Sugar: how ill will it really make you?

Sweet as sugar

Consuming too much sugar can negatively affect both your body and your mind. Nevertheless, the Swiss eat almost twice as much sugar as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In Switzerland, we consume approximately 40kg of sugar per head each year.

Are you wondering how much sugar you eat on a daily basis right now?

Frequently, it is really not that simple to estimate your own sugar consumption correctly, because most of us don’t realise which foodstuffs generally contain sugar. In this article we want to clarify various things, including the following questions: what has sugar in it? What does sugar do to my body and mind? How much sugar should I consume? And how can I reduce my sugar intake?

What is sugar and what types of sugar are there?

When we talk about sugar, ordinary white sugar (sucrose) is usually what is meant. The white sugar you buy in the supermarket is a disaccharide, which means it consists of two sorts of simple sugars or monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. Other types of disaccharides include lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (malt sugar).

Sugar is a member of the carbohydrate family and can be found in many different foodstuffs, such as milk, fruit, vegetables, honey, sugarcane and sugar beet.

In addition to the sugar they naturally contain, foodstuffs may also contain added sugar. This means all mono- and disaccharides that were added to the foods (e.g., honey, malt extract or fruit juice concentrate). You can find more information about added sugars and how to calculate the content here.

How much sugar should I consume?

For sugar, it is true that less is more. Maybe you’ve heard that our cells need sugar for energy. This is true, but as our bodies can make this sugar themselves from fats, proteins or complex carbohydrates, it isn’t necessary to consume sugar in the form of processed sugar in our diets. The WHO recommends a maximum daily sugar intake of 50g for this reason, and half that amount for children.

What does sugar do to my body and mind?

The components of ordinary retail sugar (glucose and fructose) are processed differently by the body. Glucose is processed using insulin and gives you a rapid energy boost. When the effect of glucose wears off, a craving for more sugar is triggered in your brain. Fruit sugar (fructose), by contrast, is processed in the liver. Too much fructose can result in a fatty liver, which means that the excess sugar is converted into fat and stored. The symptoms of fatty liver are non-specific and often manifest as fatigue and lethargy. In this context, it is important to note that anyone who consumes too much sugar is at risk of developing fatty liver – their external physique is irrelevant. Hair loss, skin conditions, lack of energy, caries and gut problems (e.g., constipation, flatulence) can all also be caused by excessive sugar consumption. What’s more, the body becomes more prone to infectious diseases. Serious illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular conditions can likewise be caused or made worse by consuming too much sugar. In Switzerland, approximately half a million people suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular conditions are one of the commonest causes of death.
As you have learned, sugar can do quite a lot of harm to your body. But sugar doesn’t just impact your body, it can also affect your mind. Studies have shown that consuming sugar is linked to worse mental health and, for example, to people suffering more frequently from depression or sleep disorders.

Is sugar addictive?

We all experience the sweet taste of sugar as a positive. This is because the consumption of sugar stimulates the release of the chemical messenger dopamine. Dopamine then docks at the reward centre (nucleus accumbens), with the result that we feel content and happy. We are motivated by these pleasant sensations to experience the feelings again, so we eat something sweet once more. This mechanism is comparable to the effect of other drugs. Consequently, sugar can become addictive, which also makes it very hard to reduce your consumption or even give up sugar entirely on your own initiative. Maybe you know of certain situations in which your sugar cravings are particularly pronounced? Or maybe you have already completely given up sugar and then have felt a very strong craving or experienced massive hunger pangs? These could be indications that your body is addicted to sugar.
Reducing your sugar consumption, or giving it up entirely is, however, really not that simple, as many foodstuffs contain sugar.

How can I find out how much sugar is in my food?

All foods have nutrition information on the label (it often looks like a table) from which you can check the nutritional value of the food. In processed foods, sugar is usually found under carbohydrates, listed as “of which sugar”. This number corresponds to the product’s total sugar content, both added sugar and sugars that naturally occur in the product, such as lactose in dairy products. The list of ingredients will tell you whether the product contains a lot of sugar. The higher up the ingredients list the sugar appears, the more sugar the product contains. Note that a food is very high in sugar if sugar is listed among the first three items.

How can I reduce my sugar intake?

If you would like to reduce your sugar intake, there are several options you can incorporate into your daily routine. It is important to reduce your sugar consumption gradually, because it is simpler to get used to a less sweet taste over time.
When you reduce your sugar intake, you should definitely know which products are high in sugar. We are all aware that sweets contain a lot of sugar; a bar of milk chocolate can contain up to 58g sugar. But did you know that smoothies, fruit yogurts and convenience products can also be real sugar bombs?

Beware of sugar traps!

Ready-made products
Ready-made products like frozen pizza or pre-prepared sauces contain sugar. Mostly we aren’t even aware of this, because the product primarily tastes savoury. Many ready-made products contain sugar as a preservative. For example, 100g ketchup contains 3-21g sugar, or a can of ravioli contains approximately 12g sugar.

Drinks
You definitely know that soft drinks contain a lot of sugar. But even fruit smoothies and juices, which are advertised as healthy, contain a great deal of sugar. Although this sugar is not usually added sugar, but occurs naturally in the fruit, it is still problematic, because the juice contains a lot more fruit (and hence more sugar) than if you just eat the natural fruit, say an apple. What’s more, the juice lacks the important dietary fibre that the apple contains.
There is, for example, 12g sugar in 100ml smoothie. So, if you drink a 500ml-smoothie (60g sugar), you have already exceeded the WHO’s sugar recommendation. There are even some alcoholic drinks that contain large amounts of sugar – for example, liqueurs contain 38g sugar per 100ml.

Dairy products
Dairy products, particularly fruit-flavoured products, such as fruit yogurts or flavoured buttermilk, often contain added sugar. One fruit yogurt can contain up to 15g sugar.

Muesli and cereal bars
Do you start your day with a bowl of muesli? Have you ever looked to see how much sugar your favourite muesli contains? If not, it’s worth casting your eye over the list of ingredients and nutrition panel, particularly if you want to reduce your sugar intake. One hundred grams of breakfast cereal or muesli can contain up to 25g sugar, and cereal bars are also full of sugar.

Are sugar substitutes healthy?

You need to look very closely at substitutes. These products are often extolled as sugar replacements, but they are nothing of the sort, as they barely differ from ordinary sugar. They include products like maple syrup, agave syrup and date syrup. Genuine alternatives to sugar are subdivided into natural and artificial sweeteners. Aspartame (E 951), cyclamate (E 950), saccharine (E 954) and sucralose (E955) are examples of synthetically produced sweeteners. Studies on artificial sweeteners show heterogeneous findings, so how healthy these sweeteners are is still unclear. A recent study indicates that artificial sweeteners may even stimulate the appetite. Of course, that is not very helpful if you want to lose weight. Admittedly, the data set is too small for a clear assertion.
Of natural sweeteners, stevia, birch sugar and erythritol are the best known. Here, too, more research is required to establish how healthy these sugar substitutes actually are. Currently, however, these replacements seem to be better than ordinary sugar.

Note this: it is better to try to get used to a less sweet taste instead of using lots of sweeteners or sugar substitutes. Reduce your daily sugar intake gradually. For example, you could begin with one of the tips below.

Tips for your daily routine

  • Quench your thirst with water or, if you like your drinks to taste of something, try unsweetened drinks like fruit teas or water with a slice of lemon
  • Deliberately enjoy your sweet foods in small quantities. For example, a small bar of chocolate after your lunch, because it will be easier to eat less if you are already full.
  • Make a point of looking at the list of ingredients and nutrition information on your foods. This way you know how much sugar your food contains when you buy it. Compare the sugar content of your favourite product with alternative products and choose the one that contains the least sugar.
  • Buy as few ready-made products as possible and cook with fresh ingredients as often as possible. For example, you could make your own red pesto.
  • Replace your fruit yogurts with natural yogurt and add fresh fruit for extra flavour.
  • If, on one day, you eat a bit more sugar, for example because you were invited to a birthday party, you can simply reduce your sugar intake over the next few days. Make sure that you don’t consume more sugar than the WHO recommends on average.
  • Maybe you are also familiar with big sugar cravings when you are stressed? Sugar really does ensure that stress hormones are released in smaller quantities, which means you feel less stressed. However, alternatives such as relaxation exercises or physical exercise are healthier. Ascertain in exactly which situations you repeatedly reach for sugary foods and consider how you can bring your stress levels down without sugar.

If you are interested in learning more about sugar, the SRF documentary called “Sugar – the sweet drug” is highly recommended. You can find the film (in German) here.

 

References:
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Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Ernährung. (2021). Zuckerarten und zugesetzter Zucker. https://www.sge-ssn.ch/media/Merkblatt_Zuckerarten-und-zugesetzter_Zucker-2021.pdf
Teichmann, P. (2021). Das sind die grössten Zuckerfallen. Migros. https://www.migros-impuls.ch/de/ernaehrung/ernaehrungsformen/zuckerfreie-ernaehrung/zuckerfallen#in-fertiggerichten-konserven-und-saucen-e8e
World Health Organisation. (2015). Guideline: sugars intake for adults and children. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028
Yunker, A. G., Alves, J. M., Luo, S., Angelo, B., DeFendis, A., Pickering, T. A., Monterosso, J. R., & Page, K. A. (2021). Obesity and Sex-Related Associations With Differential Effects of Sucralose vs Sucrose on Appetite and Reward Processing: A Randomized Crossover Trial. JAMA Network Open, 4(9), e2126313-e2126313