The status of sugar has shifted markedly as scientists and health professionals review its role in health and nutrition. As a member of the carbohydrate family, sugar is a safe and natural source of good quality energy - and it makes food enjoyable to eat.
Sugar also makes a unique contribution to the way food looks, tastes and lasts on the shelf. Sugar has now won consumer acceptance for its place in a healthy balanced diet, after being incorrectly linked to certain health difficulties of the decades.
Sugar has a long history. Man's early experience while foraging for food was that sweet foods were more likely to be safe to eat, bitter ones were either poisonous or dangerous. That was nature’s guide to food safety - a protective mechanism that still applies today.
Sugar is also the basic fuel for both plants and animals - a building block for all life. Our bodies are unable to tell the difference between the sugars found naturally in vegetables, fruit and cereals, and the same sugars put into food by manufacturers. Sucrose (sugar) is broken down by digestion into glucose and fructose (both sugars), and these break down into carbon dioxide and water and the energy we need.
In the form of glucose, sugar is carried by the blood to all the cells of our bodies. Sucrose is the substance that plants manufacture from air and water - and the minerals in the soil - using the energy of the sun. Under that process, called photosynthesis, sugar is produced and this is the fuel that plants use to live and grow.
A Versatile Ingredient In Food Production
No alternative ingredient can match the positive and varied characteristics of sugar. In addition to its use as a sweetener, sugar is a natural preservative and maintains the texture and original colours of jams and bottled fruit. It extends the shelf life of many products, and enhances the texture of cakes and biscuits. It helps set jellies and jams.
In a wide range of foods, the "clean" taste resulting from sugar’s purity enhances the flavour of many food ingredients, adding sweetness without disguising the natural flavour of other ingredients. On one hand, sugar stops the growth of bacteria in preserves while on the other hand it provides food for yeast used in the baking of bread. As it caramelises, sugar adds colour and flavour to the crust, and retains moisture so the food stays fresh. It is also used in brewing, other yeast-raised products and in many medicines.
Here are the facts about sugar
Sugar does not cause diabetes
It is a common myth that eating sugar is related to the development of diabetes, a disorder of blood glucose metabolism. Blood glucose is the type of sugar found in our bodies. There is no evidence that eating sugar causes diabetes. Scientific research has recently proven that past understanding of sugar’s role in the diet of people with diabetes was wrong. We now know that sugar affects blood glucose levels in the same way as many breads, and much less than potato, rice or glucose itself. Eating sugar does not result in the high blood glucose levels previously thought. As a result, including a moderate amount of sugar along with a wide variety of other carbohydrate foods is now the preferred option in most dietary recommendations for managing diabetes.
Sugar is not fattening
Research has confirmed that very little carbohydrate from the food we eat is converted to body fat under normal circumstances. This is true of all types of carbohydrate, including sugar. In other words contrary to what many people have been led to believe, sugar does not make you fat. Sugar has about the same number of calories (or kilojoules) as protein and about half the calories per gram of fat and alcohol. In other words, fat and alcohol have about twice as many calories as the same amount of carbohydrate, and scientific evidence shows that the body handles these nutrients quite differently. The old thinking that a kilojoule is a kilojoule and it doesn’t matter where it comes from is no longer valid. A high intake of fat is far more likely to result in weight gain than a high intake of carbohydrate. This is because fat from the diet is efficiently stored by the body while carbohydrate, which needs to be converted to fat before storage, is not. And losing weight means losing stored body fat.
We now have information on the Glycaemic Index which has become a powerful tool for people with diabetes to manage their blood glucose.
The Glycaemic Index (GI)
Knowledge of the Glycaemic Index of foods allows people with diabetes to manage their blood glucose level. Before this information was available it was perplexing for a person to eat the same quantities of what appeared to be similar foods only to find huge fluctuations in blood sugar.
GI is a way of measuring and then ranking foods according to their effect on blood sugar or blood glucose levels. Foods are tested and ranked, compared to the standard food glucose which has a GI set at 100.
Some examples of the GI of foods are:
High GI (above 70)
calrose rice 87
rice bubbles 83
jelly beans 80
morning coffee biscuits 79
Moderate GI (55-70)
white bread 70
cane sugar 65
new potato 62
pita bread 57
shredded wheatmeal biscuit 62
Low GI (below 55)
milk (whole) 34
oats porridge 49
A Pure Carbohydrate
Today sugar is hardly ever eaten on its own. Sugar makes many nutritious foods taste better and so more likely to be eaten. Research shows that people who eat moderate amounts of sugar can have better nutrient intakes than people who eat either very small or very large amounts of added sugar. "Sugar is just empty calories" is a criticism which has been leveled at the product for many years. By "empty calories", critics mean that sugar as a pure carbohydrate contains only calories - no other vitamins or minerals.
Sugar Does Not Cause Hyperactivity
There are food ingredients which have been shown to effect behaviour, including some colourings and preservatives, and it is important to consider the effect of these in any evaluation of behaviour problems. The perception that sugar produces a "high" and causes behaviour problem, particularly in children, has been disproved. Not only is there no scientific evidence to support this view but in fact carbohydrates are actually thought to have a calming and mildly quieting effect on some children.
A Message of Moderation
The message of moderation to achieve a balanced and health diet remains a constant theme from health professionals and nutritionists. What has changed in contemporary health thinking is the significance of carbohydrates - and therefore sugar. New research on carbohydrates corrects the myths about sugar, including advice to reduce sugar in people’s diets.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet
As people become more aware of health and nutrition, the significance of balanced eating for a health life grows. To ensure variety and a well balanced diet, select foods from each of the major food groups every day.
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Cereals and other foods made from grains (such as bread, milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt)
- Protein - fish, meats, poultry, eggs, dry beans and peas
Sugar is contained in a wide range of foods, including fruit, vegetables and cereals. Choosing a variety within the different food groups is important to provide nourishment, energy and body maintenance. A moderate intake of sugar and sugar containing foods, as part of what you eat will provide enjoyment, and increase the range of foods from which to choose a varied but health diet. While scientists and health researchers differ in their views about what foods are good for us, there is almost universal support for balance, moderation and variety in eating.
Sugar's Natural Process
In Australia the sugar we eat comes from sugar cane which stores sucrose in its stem. In many plants, sugar is stored in the fruit which explains why ripe fruit is usually sweet. Some exceptions are cereals which convert sugar into starch and store it in their seeds, or in their roots like potatoes or sugar beet. Sugar cane is grown in tropical countries and most of Australia's supply comes from Queensland.
To make sugar, sugar cane is crushed in a mill. The juice is clarified to remove cane fibres and other solids and is boiled to produce a thick syrup. From this syrup, raw sugar crystals are formed which are about 99 per cent sucrose with a brown syrupy outer layer containing water and other extracts from the sugar cane such as starch. At the sugar refinery, the raw sugar is dissolved, filtered and crystallised to remove such impurities and produce a range of sugar products, including white table sugar. The syrup helps make such products as brown sugar, coffee sugar, golden syrup and treacle.
No preservatives, artificial flavourings or colourings are added to sugar. The mineral content of raw sugar, brown sugar and syrups is slightly higher than in white sugar, however, the difference is not nutritionally significant for the quantities we eat.