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Green Goodness
  • Writer's pictureSylvia Meo, R.D.

Sugar: the Good, the Bad and the Evil

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

We’ve all heard about good fats and bad fats, or good carbs and bad carbs, well, the same can be said about sugar. Sure, on one hand, sugar is sugar and its consumption should be limited, but they are not all created equally; some wreak much more havoc on the body than others.

Good sugar is typically the type of sugar we find naturally present in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and milk (fructose and lactose).

These foods also contain other nutrients:

water, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Consequently, they are supplying much more than just a hit of sugar! The water, fiber and protein found in fruits, vegetables and milk help increase satiety, thus making it less likely that we would eat these foods in excess. Additionally, these foods may actually decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.

Bad sugar is what we refer to as ADDED sugars used in processing and preparing foods and beverages, or those that we add ourselves to foods while preparing or consuming them. When we refer to added sugar we are not just talking about the white sugar we all know, but also high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, brown sugar, agave nectar, molasses, maple syrup, etc. In fact there are 154 ways to say “sugar” on a food label!

Some of these sugars are more naturally sourced and thus may contain certain minerals (potassium, calcium, zinc, iron) and even antioxidants (namely honey and maple syrup), but for the most part, added sugars contribute zero nutrition and many added calories. This is what we refer to as empty calories, which can lead to extra pounds and negatively impact overall health.

In fact, studies are revealing that sugar may have been the culprit in making us fatter and sicker, its dangers even being compared to those of smoking. It has been linked not only to tooth decay, and rising obesity and diabetes rates, but also to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and premature death! Furthermore, most added sugars are also refined and when consumed regularly deplete our body’s reserves of important vitamins and minerals (B vitamins, calcium, magnesium).

The worst one being HFCS, a syrup derived from corn. It contains fructose and glucose molecules, just like sucrose (white sugar), but these molecules are not bonded the same way in HFCS, which may explain why our body reacts so differently to it. Unfortunately, in Canada this term is not always used on food labels and is often excluded from data on sugar consumption. Although many Canadians are aware of the safety concerns of regularly consuming HFCS, the names sometimes used to represent its presence on a food’s label are “glucose-fructose, glucose syrup, and dextrose” which misleads the consumer into thinking it is regular sugar, instead of the evil of all sugars it actually is!

But let’s not miss the point here; bottom line is we are consuming way too much added sugars! The latest Canadian Health Survey, although not recent because unfortunately Canada doesn’t keep good statistics, states that the average Canadian adult consumes 26 teaspoons of total sugar per day, 18 of those being added sugars. According to this survey, kids consume 33 teaspoons of sugar a day. The World Health Organization recommends that kids and women should be consuming at most 6 teaspoons (100 calories) of sugar daily and men 9 teaspoons (145 calories). Kids are eating five times the recommended amount for added sugars! Obesity rates in children between the ages of 2 and 17 have tripled in the past 30 years.

Sadly, sugars are often hiding in foods we would assume are healthy or smart choices. It’s not as simple as just avoiding candy or candy bars and sodas. Sugar turns up practically everywhere: fruit juices, flavored yogurts, cereals, crackers, canned fruit and applesauce, baby food, granola bars, dairy desserts, etc. Do the test. Compare the nutrition label of a plain yogurt to a strawberry flavored one, or regular milk to chocolate milk, to see how much added sugar there really is in your non plain choices. You may be very surprised.

My number one advice is to avoid all sugary beverages, even the fruity or seemingly healthy kind, think smoothies, drinkable yogurts, even sport drinks. Trust me, neither you nor your kids need these drinks in your life, it’s essentially like drinking liquid sugar! Furthermore, sugary beverages are the largest source of added sugars in a child’s diet! Keep in mind if you are a parent that added sugars should NOT be included at all in the diet of children less than two years old and early introduction of added sugars may only promote a strong preference for sweet tasting foods.

My second advice is READ THE LABELS and INGREDIENT LISTS. There exists many aliases for added sugars in food and these can include: white/brown/raw/beet/cane sugar, corn syrup or sweeteners, HFCS, agave syrup/nectar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, purée concentrates, and any ingredient whose name ends with –ose is a sugar (maltose, dextrose, sucrose, etc.). Of course like with every other ingredient, the higher up on the list, the more sugar is in the product.

Luckily changes are being made and by the end of 2021 the food industry will have to bring certain changes to labels making them less confusing. In the case of sugar, a percent daily value will finally be included to help you better compare the sugar content of different foods or brands, as well as help you identify which products should be limited because their daily sugar value is of 15% or more. Ideally, you’ll want to opt for products with a daily sugar value closer to 5%.

Also, sugar based ingredients will be grouped together in brackets after the name “Sugars” making it easier to find the sugar sources and understand how much of it is actually present in the food in comparison to the other ingredients. Also, reading the ingredient list helps confirm whether the sugar content comes from naturally occurring sugars or in fact added sugars. You can also compare a plain product to its flavored version see what type of sugars have been added.

My third advice would be to cut down and stay away from all added sugars, including artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners used to replace regular sugar, like Splenda, Aspartame, Xylitol, Equal, are not any better for our health. Ideally, you’d want to cut back on all sugars as much as possible, and instead use low-sugar indulgences (natural fruits, dark chocolate) or replace the sweetness with other flavor enhancers, such as cinnamon, vanilla, raw cacao, coconut flakes, etc. But, when a recipe does call for sugar, you can easily halve the quantity, even replace it with mashed ripe bananas or homemade applesauce, or maybe just use a less refined and more wholesome sugar substitute, such as raw honey and pure maple syrup or sugar.


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