You Are Sweet Enough
Do you find yourself reaching for a sugary treat at certain times of the day? Find it hard to say no to dessert? Find that ‘just one bite’ takes you down the path of ‘just a little more.….’? You are far from alone!
It could be argued that we are primed from birth to have a sweet tooth. Infants show a preference for sweetness and human breast milk certainly delivers, providing almost 2 teaspoons of sugar per 100mls.
Nature was setting us up for survival. Our taste receptors are only sensitive to five stimuli – sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami (savoury) – and there may be an evolutionary explanation for this.
Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors lived tribally as hunter-gatherers, sweet foods such as wild berries, fruits and root vegetables were highly sought after as they provided an energy-rich and nutrient-dense snack. During a time when there was uncertainty about when the next meal may present itself, our ancestors’ survival may very well have depended on cravings for and devouring of sweet foods when they were available. So it is perhaps no accident that across ages and cultures we desire the taste of sweet foods.
Unfortunately, this survival mechanism may not serve us quite so well today, when sweet food is abundant and presented to us, pre-packaged, around every corner.
Moreover, it is manufactured specifically to hit all the right taste notes, be irresistibly more-ish, and is even advertised and marketed to appeal to our sense of self-care, fun, community. It has never been easier to overindulge in sweet pleasures as we nurture age-old imperatives. It is very rare to meet a person who does not love something sweet. We use sweet foods to celebrate special occasions. We gift it in a generous show of love, affection, and gratitude.
Added sugar is hiding in plain sight
In small amounts, sugar can give us a temporary mood lift, fuel active muscles and keep our brain alert. The problem with added sugars is that they are everywhere and usually hidden in processed and pre-packaged foods. Often they are found where you would least expect, such as in pasta sauces, granola, healthy-looking breakfast cereals and canned soups.
The nature of our busy lives has squeezed us into a nutritional corner in which we are increasingly reliant on convenience foods and quick fixes to power through the day.
In the last few years, sweetened drinks in the form of specialty coffees and teas and energy drinks have propelled themselves into the food environment.
Excess consumption of added sugar as liquid calories in sugary beverages tricks the body into turning off its appetite control system, because liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories from solid foods.
Why added sugar matters to our health
A diet that avoids excess added sugars provides us with better health outcomes. It helps the body to maintain a healthier weight, reduces inflammation, and reduces our risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Moreover, a 22-year study released last summer by researchers at University College, London, links excess sugar consumption with poorer long-term mental health. This includes memory decline and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Our physical and mental quality of life is better served by limiting excess added sugars in our daily food choices.
So what is considered excess sugar?
The current recommendation is supported by various organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), Health Canada, Diabetes Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
No more than 10% of calories (12 teaspoons) should come from added sugars each day.
Although it was proposed that 5% (6 teaspoons) would be preferable for optimal health, this was not considered a realistic or achievable goal. You decide.
What does 10% look like in real life?
On a usual 2000 calorie per day diet, this translates to about 200 calories from added sugar, which is about 12 teaspoons.
To provide some perspective:
- one 330ml can of regular coke contains 10 teaspoons of added sugar
- one 500ml bottle of regular coke contains 16 teaspoons
- one medium double double contains 5.5 teaspoons
How many teaspoons of added sugar are in your food?
On the Nutrition Facts Table, the number of grams of sugar is always provided. There are 4 grams of sugar in one teaspoon. Dividing the grams of sugar on the label by four will give you the number of teaspoons.
For example, a medium double double has 22g sugar. Divided by four, this is 5.5 teaspoons of sugar.
A grande Starbucks chai latte contains 42g sugar =10.5 teaspoons
Two regular-sized Snickers bars contain 36g sugar = 9 teaspoons
Both contain a similar amount of protein.
There is a difference in perception between these two products, and one choice would be considered a lot more socially acceptable than the other. However, they both provide a similar amount of added sugar and would have the same impact on your blood sugar balance, metabolism and weight. Marketing is everything.
Added Sugars and Natural Sugars
What are added sugars and where are they found in our diet?
Food and drink manufacturers add sugars for flavouring, texture, colour and preserving. They are considerably more concentrated in processed foods and drinks.
Consumers may add them independently while cooking and baking, or to sweeten beverages such as teas and coffees.
The most significant sources of added sugars in our diets are found in soft drinks (pop, soda, energy drinks), sweetened specialty coffees/teas, candy, baked goods, breakfast cereals, ice cream, sports drinks and energy drinks.
What to look out for
Below are just some of the more common names of added sugars that you see on food labels:
- Agave syrup
- barley malt syrup
- beet sugar
- brown sugar
- cane sugar
- coconut sugar
- evaporated cane juice
- fancy molasses
- fruit juice concentrates and purée concentrates that are added to replace sugars in foods
- glucose/fructose (Canada) (also known as high fructose corn syrup in the US)
- maple syrup
- raw sugar
- table sugar
- white sugar
What about natural sugars?
Natural sugars are found in fruits, vegetables, breast milk and dairy products. When we consume these we are also getting other significant nutrients. For example,
- Phytochemicals such as phenols
These nutrients play an important role in preventing disease and in keeping our bodies healthy.
How do natural and added sugars compare, and is one better than the other?
Whether added or natural, all sugars share certain characteristics:
- They are all carbohydrates
- They all have the same number of calories (4 calories per gram).
- Liquid sugars and honey have more calories per teaspoon as they are more dense.
The body does not distinguish between added sugars and natural sugars; they are all eventually changed to glucose and will be either:
- used immediately for energy
- stored for later use as a storage form of sugar
- stored for later use as fat
There are two main points that make all the difference.
1. Natural sugars are found within whole foods that also provide other nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fibre. These contribute to health and wellbeing, as well as to providing protection against chronic illnesses.
2. The fibre in fruits and vegetables slows the absorption of natural sugar. This helps improve blood sugar balance, slowly releasing energy to the cells therefore preventing spikes and crashes in blood sugar. This leaves you feeling fuller for longer, so improving your sense of satiety.
Both of these points have profound implications for a healthy metabolism, encouraging a healthy gut environment and encouraging a low inflammatory environment in the body.
How can you tell the difference as a consumer?
Unfortunately, our Canadian Nutrition Facts Tables does not separate added and natural sugars, so the number you are reading is for total sugars, natural and added. The clue though can be found on the Ingredients Label. Health Canada has recently made this easier for us.
In 2016, Health Canada changed its labelling requirements giving manufacturers five years to become compliant with the new legislation (2021). There are a number of changes that have been mandated and we are seeing some of the changes appear on labels already.
One of the new requirements relates to added sugars and how these are represented on the Ingredients Label. As you are probably aware, ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. So there is more of an ingredient in the product when it is closer to the top of the list.
Currently, added sugars are sprinkled throughout the ingredients list, and you have to be a bit of a detective to determine how much added sugar is in a product.
Moving forward, Health Canada requires that all added sugars be grouped together giving them a combined weight. In some cases this will put sugar at the top of the ingredients list. This gives us more streamlined information at a glance and helps us to make more informed decisions when comparing different products.
These changes often encourage manufacturers to improve product recipes as having added sugars as the first ingredient on their label is not desirable.
The average consumer spends just 7 seconds between taking an item from the shelf and either adding it to their cart or returning it to the shelf. This change will help us to make side-by-side product comparisons, and are designed to help us make easier and healthier choices in our busy and time-pressured days.
Some Quick Tips on Recognizing and Reducing Added Sugar
- Be an informed consumer. Read labels and use the rule of 4g=one teaspoon shortcut. Divide the number of grams of sugar by four to find the number of teaspoons.
Compare labels and opt for the one with a lower sugar content
- Look at the ingredients label to assess how close added sugars are to the top of the list. Avoid those that have sugar as the first or second ingredient.
- Minimise processed and pre-packaged foods.
- Don’t get caught in the hunger zone - keep a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit on hand for those moments when you need a quick snack.
- Retrain your tastebuds to respond favourably to a lower sugar diet takes about one to two weeks and always surprises people…try it…surprise yourself with a new and lower threshold for sweet.
- One study found that drawing sweet foods stimulated the same parts of the brain as actually eating the food. Fascinating!
- Consider downsizing your drink. Coffee House chains are required by law to provide their nutritional information on their website. Check the sugar content of your favourite beverage..
- Consider replacing some sugar with unsweetened applesauce in baking.
- Add cinnamon and fresh fruit to oatmeal and plain yogurt
- Consider a carbonator/sparkling water maker for that refreshing fizz to replace soda or pop, Add lemon slices and keep in the refrigerator.
- Replace high sugar condiments such ketchup and bar-b-Q sauces with salsa or hot sauce.
- Watch for foods that have a perceived health benefit such as frozen yogurt, granola bars, protein bars, museli, packaged oatmeals. Be your own label detective!
Remember – ‘’low sugar, not no sugar’’. Going cold turkey may be too extreme and not sustainable. Reduce sugar slowly until you find what works for you and keep it real. Small changes can have incredible benefits over time.
Self-care is key to good health and is about moments that nurture our inner being. Find ways to slow down and claim moments that are yours. Somewhere within those moments you will find strength to create the opportunity to make small, positive changes to eating patterns that are no longer serving your health.
Your health is precious and you are definitely sweet enough…
Happy Canada Day!
All content provided on this website is for general information purposes only and is not intended to replace medical or specialist advice.
A qualified Medical Herbalist is always your best resource for information related to herbal medicines.
Registered Dietitians are a reliable and trusted resource for nutrition related information, always up to date and always ready to work with you to realise your goals.