Some experts believe it's the sugar rather than the fat in our diets that's contributing to our obesity epidemic. Nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens explains how to spot the 'hidden' sugar you may not know you're eating.
The devil's in the detail
The instant 'lift' we get from sugar is one of the reasons we turn to it at times of celebration or when we crave comfort and reward. However, even those of us without a sweet tooth may be eating more than we realise because so many everyday, processed foods, from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and soups contain sugar.
But it's not all bad news - sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a host of different foods from lactose in milk to the fructose in fruit and honey. In fact, we need some sugar in our diets to supply ready energy to fuel our muscles and keep our brains active. The problem is that many processed foods have added sugar which supplies energy in the form of calories - and very little else. This means our body has to draw on the nutrients from the rest of our diet to process it and this can affect our health, including our immunity - leaving us more prone to bugs and colds. A high intake of sugar causes our blood sugar levels to shoot up, giving us that feel-good 'high' followed by a crashing slump which leaves us tired, irritable and craving more sugary foods. It's a vicious cycle that may be contributing to our weight problems as well as health concerns like diabetes and heart disease.
What's my daily allowance?
There are two types of sugar - naturally occurring sugar like lactose in milk and added sugar, which includes table sugar (sucrose) as well as concentrated sources like fruit juice.
The new recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are that only 5% of your daily calorie intake should consist of added, or 'free' sugars. This equates to approximately five-six teaspoons (25g) for women and seven-eight teaspoons (35g) for men.
- Low-fat and 'diet' foods often contain extra sugar to help improve their taste and palatability and to add bulk and texture in the place of fat.
- Even savoury foods, like ready-made soups and sauces may contain added sugar.
- A can of soft drink, on average, contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.
- The natural sugar in some fruit, including apples, has increased as new varieties (including Pink Lady, Fuji and Jazz) are bred to satisfy our desire for greater sweetness.
Look on the label
Discover how much sugar is in your food by doing these simple checks:
- Look at the 'carbs as sugars' on the nutrition panel - this includes both natural and added sugars; less than 5g per 100g is low, more than 15g per 100g is high.
- Check the ingredients list for anything ending in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, maltose) - these are all forms of sugar, as are honey, agave, molasses and syrups like corn and rice syrup. The higher up the ingredients list, the more sugar the product contains.
- Know your substitutes - for example xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol. These occur naturally in small amounts in plants and fruits and are often used in low-calorie products to provide sweetness but with fewer calories. Xylitol can be used in home-baking as a replacement for regular sugar (ratio 1:1) although it won't brown as much and it can't be used where yeast is the raising agent.
Ways to cut down on your sugar
Making a few adjustments to your diet can help you cut down on unnecessary sugar consumption:
- Reduce the sugar you add to hot drinks. Do this gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust. Try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to cappuccino or hot chocolate, cinnamon helps stabilise blood sugar levels and adds flavour without the sweetness.
- Avoid low-fat 'diet' foods which tend to be high in sugars. Instead have smaller portions of the regular versions.
- Be wary of 'sugar-free' foods. These often contain synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame. Although these taste sweet, they don't help curb a sweet tooth so they tend to send confusing messages to the brain, which can lead to over-eating.
- Balance your carb intake with lean protein like fish, chicken and turkey - protein foods slow stomach emptying, which helps manage cravings.
- Swap white bread, rice and pasta for wholegrain versions like oats, granary and wholemeal breads, brown rice and pasta.
- Reduce the sugar in recipes and add spices to boost flavour and taste.
- Stick to one glass of fruit juice a day (or dilute it) and keep sweet soft drinks and alcohol for the weekends. Enjoy herbal teas or water with slices of citrus fruits.
- For a pick me up, have a piece of whole fruit with a handful of nuts or a small tub of plain yogurt. Both contain protein which helps balance blood sugar and energy levels.
Balance carb intake with lean protein
Tuna, asparagus & white bean salad
Swap white flours for wholegrain
Mixed seed bread
Reduce sugar and add more spices
Spiced apple pie
For a pick me up
Cranberry pecan baked apples
Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts find all the answers in our sugar hub:
All you need to know about sugar
Kerry Torrens is BBC Good Food magazine's nutritional therapist.