Sweetener soured

Even fresh fruit doesn't escape the sugar trap.
Even fresh fruit doesn't escape the sugar trap. 

The celebrity set has us believing gluten is the naughty ingredient in all the food we're consuming. But wait; governments are battling gluten's evil twin, trans-fats. Or is the devil at the top of the naughty food pyramid really sugar?

As food companies add sugar to their products with the efficiency of a Thredbo snowmaker, avoiding the sweet stuff can be challenging. But it's better the devil you know. Here are the basics:

What is sugar?

Sugar is a crystal carbohydrate. It comes from corn, sugar cane, or a sugar beet. Then it's refined, crystalised and added to our foods, or put in a jar to sprinkle over our plates and in coffees.

By itself, it sounds so simple. Wrong. Glucose, fructose (naturally occurring), lactose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, galactose … it's all some form of sugar.

As Australian eating habits slavishly follow those in the US, be shocked to know that according to the USDA, sugar consumption in the US has increased to 71kg per year - that's a huge amount of sugar. The problem with sugar is it provides zero nutritional value - it's a sweetener, and too much sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and so much more.

Where is sugar?

Everywhere, when it comes to food and drinks. Bread and breakfast cereals, tomato and barbecue sauces, fruits and vegetables, protein boxes and fizzy drinks, desserts and alcohol - all contain various amounts of sugar.

Sugar is hard to avoid - even with so-called "healthy" options. A low-fat blueberry smoothie from an Aussie juice bar should be healthy, but an "original" size (+600ml) can contain more than 20 teaspoons of sugar. That's a serious sugar hit to start your day.

Sugar-phobes will frown upon your choice of fruit even as you eat an orange, believing naturally occurring sugar is just as bad as processed. I disagree, as Mother Nature is simply being kind to us. Sugar is in fruit because it's a treat that complements all the vitamins and minerals that fruit provides.

But be careful. A large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice is sourced from four oranges. Would you ever eat four oranges in one sitting? Even too much fruit can be a bad thing.

What about sugar-free?

From sports drinks to energy drinks to colas … they all have "no sugar" options. People think, "but it's got no sugar in it". Trust me - if it's sweet, it has something in it.

One of the most popular sugar-free colas contains: Colour (Caramel 150d), Food Acid (338, 331), Flavour, Sweeteners (951, 950), Preservative (211). Sugar free? Maybe so. But if you're truly watching your health, I doubt you'd stop the friendly waiting staff and say "I'll have 600ml of carbonated water mixed with aspartame and acesulfame potassium, please".

The science of sweeteners and what they might do to your body is a topic for another article. Never forget one thing when looking to quench your thirst - water still works.

How to work off sugar

Every teaspoon of sugar comes with 16 calories (67 kilojoules). I don't believe in the exact science of one-for-one calorie in/calorie burned, as not all calories are equal. But for those that are numbers-driven, here's how to burn off all that sugary badness.

A 73kg individual who gets gym-ready via a large energy drink (20 teaspoons of sugar), replenishes thirst with a sports drink (8 teaspoons), then leaves with a protein drink (almost 7 teaspoons) is packing in the sugar. That person would need to jog for 50 minutes at 10km/h just to burn off the drinks, and never mind anything else consumed that day.

How to reduce sugar

Sugar (or lack thereof) has affected Sarah Wilson's life in a massive way. I had a chat with the health coach and bestselling author of I Quit Sugar. Sarah's top five foods to avoid if you're trying to consume less sugar are:

  • Fruit juice. A glass of apple juice - whether it's freshly squeezed or from a carton - contains 10-12 teaspoons of sugar, the same amount as a can of soda.
  • Dried fruit in mueslis and health bars. It's 70 per cent sugar.
  • Low-fat dairy. When the manufacturers take the fat out, they put sugar in to make up for lost flavour and texture, often disguised with other names, such as inulin.
  • Packaged sauces. These often contain more sugar than chocolate topping, particularly the tomato-based ones.
  • A lot of health food shop fare, such as muffins and banana breads. Also, watch out for anything proclaiming to be "sugar free" that contains agave.

Consuming less sugar is about knowledge and a little bit of patience. A teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. It's up to you to take an extra few seconds upon purchasing and do the maths, then do your body good by consuming less.

There's no easy answer here, especially when the next generation is growing up on juice, fast food, and energy drinks. As adults, we must do the right thing and set a healthy example when it comes to sugar and eating habits in general.

What's your personal philosophy on sugar consumption?

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