Should you ban sugar?

by | Jun 7, 2020

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The sweet stuff has come under heavy fire in recent years. Of course, you want your child to be a healthy eater. But does this mean sugar has no place in your home? Registered dietician Megan Pentz-Kluyts has the facts.

The intake of added sugars appears to be increasing steadily across the South African population, in both adults and children. According to the 2013 South African Paediatric Food Dietary Guidelines, a South African study showed that 12% of babies aged six to 12 months consumed carbonated drinks at least four days a week, and an additional 26% at least once a week. That’s a lot of fizzy cool drinks for tiny tots!

Let’s consider the effect this – and other dietary habits packed with the sweet stuff – has. Children consume approximately 10 to 15 teaspoons (40 to 60g) of added sugar a day, possibly rising to as much as 25 teaspoons (100g) daily in adolescents. A recent study investigated the relationship between added sugar intake and vitamin and mineral intake in South African children aged one to nine. The study found that the main sources of added sugar population were white sugar, sugar-sweetened cool drinks (squash type) and carbonated soft drinks. It was also found that being overweight and obesity was associated with higher added sugar intakes in four- to eight-year-old children, and that a higher sugar intake dilutes a child’s vitamin and mineral intake.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2015, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines recommended that both adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars (which includes added sugars) to less than 10% of their total energy intake. Evidence shows doing this reduces the risk of being overweight, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay. A further reduction to below 5%, or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons), per day would provide additional health benefits. That’s half the official recommendation that’s been in place since 2002. Additionally, the intake of fruit juice in infants aged six to 12 months should be limited to approximately 10 ml/kg of body weight, or 120 to 180ml daily.

Minimising added sugars is a priority, but it’s not as simple as trading cookies and cool drinks for fruit and water. Avoiding the obvious sources is one thing, but added sugar can be found in many foods where you may not expect it. Rather than obsessing over grams and teaspoons, focus on reducing added sugars in your child’s diet by limiting access to products that contain them.

Shop smart

The first step in reducing your family’s added sugar intake takes place in the grocery store. Scan food labels for added sugars – these are a no-no. Instead, fill your trolley with healthier options. If there’s no sugar-laden food in the house, the only choice is a healthy one. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, sweet potatoes and apples, that are naturally sweet. You could even consider using these as natural sweeteners in your food or baking. You can add a mashed banana to your family’s oats in the morning; this adds sweetness without added sugars.

Know what’s in your food

Added sugars can even be found in foods that you don’t think of as sweet, like salad dressing and tomato sauce. Keep an eye out by scanning a food product’s ingredient list for names such as dextrose, glucose, sucrose (or other words ending in -ose), and various syrups (such as corn syrup and molasses). Ingredients are listed by weight, so the ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount and the ingredient listed last is present in the least amount. Additionally, the nutritional table on packaging includes ‘glycaemic carbohydrates’ or ‘carbohydrates’. These are the carbohydrates available in the food that will be converted by the body for energy. But bear in mind that the total sugars mentioned in this category includes all the sugars in the food – both those found naturally and the sugars that have been added. So, be smart about your purchases, and avoid processed foods as far as possible.    

Your baby does not need to have sugar, sweeteners or salt added to her food. You also can reduce the added sugar intake in your home by cooking meals from scratch. Reduce the amount of sugar you use in recipes – opt for plain, unsweetened yoghurt and if preferred, sweeten it with whole fruit. This trick works with cereal too.

Get rid of the temptation

Keep fruit drinks, fizzy cool drinks and sugary beverages out of the house. Rather drink water, milk or unsweetened tea as a family. Once your child sees you committing to a healthy way of life, the sooner he’ll jump on board too. There’s no nutritional benefit to drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. If you are going to give your child unsweetened juice, make sure that it is limited and diluted.

A piece of whole fruit like an apple contains naturally occurring fructose (which is a sugar), but it also delivers 4.4g of dietary fibre, thanks to the peel and pulp. Apple juice, on the other hand, lacks fibre and is a more concentrated source of sugar and energy. This translates to a more rapid rise in blood sugar when drinking juice – and may even explain why eating whole fruit has been associated with a decreased risk for Type-2 diabetes, while greater consumption of fruit juices has been associated with a higher risk.

Remember, even natural sugar is sugar

Many people think that natural sugars like honey and agave are healthier than ones that are more highly processed, like sucrose or table sugar. But when you look closely, you see that all of these sugars contain fructose and glucose. And while honey may offer some antioxidants, you would probably have to consume a lot of honey in order to experience any health benefits.

The best thing to do is to instil a healthy relationship with food and regular activity in your family, rather than one where the overall focus is a strict, completely sugar-free diet. Encourage positive associations with foods such as fruits and vegetables by playing up their good qualities and fresh taste — and save the sweet stuff for special occasions.

Free and added sugars

Free sugars are energy-providing sugars such as monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, galactose) and disaccharides (lactose, maltose and sucrose – also called table sugar). They are added to foods and drinks during processing by the food manufacturing companies, cook or consumer. Sugars are also naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates – so free sugars include added sugars. Free sugars exclude fresh fruits and vegetables, and the sugars naturally present in milk.

Common sources of added Sugars

Some sources of added sugars are easy to spot and examples can include:

  • Sugar sweetened beverages and fruit juices.
  • Sugary cereal.
  • Sweets and chocolates.
  • Flavoured yoghurts.
  • Baked goods such as cakes, pastries and cookies.

However, added sugars can hide in some surprising places, including:

  • Wholegrain cereals and granola or muesli.
  • Instant oatmeal.
  • Frozen foods.
  • Granola bars, protein bars and cereal bars.
  • Ready-made pasta sauce.
  • Dried fruit, canned fruit, applesauce and fruit juices.
  • Ready-made baby food.