Sugar is addictive. It makes us feel good. It satisfies us, giving us a sharp release of energy. When this happens we produce more serotonin; we feel happier, more energetic, more motivated….until….we crash. No longer do we feel energetic, no longer do we feel motivated, we become irritable and in need of another ‘pick me up’….so we reach for that Tim Tam or walk over to the biscuit jar…and the cycle continues.
Does this sound like a day in your life? Sugar in excess is our enemy. Its a simple formula; excess sugar > excess insulin > INFLAMMATION. When our blood sugar levels surge, the pancreas produces insulin which activates pro-inflammatory cytokines causing a dreaded systemic inflammatory response. This can manifest as bloating, skin issues, gut issues, joint pain, muscle aches…and so much more.
Sugar has around 60 names making it easy to miss in the ingredients list. I talked about this briefly in this post. I have put together a little Sugar Infographic to help you identify what is sugar when you do your shopping. I find this extremely useful to print out and keep in your bag, purse or wallet for easy access.
One teaspoon of sugar accounts for around four grams. The World Health Organization recommends consuming six-nine teaspoons of sugar per day, however many of us are consuming around 30 or more per day, most of the time, without even realizing it. One glass of apple juice almost supplies you with your daily intake of sugar, i.e. six teaspoons. One slice of banana bread from a café provides a staggering 11 teaspoons of sugar. A breakfast bar with ‘real fruit’ and ‘wholegrains’ provides almost four teaspoons of sugar. These foods often contain the obvious forms of sugar but what about the ones that aren’t so obvious..?
I’ll take a few and look at them under the microscope for a moment…
Refined sugar is one to avoid as best you can. This type of sugar has been stripped of all its nutrients, leaving zero benefit for us whatsoever other than dramatically adding to our energy intake for that day as well as our waistline!
Coconut sugar is one that is receiving a bit of hype at the moment. This type of sugar has a lower GI, meaning it is released more slowly once consumed. However, it is still mostly sucrose with the addition of some trace amounts of minerals such as magnesium, potassium and inulin, which is a prebiotic fibre.
Raw honey has long been touted for its medicinal benefits as an anti-fungal, an anti-viral and an anti-bacterial. Hence, why it is used to soothe sore throats and suppress coughs and colds. However, despite being more of a wholefood, it is still high in sugar and energy and should be used within limits.
Agave nectar has fallen victim to great marketing touting it as the ‘healthy’ choice for sugar as it has a lower GI. However, it contains a higher fructose (fruit sugar) than glucose ratio and has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup, which is cause for concern! In fact, agave can contain anywhere from 65-90+% fructose. At these levels, the human body is unable to process fructose efficiently causing weight gain and blood sugar imbalances.
So what about those healthy snacks?
This is where we are falling short guys; it is these so called ‘healthy’ foods that contain hidden sugars that are increasing our intake without us even noticing!
*Remember the higher the ingredient is on the label list, the higher its content within the product. A trick that manufacturers often do is to list smaller amounts of multiple sugars which ultimately can mean that the product is still high in total sugar.
Here are some examples:
- Non dairy milks. Non dairy milks are certainly in vogue at the moment, but that does not always mean that they’re the healthiest option. Always opt for the ‘unsweetened’ varieties of the boxed non-dairy milks. Some of the sweetened versions can contain up to 7g sugar per serve. This can be in the way of rice malt syrup, agave syrup, molasses or just plain old sugar. Also, don’t be fooled by the addition of the word organic in the ingredient list either e.g. organic sugar, organic rice malt syrup….it is still sugar.
- Granola or muesli. On face value, these options seem healthy enough. They have oats, nuts/seeds, healthy grains. They’re satisfying and crunchy…however, to become crunchy they’re often toasted…and to toast effectively they’re often coated in a sugary base such as maple syrup, honey or sugar itself. So you’re consuming up to 15g sugar per serve without even realising. My best tip is to make your own. This is a good recipe. If you’re watching your sugar intake, use unsweetened coconut flakes.
- Acai bowls. These days they’re ubiquitous! They’re the perfect summer breakfast or treat; cooling and satisfying! Whilst there is no denying the health benefits of this pricey berry, these bowls may not be as healthy as you think. Acai pulp itself is quite low in sugar, but that does not make the entire bowl sugar free. Often these bowls have added fruit, sugar, granola or syrup to bulk them up. So always check out the ingredients before you buy. My best tip is to purchase the frozen unsweetened variety and make your own smoothies. I personally like Amazonia as a good, ethical brand. Perhaps consider blending in veggies (e.g. steamed beetroot, greens, carrots, zucchini) rather than keeping it all fruit and opting out of the extra drizzle of honey on the top. To slow down the release of sugar, perhaps add in some almond butter, greek yoghurt or plain nuts.
- Protein bars and protein powder. With these products, always be sure to read your labels. While many of these products contain an ample amount of protein they often have the added extra of a side of sugar too (some are equivalent to a chocolate bar!). Perhaps try and opt for an unsweetened powder that you can blend into a smoothie and sweeten with a banana for example or try making your own nourishing protein bar.
- Sauce and dressings. Salad dressings are one to watch as they are often made with hidden sugars. Avoid packaged dressings and try making your own with ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon or lime, olive oil, dijon mustard…Tomato and barbecue sauce have sugar (up to 10g per serve!). Always opt for the ‘no sugar added’ version or try making your own! Pasta sauce is another one to watch. Whilst the base may be tomatoes, often there is the sneaky addition of another form of sugar. Marinades generally always have some type sugar. My best tip is to read your labels. Opt for products with no sugar or ones where sugar is right down the bottom of the ingredient list. Alternatively, make your own sauces and marinades.
- Smoothies and fresh juices. Fresh juice is one to watch if you’re conscious of your sugar. It may seem like a healthy option but at the end of the day, juicing strips the ingredients of their fibre, meaning that they have a direct impact on our blood sugar levels. If you’re wanting a juice, opt for ones that have a veggie base and 1-2 serves fruits maximum. Store bought fruit juice can contain as much sugar as a can of Coke, so it is best to avoid these all together. Smoothies are better in that they retain the fibre of their ingredients. Many commercially bought smoothies come in a large or jumbo size and are sweetened with fruit juice concentrates, syrups, honey or the like, all which increase the sugar content of the drink. My best tip is to always check the ingredients of the smoothie and watch your portion size. If you’re buying one, ask whether they use fresh fruit or concentrates and ask for no added sugar. Alternatively, make your own keeping to a veggie base with 1-2 serves of fruit.
- Pre made soup. We don’t automatically link soup and sugar, but it is good to be wary. Pre-made soups can fall victim to hidden sweeteners such as barley malt, dextrose, maltose, high fructose corn syrup and more. My best tip is to always read your labels before purchasing or make your own. Soup is very simple to make, nutritious and budget friendly and can often be left on the stove to do its own thing.
- ‘Low fat’ and ‘light’ or ‘lite’ products. I always recommend full fat products over low fat products due to the added side of unnecessary sugar in the latter. Perhaps the worst culprit is the ‘low fat yoghurt’. Yoghurt is generally a nutritious product, provided it is the right type. Remember not all yoghurt is created equal with some an outrageous 12 teaspoons per cup! My best tip is to opt for whole foods, avoid flavoured yoghurts and opt for full-fat, natural or greek yoghurts.
- Flavoured oats. Pre-packaged portioned flavoured oats are ones to be wary of. The flavour almost always has something to do with sugar plus they’re often quick oats which don’t do wonders for our blood sugar levels (they pass through us really quickly!). My best tip is to purchase plain rolled or steel cut oats cook them yourself and add your own additions. My personal favourite is super simple and nourishing – I love rolled oats cooked in half almond milk and half water, stir in a sliced banana just at the end and sprinkle with a good amount of cinnamon (not cinnamon sugar!).
- Bread. Store bought loaves are one to watch. Not all, but some, do add sugar to sweeten their products. Obvious examples include brioche and fruit toast, however, there are some that do have a little more than they need. My best tip is to again read your labels and opt for those that have no more than 4g sugar per 100g. Some of the better choices are sourdough, wholemeal, rye and spelt based breads. In other words, the darker the better generally!
- Dip. Store bought dips make any hors d’oeuvres platter increase in appeal in a matter of seconds. However what may seem like an innocent addition to your veggies, salad or crackers can soon become an unhealthy habit. Not only do they contain sugar, they are also laden with preservatives, additives and under par oil! My best tip is to make your own dips with a legume and tahini base or steamed/roasted veggies, make your own guacamole using fresh avocado, or make your own salsa out of fresh wholefoods such as mango or tomatoes. Use fresh herbs for added flavour and season with salt, pepper and spices.
- Artificial sweeteners. I’ve added this in here as something to be wary of. Artificial sweeteners are often added to products to make them more palatable. Common culprits include chewing gum, nicotine gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, pre-prepared meals, alcohol, ‘light’, ‘lite’ or ‘low fat’ products, zero calorie beverages, cough medicine, lozenges, liquid medicine, frozen yoghurt, processed snacks and children’s vitamins (especially chewable ones) amongst many more.
These are just come of the many ‘healthy’ sugar-containg products out there. Always read your labels and if unsure, ask questions. Remember, sugar is SUGAR, regardless of its colour, source or taste.