Sugar: Instant Energy or Sweet Poison?

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Yet it is very early on in life that most women become aware that a moment on the lips, can result in a lifetime on the hips.

Ordinary sugar is an extraordinary food substance. It is needed to activate yeast when baking bread and can transform plain flour and eggs to the most sublime of treats, which the likes of Michel Roux has perfected for general consumption. From the moment we are born, our sweet tooth is developed by life giving colostrum from which we continue to be breastfed or given infant formula both of which contain significant and rather comparable amounts of carbohydrates. Breast- and bottle-fed infants obtain 40% of their energy from sugars in the form of lactose.

Sugar, like all other carbohydrates, contains three atoms, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The term ‘sugar’ generally refers to monosaccharides or simple sugars (glucose, fructose and galactose) and disaccharides (sucrose, maltose and lactose). The most obvious source is sugar cane or sugar beet and is used in sweets, cakes, biscuits, desserts, soft drinks and less obviously in bread, breakfast cereals and tinned goods.

Historically sugar was a commodity only obtainable by the very affluent and was consumed as the climax at the end of a dining feast. Until the 1100’s sugar was an unknown substance in Europe where it was encountered during the crusades to the holy land. It remained a luxury item until the 1700’s and during the 18th century became more widely available. Its use in confectionery was now established and England started to develop a habit for sugary sweetness. Sugar’s increased production and popularity was entwined with the dark trade of slavery. Colonial rule in the West Indies saw the enslavement of millions of Africans to ensure supply met with the ever-increasing demand for this luxurious white crystal.

Sugar still regularly makes the headlines albeit it for very different reasons. Recently the war on sugar has been waged and informed shoppers are frantically reading nutritional information labels to ensure that unwanted sugar does not enter their immediate food chains. World sugar production increased sevenfold between 1900 and 1964. There is no other major crop in history than can match this rate of increase.

Glucose is the preferred fuel or energy source for cells and therefore sugar is highly nourishing. The purer the sugar, the purer the energy. All our bodily functions require energy to perform their much needed daily tasks. The brain, nervous system and red blood cells have an obligatory requirement for glucose as a source of energy. Even whilst sleeping your body still requires energy to function. Just think of your heart that may slow down but does not completely stop working just because you are lying in the fetal position for approximately eight hours a night. The biggest concern with sugar consumption is that we tend to eat more in calorific value than what we realistically need. Excess energy does not magically dissipate, it is stored in adipose tissue until such time when there is a period of famine and the body can draw on those stored reserves.

Sugar can have effects on weight and obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, dental caries, and micronutrient dilution[i]. Whilst there is no clear link between quantity of sugar consumed and dental caries, research suggests that there is a strong relationship between dental caries and the frequency of sugar consumption. In societies where the average total sugar supplies are less than 20kg/person/annum dental caries is rare[ii]. How many times have you visited your dentist where you were asked how often you snack on traditional sweet treats? The advice is often given to only eat confectionery postprandially.

When sugar rich foods replace nutrient dense alternatives they can displace other vital macronutrients and thus be a source of ‘empty’ calories. An Irish study concluded that high consumption of added sugars was associated with decrease in the micronutrient density of the diet and increase prevalence of dietary inadequacies in children and teenagers[iii].

Sugar has been implicated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the Feingold diet advocates the removal of all forms of sugar and additives from affected children’s diets. However, a meta-analysis of 23 studies involving 560 subjects found no direct impact of sugar on behaviour[iv]. Science aside, many teachers and parents do anecdotally report improved behaviour when sugary treats are kept to a minimum for these individuals at risk. The Mind For better mental health campaign advocates the minimal inclusion of sugar in the daily diet to help address symptoms of mental health, which includes depression. Depressive individuals have been shown to prefer sweet foods. Whether there is a direct causation between sugar consumption and the development of depression however remains without conclusive evidence[v].

What are the government guidelines with respect to sugar?
Current recommendation for sugar intake is set at a maximum of 11% of the total daily food energy (Dietary Reference Values, 1991). That equals 60g of sugar.

How does that translate to food choices?
A 30g serving of Kellogs® Cornflakes with 125ml of semi-skimmed milk = 9g of sugar.
A hot beverage with 2 teaspoons of sugar = 8g
2 digestive chocolate biscuits = 6g
1 can of Heinz® Cream of Tomato soup = 19.6g
1 part of a Mars® Duo = 25.4g

If these food choices make up part of your daily intake, then you have already consumed 67.7g of sugar, which equates to an excess of 7.7g. The key to eating is to be aware of the content of your food and how it will enhance your physiological function not throw a spanner in the works.

It is not unusual for us to lead a more sedentary life due to the increasing demands on our time. As the seasons change we may be less inclined to go for a run or walk in the park and even be time poor to visit a gym to burn off those excess grams of sugar, which can accumulate over time and lead to undesirable diseases so often reported in the news.

When you next sit down to eat, ask yourself whether that extra spoonful of sugar really is needed to make the medicine go down.

1. McGee, H. (2004). Food & Cooking. Hodder & Stoughton, London, Chapter 12. ISBN 978-0-340-83149-6
2. Food Standards Agency (2001) McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods, Fifth edition. Cambridge: Royal Society Chemistry. ISBN 0-85186-391-4

i. Arola, L et al (2009) Summary and general conclusions/outcomes on the role and fate of sugars in human nutrition and health. Obesity Reviews 2009; 10(Suppl, 1):55-58
ii. Report on Health and Social Subjects 41 Dietary Reference Values (DRVs) for Food Energy and Nutrients for the UK, Report of the Panel on DRVs of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) 1991. The Stationary Office. London. ISBN 0-11-321397-2
iii. Joyce, T & Gibney, MJ (2008) The impact of added sugar consumption in overall quality in Irish children and teenagers. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 21, p 438
iv. Wolraich, M. L., Wilson, D. B. and White, J. W. (1995). The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis. JAMA. 274:1617–1621.
v. Ruxton, C.H.S., Gardner, E.J., and McNulty, E.M. (2010). Is Sugar Consumption Detrimental to Health? A review of the Evidence 1995-2006. Food Science and Nutrition. 50:13

This article was published in issue 189 of Positive Health On-Line Magazine in December 2011

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