occurring sugars your body needs. Cutting out highly processed foods is key.” 

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