Ask Kate - all about sugars


Ask Our Nutritionist

Our qualified nutritionist is here to help answer your questions on maintaining a healthy, balanced diet for you and your family.


Great question, and so topical with today's headlines. Firstly, it's good to understand what is 'sugar' and what 'toxic' means.

When we say 'sugar' most people are referring to white sugar or table sugar. Without going too far back to high school chemistry, sugar is technically made of sucrose, which is one glucose and one fructose unit stuck together. Furthermore, 'toxic', often refers to a poison which can cause death or severe illness. A toxin generally builds up in the body over time.

The idea of sugar being 'toxic' often comes from the fact it has fructose in it, and the idea we are consuming more fructose than our body can handle. Unlike glucose, fructose cannot be used by our muscles or brain as is, it needs to be converted by the liver to glucose. This process can produce a small amount of triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) and other metabolites (leftovers from digestions/absorption). However, unlike a toxin, the body is very apt at getting rid of these metabolites. The level of fructose is the blood is therefore quite low.

It is interesting to know that clinical trials have not shown fructose to be toxic when consumed as part of a weight maintaining diet. Studies which show fructose as a problem are often done in animal models or overfeeding scenarios. This makes the results difficult to apply to an everyday person, plus, our digestive system works a bit differently to a rat or mouse.

Overall, using a little bit of sugar should not have any bad effects.

Honey, agave, coconut, rice malt, maple, raw, brown or fruit juice concentrate. There are many names and many types of sweetener now coming onto the market. A lot of them are positioned as 'healthier', however in reality, there really isn't much difference. All of the sugars listed contain roughly the same amount of energy gram for gram. The differences come from the types of sugars they are made up of and trace amounts of vitamins or minerals which might still be found on the sugar crystals. For example, rice malt is basically just glucose. This means that it has a GI of 98, so may not be the best for diabetics. On the opposite end, agave can be up to 90% fructose, so has a low GI of around 10-19. Coconut and some raw sugars have a low GI (low 50's) and are both mainly sucrose. Table sugar has a medium GI and is also mainly sucrose.

Choosing a sweetener is really more about what you want to use it for and personal preference. Given the amount of sugar we eat, the trace amounts of vitamins and minerals aren't really contributing to your daily nutrient needs. If you are concerned about overall energy intake, we need to focus on the foods we choose, not just a particular nutrient.

White or table sugar is often thought of as highly processed, refined and sometimes even bleached. However, table sugar is a relatively natural ingredient. Sugar comes from the sugarcane plant. In very simple terms the plant stalks are crushed, juiced, washed, spun and dried. More information can be found here. To make the super white colour, it is simply 'washed' and spun, essentially spinning the molasses (which is what provides the colour) off. The worst thing added during the process is probably lime, which helps draw out the impurities.

Compared to some of the other sugars, this is actually a fairly simple, and natural process.

This is really common question, but a fairly easy answer. We can either add sugar (sucrose) to food or eat in naturally in food (e.g. in an apple). Once the sugar goes into our mouth, and we are talking specifically about the sugar component, not the other goodies which you get with the apple like fibre or vitamin c, there is no difference. The body might breakdown and absorb the types of sugars in different ways, but as clever as it is, it doesn't know if it was 'added' or 'natural' sugar because it can't tell what food it came from.

All sugars, regardless of their source, are carbohydrates and provide the same amount of energy. If we are wanting to achieve a healthy, balanced diet, it is more important to look at your overall food choices. Some good tips can be found in the 'fuel your lifestyle' section. And remember, eating food should be enjoyable, not stressful.

As a nutritionist, I can see the mistakes that were made with the 'low fat' messages of the 80's. Over simplifying messages and reformulating foods does not always work. Just like 'low fat', foods that are ‘reduced sugar’ or ‘no added sugar’ are not necessarily better for you. There are a variety of ingredients that can replace sugars but that may involve adding nutrients such as saturated fat which we know has been linked to heart disease, or, the use of additives.

I would be more interested to know why you were looking for no sugar foods. If it is for weight loss, removing sugar and replacing it for starch or adding extra fat may not really impact the energy value of the food as they contain the same or more energy gram for gram compared to sugar. My suggestion would be to look at the overall nutritional profile of the food. Consider energy, protein, fats, carbohydrates and sodium. There are some good label reading tools to help guide you on what to look for, but some basic information can be found here..

HFCS is a sweetener made from corn and is popular in the United States, but rarely used in Australia or New Zealand.

It is similar to sucrose because it is made up of fructose and glucose, however the ratios of the two sugars are slightly different. 100 g of sucrose contains roughly 50 g glucose and 50 g fructose. The same amount of HFCS would most commonly contain 55 g fructose and 45 g glucose, although this can vary based on the needs of who is using it.

There is no sound scientific evidence to show that sugar is addictive in humans. It is more the case, of a misunderstanding of the meaning of “addiction” and contributing it to the pleasure we feel when we satisfy a “craving”.

“Addiction” is the physical (and sometimes psychological) need to keep doing something even if we know it causes harm to ourselves and others, in combination with uncontrolled consumption of the addictive substance if it is freely available and withdrawal symptoms when it’s not. Take for example tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs when you become addicted to these substances you have a continuous desire to consume it. Over time your body needs more and more of the substance to produce the same effect, this is known as tolerance to the substance.

“Cravings” is the more accurate term to describe the intense desire or want to consume a particular food or food type such as a sugary food. Food cravings are common and don’t necessarily need to contain sugar. In fact the most commonly craved foods are those high in fat or have a combination of fat and sugar.

It’s an old wives tale that everyone has heard – sugar makes kids bounce off the walls. But this simply isn’t true. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ‘the idea that refined sugar causes ADHD or makes symptoms worse is popular, but more research discounts this theory than supports it’. According to other studies, exciting social situations (e.g birthday parties, Christmas) causes hyperactivity in kids, not the food or drink consumed at these events.

This idea comes from the fact that sugar is a carbohydrate that contains no other vitamins and minerals, but consider the meals you enjoy every day that contain sugar, like a calcium-rich yoghurt, or fibre-filled breakfast cereal. Sugar helps us enjoy a wide range of healthy foods that otherwise we might not eat. That seems pretty essential to us.



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