Is Sugar The Demon In Our Diet?
A few years ago we were all being told to cut out the carbs from our diet, and before that, fat was the big enemy. The latest shift in focus appears to have cast sugar as the food group to be avoided at all cost. Public Health England launched a “sugar smart app” at the beginning of 2016, which was desgned to highlight to parents just how much sugar there is in the foods their children are consuming, and in other countries such as Mexico, governments are so concerned about the health impacts of too much sugar that they imposed a 10% “sugar tax” on sugar-sweetened drinks back at the start of 2014. But is sugar really the bad guy that it is being made out to be?
Why Do We Need Sugar In Our Diet?
Everyone needs a little sugar in their diet. Sugar powers our muscles and gives us energy, and is naturally present in a whole host of foods from milk to fruit. The type of sugar most nutritionists are trying to get everyone eating less of is free sugar, the refined white variety which is added to processed foods and put into our fizzy drinks. This type of sugar gives us calories but no other nutritional benefits. Contrast this to the sugar in milk which gives us calcium, eating fruit which contains vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. The World Health Organisation recommends that we have no more than 25g – 35g of this free sugar every day, equivalent to only 6 or 7 teaspoons. Children should be having much less sugar, around 20g per day for a 5 year old child.
Health Issues Caused by Having Too Much Sugar
A whole host of health complications have been associated with having too much sugar in your diet. The main issue is obesity. 36% of adults in the United States are considered to be obese, and worldwide, almost 1 in every 3 adults is obese. Obesity causes a myriad of health problems from heart disease to diabetes and stroke, and has been identified as one of the world’s most challenging health problems of the 21st century. Added sugars which have little or no nutritional value are therefore being heavily targeted in the battle against the bulge. Refined and processed sugar passes quickly into our bloodstream, giving us a spike of energy which soon crashes down, leaving us washed out and craving even more of the sugar. This is a cycle which keeps on repeating, and can easily lead to a long term sugar addiction. Experts are united on the fact that we’re all eating far too much added sugar, and that we’d all be healthier if we ate a lot less.
Alternatives to Sugar
It’s worth pointing out that manufacturers know that we’re all becoming more aware of the dangers of sugar in our diet, so instead they list it on ingredients lists as sucralose, glucose or lactose, hoping that the technical words will confuse consumers and keep their sales high. There are however many alternatives to sugar, some of which have been around for decades and others which are much newer discoveries. Perhaps the best known is saccharin, a sweet chemical which has been in use for over a century. Saccharin had a bad press in the 1970s in Canada after it was thought to cause cancer in rats, but this link has been subsequently disproven. A much newer sweetener is aspartame, which was developed in the 1980s. Aspartame is controversial; many scientific studies have linked it to increased cancers or brain tumours, an equal number of studies have found it to be perfectly safe. In 2013 the European Food Safety Authority declared it safe, and it is now routinely added to many low-calorie products.
Stevia – The New Kid On The Block
Concerns over the health implications of using aspartame or saccharin – both chemical substances rather than a natural sugar – led scientists to continue their search for a natural, low calorie sweetener. Stevia was approved as a sweetener in Europe in 2010, and is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is made from a South American plant, and is commonly used in dairy products, desserts and cakes. It does seem to be the answer to many of our sweet-toothed problems, although stevia is usually used in combination with other sweeteners to take the edge off its bitter aftertaste. Health problems caused by the human race eating too much refined, sugary foods are not going to go away any time soon, and research continues into other sweetening products which can give us the taste we crave, but without the calories, and without the negative health implications.
Education is Key
How have you introduced the topic of sugar and healthy eating into your classroom? Have you tried using education tools that demonstrate the effects of a poor diet clearly to your students? It can be interesting to set a 'sugar quiz' to see how many people can correctly guess the amount of sugar contained in our favorite foods.