Sugar can take many forms, and can naturally occur in foods such as fruit and dairy. However, these days the most common forms of sugar are refined sugars, which are added to foods to create sweetness or flavour, or as a more natural preservative than chemical preservatives. Refined sugar is also commonly used in processed food as not only does it add to the taste, it can add colour, bulk and thickness to food products.
While a small amount of sugar will do little harm to a person, when too much sugar is consumed it can contribute to health problems including obesity and tooth decay.
Sugars are carbohydrates, which are needed for building energy. The body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars such as glucose that can be readily used in the body. Natural sugars come with other forms of nutrients, but when sugar is refined it has no benefits for the body other than offering a quick surge of energy.
Types of sugar
Refined sugars come in many different types, each providing unique functional characteristics that make it appropriate for certain foods. Not all of these sugars are available in the everyday supermarket.
“Regular” white sugar
Raid the pantry of any homeowner and you are likely to find a container of white sugar. White sugar is what the food industry refers to as “regular”, and is the sugar called for in most recipes. Its extra fine crystals are ideal for bulk handling and can be used in a variety of ways.
Other than traditional white sugar, more recently developed sugars include:
Fruit sugar - Finer still than white sugar, fruit sugar is used in dry mixes such as gelatin, pudding desserts and powdered drinks. Crystal size is consistent, preventing separation or settling.
Bakers special sugar - Bakers special sugar was purposely designed for the baking industry, offering a super fine crystal ideal for making cookies, cakes and sugaring doughnuts. Bakers may also use sanding sugar for sprinkling on top of baked goods.
Caster/bar sugar - Ideal for delicately textured cakes and meringues, as well as the sweetening of drinks, bar sugar dissolves easily and quickly.
Icing/ powdered sugar - Icing sugar is granulated sugar that has been ground to a powder and then sifted. It also contains about 3% corn-starch to prevent caking. This type of sugar is ideal for icings, confections and whipping cream.
Raw sugar is naturally a little brown when it is formed. It appears brown because of the presence of molasses. Manufacturers of sugar will bleach the sugar to remove the molasses, making the sugar appear white. To produce brown sugar, they then add molasses back to the sugar.
Compared to white sugar, brown sugar has a sweeter and richer taste. Its texture is also more moist and clumpy than white sugar. The darker the brown sugar, the more molasses, and the more molasses, the sweeter the sugar.
Like white sugar, brown sugar comes in various forms:
Turbinado sugar - This is the sugar you will most likely put in your tea or coffee. Partially processed, just the surface of molasses has been washed off, leaving a subtle, mild flavour.
Barbados sugar - Intensely rich and dark in colour, Barbados sugar is coarser and stickier than “regular” brown sugar.
Demerara sugar - Demerara sugar is a popular British sugar that is commonly used for on top of cereals or in tea and coffee. It offers large golden crystals with a delicate sweetness.
Liquid sugar (sucrose) is white granulated sugar that has been dissolved in water before use. It is ideal for recipes that call for sugar to be dissolved first. When sucrose is inverted, it splits the two component sugars (glucose and fructose). This sugar can then be used by food manufacturers to prevent the crystallisation of sugar and to retain moisture in packaged foods.
A moderate amount of any of these sugars can be an acceptable part of a healthy diet. For example, for those who do not like the taste of wholegrain breads and cereals a touch of sugar can make nutritious food more appealing.
How much is too much sugar?
According to experts, a moderate intake of sugar is approximately 10% of your total energy intake for the day. This is when balanced with a healthy, nutritious diet, and based on previous recommendations by the World Health Organisation.
However, there is growing concern among experts that the consumption of sugars such as those in sweetened drinks are not being taken into account when people calculate their daily intake of sugars. And as sugar drinks increase total calorie intake, this could lead to weight gain and an increased risk of noncommunicable diseases.
Also of high concern is the part that sugar plays in dental diseases. Despite numerous advances in dental practices, dental disease is a worldwide problem that costs the health system millions upon millions every year.
New guidelines released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) have suggested that a reduction to below 5% of total energy intake per day would have additional benefits for your health. For an adult with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI), 5% would equate to approximately 25 grams (six teaspoons) of sugar per day.
These guidelines are based on the intake of monosaccharides (such as glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose and table sugar) that are added to food by the manufacturer and the home cook, as well as the sugars that are naturally found in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
Cutting your daily sugar intake to six teaspoons of sugar or less may seem easier than it really is. Many processed foods contain “hidden” sugars, and something doesn’t have to taste sweet to contain sugar. For example, just one tablespoon of tomato ketchup contains a teaspoon of sugar, and many pizzas, burger buns and ready meals also contain sugar. A single can of sweetened fizzy drink can contain up to ten teaspoons of sugar, nearly double the new recommended daily intake by the World Health Organisation.
When you add up all the “hidden” sugars in your food, you would be surprised by how much sugar you actually consume. As a guide, the average Australian consumes 35-45 teaspoons of sugar each and every day. When converted into how many kilos per year, and if you average out the average intake as 40 teaspoons of sugar, then Australians consume an average of 61.32kg of sugar per year. In America, the average person consumes 58.9kgs of sugar over the course of a year, compared to less than 4.53kg 100 years ago. These statistics are disturbing news, as it proves that Australians will soon be facing a bigger obesity crisis than the US.
With this overwhelming evidence, the WHO is calling on manufacturers and the world’s health authorities to severely limit the amount of sugar consumed. A recent report suggested that the number of overweight and obese people in the developing world has quadrupled in the last two decades, equating to more than two thirds of the population. More than one billion people are deemed to have a chronic disease, such as type II diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, as a result of sugar. Refined sugar leads to high blood pressure, hypoglycaemia, depression, headaches, fatigue, acne and the stiffening of arteries.
According to the WHO, it’s about time the world takes their recommendations seriously and pays attention to the facts - too much sugar is not good fo