It is near impossible to avoid sugars, as they are present in almost every one of our daily meals. They are either naturally occurring or are added to various foods and drinks. Their role has become an increasing public health issue and health organizations all over the world are taking a closer look at them, to determine how they affect our health.(1) This article examines what sugars are and how they fit into our day to day lives.
What are sugars?
Sugars are an integral part of carbohydrates and, depending on how many units they are comprised of, are classified as monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.(2) Monosaccharides are sugars such as glucose, fructose and galactose, and disaccharides are table sugar (sucrose) or milk sugar (lactose).(2) These two groups of sugars are what the term “sugar” generally refers to.(2)
What is the difference between naturally occurring and added sugar?
There is a difference between naturally occurring, added and free sugar. All added sugars are also free sugars, and both exclude naturally occurring sugars in dairy food and in intact fruit and vegetables.(3) The main distinction between free and added sugars is that the former include all naturally occurring sugars in nonintact fruits and vegetables, for example if they are juiced or pureed, while the latter are added to food during its processing.(3) However, there are some grey areas and inconsistences in defining added and free sugars for research, so one must pay special attention to them in order to fully understand the end results of a specific research.(3)
How do sugars affect our health?
A large amount of systematic reviews and meta-analyses consistently report neutral or beneficial effects of dairy products and intact fruit and vegetables on the risk for diabetes, obesity and weight gain.(3) Low glycemic index foods (such as intact fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains) may lower total cholesterol levels and improve glycemic control in people with diabetes.(4) However, all sugars, natural or added, have the same chemical composition and affect our bodies in a similar way, so what makes them different are the nutrients we consume with them.(2)
Food in which sugars occur naturally, tends to also have other beneficial nutrients – such as fiber, vitamins and minerals.(2) What is more, the acute metabolic impact has been shown to be lower and the satiety effect greater with intact fruit, when compared to fruit juices, which have been shown to affect on us in way that is similar to other sugar-sweetened beverages.(3) It is also uncertain whether functional and manufactured foods with a low glycemic index have the same long-term benefits as plant-based foods with a low glycemic index.(4)
Current scientific evidence does not support the popular assumption that dietary sugars themselves are harmful to human health, or that they are the cause of obesity or noncommunicable diseases (NCD), such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.(5) Evidence gathered from human studies shows that obesity and NCDs are promoted by an excess amount of calories, which can also be consumed in the form of dietary sugars.(5)
What else should you know about sugars?
There are many misconceptions about how sugar affects us. One of them is the effect it has on children. Contrary to popular belief, sugar does not make children hyperactive.(2) A study showed that parental beliefs and expectations that it does, tend to drive this belief.(7)
There is also no compelling evidence that sugar is addictive.(8) It is also not toxic or bad for your body - if ingested in normal amounts.(2) The World Health Organization recommends that free sugars should not make up more than 10% of a person’s daily energy intake, whether they are an adult or a child.(9) This means an adult that requires 2000 kcal a day, should not ingest more than 200kcal from free sugars – which is about 12 teaspoons or 50 grams of sugar.(2)
Sugar is an essential nutrient and a direct source of energy for our brain and muscles, and thus has a place in a healthy diet.(10) It is not problematic if consumed in recommended amounts, but it does matter whether you consume naturally occurring sugar or the one added to food, as the former is found in food which also contains various other nutrients important for our health. You don’t have to feel guilty for eating that chocolate, but make sure to predominantly fill your diet with healthy foods containing naturally occurring sugars.
- Newens KJ, Walton J. A review of sugar consumption from nationally representative dietary surveys across the world. Journal of Human Nutrition and Diet. 2016; 29:225-240.
- Sugars: Addressing Common Questions and Debunking Myths. Food facts for healthy choices. 2020. [6.12.2021] Dostopno na: https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/sugars-addressing-common-questions-and-debunking-myths.
- Mela DJ, Woolner EM. Perspective: Total, Added, or Free? What Kind of Sugars Should We Be Talking About? Advances in Nutrition. 2018; 9(2):63-69. [7.12.2021] Dostopno na: https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmx020.
- Mann J. Dietary carbohydrate: relationship to cardiovascular disease and disorders of carbohydrate metabolism. European Journal of Nutrition. 2007; 61:S100-S111.
- Prinz, P. The role of dietary sugars in health: molecular composition or just calories? Eur J Clin Nutr. 2019; 73, 1216–1223. [7.12.2021] Dostopno na: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-019-0407-z.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. [10.12.2021] Dostopno na: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html.
- Hoover DW, Milich R. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 1994; 22:501-515.
- Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016; 55:55-69.
- World Health Organization. Sugars intake for adults and children – Guidelines. 2015.
- Daily sugar intake: How many grams of sugar per day? Food facts for healthy choices. 2020. [8.12.2021] Dostopno na: https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/daily-sugar-intake-how-many-grams-of-sugar-per-day.