Who would have guessed that a song by the Guess Who would become a health anthem? “Silent footsteps crowding me, Sudden darkness but I can see, No sugar tonight in my coffee, No sugar tonight in my tea, No sugar to stand beside me, No sugar to run with me.” Not exactly the most brilliant lyrics, but not a bad message.
“No sugar” may be impossible to achieve, but what about just six teaspoons a day? That, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is what we should be striving for if we are to achieve the recommendation of just 5 per cent of calories in our diet being attributed to sugar. We have a way to go, given that Canadians now consume a whopping 26 teaspoons a day.
That of course is an average: teenage boys wolf down about 41 teaspoons, while senior women only about 20.
Where is all this sugar coming from?
A can of sugar-sweetened soft drink has about 10 teaspoons, the same as an equivalent amount of “no sugar added” fruit juice. A smoothie can harbour more than 20 teaspoons, a serving of Fruit Loops about 11 (that’s 100 times more than Shredded Wheat), a candy bar around seven and a doughnut four.
Then there is the hidden sugar, like four teaspoons in a serving of tomato soup, and half a teaspoon in a slice of bread.
It isn’t hard to see that the sugar adds up. But so what? What’s wrong with sugar? After all, it’s natural isn’t it? And natural substances are better for us than those chemically concocted sweeteners, aren’t they? Actually, no. Sugar is a problem.
Of course this has nothing to do with whether sugar is natural or not. It has to do with what it can do as it cruises through our body. Weight gain is an obvious possibility. Extra calories translate into extra weight, and sugar can deliver a lot of extra calories. There are 160 calories in a can of pop. You would have to run at eight kilometres per hour for fifteen minutes to burn that off.
In everyday language, the term “sugar” normally refers to sucrose, the white crystals isolated from sugar cane or sugar beets. But to a chemist, “sugar” can mean any of a number of simple carbohydrates that have a sweet taste. Sucrose is actually composed of two sugars, glucose and fructose joined together. Lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk, is made of glucose and galactose. Upon digestion these are broken down into their components, which then enter the bloodstream.
Starch, a carbohydrate composed of many glucose units linked together, is also a source of glucose upon digestion. When it comes to weight gain, the source of the sugars doesn’t much matter. Carbohydrates, be they starch or simple sugars, are a problem.
Now, for the first time, a national regulatory agency is poised to tackle the problem. An expert committee that advises the Swedish government has recommended that new guidelines focus on a low-carbohydrate diet as the most effective method for weight loss.
This is a huge turnaround, given that the scientific community has largely dismissed low-carbohydrate diets as fads. However, after taking two years to scrutinize about 16,000 published studies, the Swedish committee concluded that low-carbohydrate diets work, and that, surprisingly, in spite of being high in fat, such diets have no negative effects on blood cholesterol.
It seems that we may have been barking up the wrong tree with our calorie-counting, low-fat schemes. Diet gurus like Dr. Robert Atkins, whom we dismissed as cranks, were on the right track. It turns out that the oft-repeated dogma that weight is totally determined by calories in and calories out is theoretically sound, but is of little practical significance.
That’s because the effective calories available from a food are not equal to the calorie content as determined by conventional experimental methods. In other words, consuming 100 calories worth of fat is not the same as 100 calories worth of carbohydrate. Fats and carbohydrates go through different metabolic pathways, with different energy requirements. They also have different effects on insulin, the hormone that to a large extent determines the ratio of carbohydrates and fats that the body uses for fuel. A reduced carbohydrate diet forces the body to burn its fat stores for energy instead of glucose, the usual prime source.
But the issue isn’t only about weight gain. Obesity is, of course, a major problem associated with diabetes, heart disease and even cancer; but sugar seems to be a problem even aside from its link to obesity.
A major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently found a clear link between added sugar intake and cardiovascular-disease mortality — even in the absence of obesity. Soft drinks specifically were linked to heart disease. Of course, an association by itself cannot prove that sugar is the culprit, but it is suggestive, especially when one takes into account that fructose, which is released when sucrose is digested, has been implicated in causing metabolic problems.
The WHO’s recommendation of 5 per cent of total calories is an extreme challenge to a population now consuming about 15 per cent of total calories as sugar. And it is a bitter pill for the sugar industry to swallow because such a cutback could translate to billions of dollars in lost revenue. So we will undoubtedly hear the usual arguments about moderation and how sugar can be part of a balanced diet.
Well, that depends on how one determines what amounts to a balanced diet. The WHO’s experts have stated that, in their view, a diet isn’t balanced if more than 10 per cent of calories come from sugar.
When making dietary recommendations, one always has to consider any potential downside. With curbing sugar intake, there isn’t one. Sugar is not a dietary requirement. Of course, cutting down is hard, because sugar tastes so good. And it is also hard to know where it hides. It may be listed as barley malt, evaporated cane juice, corn sweetener, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, molasses, dextrose, glucose and of course high fructose corn syrup. It’s time to be the lookout for all of these.
One easy way to cut down is to just drink water instead of pop.
Life may not be quite as sweet, but it may well be longer.