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Hidden sugar in foods
Posted 12 October 2018
With so much hype surrounding anti-sugar diets, many people will look for alternate options to high sugar sweets. However purchasing products made using other sweeteners such as agave and honey may not be the healthier option you thought it was.
Are these products actually any better for us and how do we actually identify sugar in food products?
Below I’ll give you the low-down on sugar so you can enjoy a guilt free sweet treat this Easter, and remain healthy and happy.
What is sugar?
Sugar is carbohydrate. All sugars and carbohydrates are made from monosaccharides which are individual sugar molecules also known as glucose, galactose and fructose. Sugars are short chains of two monosaccharides while carbohydrates are longer chains of monosaccharides. The most common form of sugar is sucrose which is comprised of a glucose and fructose molecule.
When we eat carbohydrate or sugar, our body breaks these compounds down into individual monosaccharides which we then absorb into our blood stream. Hence, whether we eat lollies or bread, both products impact our blood sugar levels, despite lollies tasting a lot sweeter. The amount and type of carbohydrate in each product ultimately effects the rate at which these carbohydrates break down which impacts our blood sugar response.
Types of sugar
Unless you have had your head under a rock the last 10 years, you will know that sugar ain’t sugar. Or at least that’s what we are led to believe.
These days there are over 30 commonly used sugars in food production, from cane sugar, brown sugar and molasses to grape juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, agave, barley malt syrup, coconut sugar and even beet sugar, just to name a few.
In the end, you can make sugar out of anything that contains carbohydrate, because as we now know, sugar is essentially the sweet refined version of carbohydrate.
So why do some food manufacturers use a variety of sweeteners?
Food manufacturers manipulate recipes to limit the amount of easily identified sugar in their products.
By using a variety of unfamiliar sweeteners or sweeteners that are perceived to be healthy food manufactures can trick consumers into thinking a product is low in sugar.
For example rather than using cane sugar or sucrose in a food product, food manufacturers will use alternate sweeteners such as malt extract which does not catch the attention of many consumers or they will use sweeteners perceived to be or promoted as being healthy, such as coconut sugar or honey.
Or if a food product contains a large amount of sugar, manufacturers may use three, four or even five different types of sweeteners to ensure that the percentage of weight that each of these ingredients contributes to a product is lower and consequently they appear towards the end of an ingredient list, which is written in order from the most to least predominant ingredients, making a food product appear low in sugar.
So what do I look for?
Now you’re thinking, this is way too complicated. Well you’re not wrong, it can be difficult because now, more than ever before, sugars and alternate sweeteners come in many forms.
To keep it simple look at the ingredient panel of a food product and if sugar or another sweetener is in the top four ingredients, it’s probably quite high in sugar and should be avoided or consumed sparingly.
You can also look at the nutrition information panel which is a list of objective, tested and verified nutrient numbers on the food product. Look for foods that contain less than 10g of sugar per 100g or if the food contains fruit, allow up to 15g of sugar per 100g. Yes, fruit contains sugar, but the total sugar content is low and the nutrient benefits far outweigh the sugar consumption.
Read the labels
When it comes to hidden sugar there are some products you should be aware of and always read the food label. These food include:
- Fruit juice and smoothies
- Stir through sauces
- Toasted muesli
- “Healthy” waters such as vitamin water and coconut water
- Condiments such as sauces and dressings
Are some sweeteners healthier than others?
In short, no.
Ultimately all sweeteners break down into a combination of glucose, fructose and galactose and contribute almost an identical amount of energy per 100g.
Some sweeteners claim to have other nutritional benefits such as providing B-vitamins or antioxidants but the amount of these nutrients they contribute to our diet are so minimal that you would have to eat wheelbarrows of these sweeteners to get close to the nutrients you receive from eating one piece of fruit.
Don’t get caught up in the hype, ultimately the best sweetener is one that you consume in moderation!
Remember, don’t fear sugar, just be aware of where can be found and enjoy responsibly!
Themis Chryssidis is an Accredited Practising Dietitian at Sprout Health Studio – a multidisciplinary health care studio in Adelaide. He has a Bachelor of Psychology, a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Cert IV in Fitness.