Sugar – The sweetest Drug


Sugar is not a nutrient

Paediatric endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig says, 

There is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrevant to life. People say, oh, you need sugar to live. Garbage.

Is sugar poison?

There seems to be no more fiercely debated, opinionated or instagrammed topic on the planet than nutrition. Trying to find answers, especially if you’re looking online, can feel like you’re wading through a mass of confusion and contradictions fuelled by inexplicable scientific data, opinionated culinary experts and pages of vitriolic comment.

The media is vastly saturated with conflicting advice from the many health campaigners, food bloggers (and friends) it seems everyone has a different opinion on what we should and should not eat.

Amid all the debate though, there is one ingredient that seems to be the current darling of the nutritional paparazzi: sugar.

Over the past few years, sugar has dominated the headlines, with plenty of speculation and bickering over its effects on our health. Time and time again we pick up a newspaper or switch on the television to (not surprisingly) find another sugar row has erupted, the latest this week one about links between the sugar industry and scientists who advise government on obesity.

As the war on sugar’ continues and the real facts unravel, the truth about sugar is making more and more people look at their eating habits. With abundant self-help sugar books popping up (“How I Quit Sugar”, “Pure, White and Deadly”, “Sweet Poison”), the list goes on, we are starting to wake up to the dangers. So what exactly is it, thats wrong with this sexy sweet, white stuff?

The research is growing to show sugar is indeed poisoning us. Studies are proving sugar to be the biggest cause of fatty liver, which leads to insulin resistance. This then causes metabolic syndrome, which is now being seen as the biggest precursor to heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Sugar isn’t just empty calories, some leading scientists are saying its responsible for 35 million annual deaths worldwide.

Do we need sugar?

food-poisoningOur bodies need glucose but not fructose. 58% of protein and 10% of fat changes into glucose once in the body, which is used as needed. If you only ever ate meats, eggs and good fats you would fulfill all of your body’s glucose needs.

Do you love sweet foods? If your like most people, the answer is yes. And it turns out there’s a biological reason for that: sweet foods aren’t poisonous. Old-school humans loved sweet foods because our ancestors knew that if a food was sweet, it was safe to eat. Sweetness was a sign that the plant was edible (most plants that are poisonous to humans taste bitter). Sweetness is also an indication that that plant is high in  glucose, which meant that it would offer us lots of energy. This is a natural response, and we know this because babies love sweet foods. As parents try to diversify a baby’s diet, they generally have to offer their kids a new food at least ten times before the child will eat it. But if the food is sweet , he or she will go for it the first try (and will probably ask for more!).

So humans love sweets, and that love is natural and pure – when you’re talking apricots and cherries. The sugar contained in fruit, frutose is a healthy sugar when you’re eating the whole fruit (usually including the skin) and getting all of the fibre and vitamins and minerals of the fruit. But when sugar is extracted from sweet plants and added to another food (like bread or cereal), you’re not getting any nutritional benefits. That sugar is nothing but an added sugar, and it offers nothing but empty calories.

Your individual relationship with sugar is the one that you should identify and reflect upon. Maybe its time to break up with sugar – immediately.

The sugar habit is a bad one – contributing to anything from food addiction to diabetes and more.

Sugar sugar everywhere

There are many different kinds of sugar: the sugar in milk, the sugar in fruits and vegetables, the sugar that sits around in little packs in the coffee shop. These sugars are not all created equal!

Glucose is sometimes called dextrose or blood sugar. Fructose is found naturally in fruits and honey and is a simple sugar. Lactose comes from milk, better known as “milk sugar”. Sucrose is a mixture of fructose and glucose. Maltose occurs naturally in sprouted grain.

Heres a list of some common sugars, both naturally occurring and processed (which become added sugars in packaged foods):

Glucose: Glucose is present in nearly everything you put in your mouth, from fruits and vegetables to biscuits, cakes and sweets. It is in breakfast cereal, it is in cheese. Glucose is the most abundant sugar found in foods, and it is used as a source of fuel by all organisms, including us. When you eat complex carbohydrates, your body turns those whole foods into the glucose that you need to live.

Fructose: Fructose is a sugar derived from fruit is found naturally in fruits and honey and is a simple sugar. It does not provide any nutritional benefits.

  • Fructose makes us eat more. Every molecule we put into our mouths has a corresponding appetite hormones. And when we’ve eaten enough of said molecule, these hormones tell our brains, “We’re full now, stop eating”. Our bodies are good that way; we’re designed to eat only as much as we need.


This is because for old-school humans, our ancestors, sugar was both highly valuable (as instant energy) and extremely rare (a berry here and there.) Thus we evolved with no fructose “full switch”. This was so that when we did stumble on a berry bush, we could gorge ourselves stupid (and store it as instant fat).

All very well back when sugar was rare and we had to work hard to get it. But now it’s ludicrously abundant and we barely have to extend an arm to get at it. Having no “off with” is a massive liability.

  • Fructose converts directly to fat. After eating fructose, most of the metabolic burden for metabolising it rests on your liver. This is not the case with glucose, of which your liver breaks down only 20%. Nearly every cell in your body utilises every cell in your body utilises glucose, so it’s normally ‘burned up’ immediately after consumption. The way fructose is converted in our bodies means it’s not used straight away as energy, but converted directly to fat. When we drink fructose (in soft drinks and juices), this process is even more direct and faster.
  • Fructose makes us sick – and heres why it’s bad! More and more studies are boing done on the effects of fructose and a number of studies have found that fructose:
    • interferes with our immune system, making it harder to fight off virus and infections.
    • disturbs the mineral balance in our bodies, causing deficiencies as well as interfering with mineral absorption.
    • messes with fertility.
    • accelerates the ageing process.
    • has been connected with the development of cancers of the breast, ovaries, prostate, rectum, pancreas, lung, gallbladder and stomach.
    • is linked to dementia.
    • causes acidic digestive tract, indigestion and malabsorption.
    • Can cause a rapid rise in adrenaline, as well as hyperactivity, anxiety and a loss of concentration.

fruitsIt’s important to realize that all of this does NOT apply to fruit.

Fruits aren’t just watery bags of fructose, they are real foods with a low energy density and lots of fiber.

Sucrose: (Sucrose is a mixture of fructose and glucose). Sucrose is the little pot of fine, white sugar that most people stir into their tea or coffee. It’s also found in brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses. Sucrose is actually a combination of glucose and fructose. When you add sucrose to food you are adding sweetness that either enhances or masks it flavour. But you are also adding calories and taxing your digestive system. Studies have also shown that when you ingest sucrose, the sugars (fructose) bypass the hormones that tell you you’re full, which means that you can overeat without realising it.

How sugar becomes sugar

Pure white, granulated, easy to pour white sugar comes from a plant: either sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar cane in its natural form – tough, thick, tall stalks that you have to work very hard to get at – can be delicious. Once you get past the cane’s tough exterior, you’ll find a chewy fibre that you can’t bite off, with a light, watery, sweet juice that you can suck out of the fibres as you gnaw on the stick. Sugar beets look like white roots, and they grow beneath the ground.

Those plants are a far cry from the bags of table sugar that are the end result of a few very intense rounds of processing.

  • The juice extracted from the plant is boiled into a syrup, which is evaporated until it turns into crystals and then spun in a huge centrifuge, where the wet parts are extracted, leaving lighter-coloured crystals behind.
  • Then the process is repeated twice more: boiling, evaporating, crystallising, spinning.

Molasses – a very dark, thick, sweet syrup used in cooking and baking – is the stuff that emerges when boiled, crystallised cane juice or sugar beet juice is spun in a centrifuge. ‘Raw’ or ‘turbinado’ sugar is sugar that has been processed one less time than refined white sugar, so some of the molasses colour remains. It isn’t really raw though, as it’s been boiled and crystallised and spun at least twice!

The big deal about high-fructose corn syrup

So there’s processed sugar, and there’s high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Which comes from….corn. Which, as you probably know, is sweet, buts it’s not that sweet. So how do they turn it into the sticky stuff that manufacturers have been dumping into our foods for the past few decades?

Well lets start in the ’70’s when the manufacturers wanted to spend less money on the ingredients for their processed foods and drinks. So much corn is grown in the United States that it made financial sense to use it as a source of sugar. The only hitch was that corn syrup wasn’t quite as sweet as sugar….so manufacturers created high-fructose corn syrup. It’s corn syrup on steroids.

The use and production of hight-fructose corn syrup has increased dramatically in the past three decades, and gets lots of attention in the media because the rise of HFCS coincided with the rapid increase in ocisity in the United States. The important thing to remember is that all added sugars, whether table sugar (sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup or honey, can cause damage to your body over the long term.

How much sugar are we meant to eat again?

So how much sugar is to much sugar? Different eating plans offer varying guild lines. The American Heart Association suggests that women shouldn’t eat more than 20g (5 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. 36g (9 teaspoons) for men and 12g (3 teaspoons) for kids.

In the UK, the British Dietetic currently recommends that women consume no more than 50g (12 teaspoons) of added sugar a day. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently advised this figure should be lower following reviews of the scientific evidence of the link with obesity. However, the UK government’s scientific advisory committee on nutrition – whose senior members advising on the sugar issue also work for large sugar companies – is fighting this! :(

The European Hear Network in 2011 set the aim of limiting intake to 6 teaspoons.

Read the labels

To stay ahead of (and away from) added sugars, always check out the nutrition facts panel of a food label. You’ll see ‘total sugars’ listed, but that’s not the best way to tell if a food contains added sugars. Here’s why: because ‘total sugars’ includes all of the sugars in the food, naturally occurring and added. If you’re looking at a label for a type of food that doesn’t contain naturally occurring sugars from fruit or milk, then the sugars noted would be added sugars. But if you’re looking at the nutrition label of a fruit or dairy product, like apple sauce or yogurt, the number you see is the total sum of both natural and added sugars.

Be aware that food manufacturers often try to conceal just how much sugar you are eating by using many different kinds of sugars so that it’s less obvious that the main ingredient is actually SUGAR.

Here are a few variations to look out for:

agave nectar
brown sugar
cane crystals
corn sweetener
corn syrup
crystalline fructose
evaporated cane juice
fruit juice concentrates
golden syrup
high-fructose corn syrup
invert sugar
malt syrup
raw sugar


how to read a label

 Lets go over it again! 

  1. Choose foods with less than 5g of sugar/100g, or 5% sugar.
    This quick reading should keep you roughly in check and will wipe out 90% of processed foods.
  2. But if it’s dairy remember the first 4.7g of sugar/100g is lactose.
    Lactose is fine to consume, but anything on top of the 4.7g is added sugar.
  3. And if it’s a liquid: it must contain no sugar.
    A serving size for a juice can be 375ml, some servings cane up to 750ml.
    Pasta sauce can be 250ml, which means the per 100ml quantity of sugar needs to be multiplied by about a factor of 4.75 and 2.5 (respectively) to work out how much sugar it actually contains.
    Even if its only 5% sugar, a liquid’s massive serving size renders it a sugary dump.
  4. To calculate the sugar content in teaspoons, divide the sugar content by 4.2.
    S0 4.2g of sugar = 1 teaspoon; 8.4g
    8.4g of sugar = 2 teaspoons.
    Work out how much your eating in a serve by dividing the serving size roughly by 4 to get an idea of how much you’re eating. Its easier to visualise amounts in teaspoons.
  5. Allow for bigger serving sizes:
    Double the amount if you have to.
    The serving sizes are mostly very small and less than an average serving size. Check out how many serves there are in a packet and round your figure up if you’re eating more than the suggested serving size.

How added sugar adds up

It’s typically a good idea to choose healthful-sounding foods like salads, fruit and yogurt. But you’ve got to make sure that these foods don’t just sound healthy. Added sugars can turn something that is wholesome into something that isn’t. For instance, plain yogurt naturally has 17g of sugar, the sugar comes from lactose, which is a naturally occurring sugar. But when you get the fruit-added yogurt, which almost always means no added sugar, you can get up to 47g of sugar, which is 30g of ADDED sugar. If you have plain yogurt with a handful of blueberries (50 berries = 7g of sugar), you get your yogurt, your fruit, your sweet treat with no added sugar.

Here are a few more examples of how added sugar adds up.

Salad dressing (1tbsp)
Yogurt (250g)
Liquid refreshment (250g)
Instant porridge (1 serving)
Peanut butter (2tbsp)
Oil and vinegar 0.5g
Plain 17g
Plain water 0g
Plain 0.5g
Natural 2g
Thousand island 2.5g
Fruit on the bottom 47g
Gatorade 13g
Raisin & spice 15g
Skippy super chunk 4g

 How to avoid added sugar

We can learn to skip added sugar, here are some strategies to help combat your sugar habit:

  • Cut back on the sugar you add. Stop pouring sugar onto the foods you eat and prepare, like cereal, porridge, coffee and tea.
  • Do not drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Just don’t do it!! A 600 ml sports drink or sweetened flavoured water contains around 30g (thats seven teaspoons of added sugar).
  • Spice it up. Learn to use spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamon, and flavourings like vanilla to add sweetness and appeal, so you don’t need the sugar. An apple sliced and sprinkled with cardamon is a surprising rich-tasting snack!
  • Choose fruit over sweets. Have you ever noticed that most sweets come in fruit colours and flavours? Sweets are basically fake fruit that wishes it was fruit and is doing its best to smell and taste like it.
  • Watch out for impostors. Be on the lookout for these common added sugar culprits. Just because they don’t taste sweet doesn’t mean they aren’t spiked with corn syrup or other added sugars.

Foods like:

conventional nut butters
cereal bars
energy bars
sports drinks
instant porridge
spagetti sauce
barbeque sauce
salad dressing

Read more: The history of sugar