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In recent times, a new bogeyman has risen that is being blamed for health problems as well as issues with weight gain, diabetes and many other issues – hidden sugars. Whereas before, fat was blamed for many of the problems we suffered from, sugar has come to replace it as the reason for all of our ills. But are hidden sugars to blame for health problems and what exactly are they?
Good sugar, bad sugar?
To start with, sugar itself isn’t bad for us as long as it is kept in moderation. Sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs in anything from milk to fruit and honey. The body uses it to create fuel and to keep us moving as well as to make our brains active. It also gives us a boost that can make us crave it – hence people being said to have a ‘sweet tooth’.
According to nutritionists, the problem comes when the food we eat has a lot of sugar that creates calories and our diets don’t contain the balance of other nutrients we need. So instead, our bodies grab nutrients from the rest of the diet to process the excessive sugar and this can lead to issues. One issue can be a weakened immune system leading to more colds and flu outbreaks. It can also mean we end up craving sugar for that boost it gives us and feel tired and irritable when our sugar levels are low – so we eat something sugary to boost them back up.
The latest recommendation from the World Health Organisation is that only 5% of the daily calories intake should come from added sugars, termed as ‘free’ sugar. This is the equivalent of around 30 grams of sugar. For kids, obviously, this is reduced, with no more than 19 grams for 4-6 year olds and no more than 24 grams for 7 to 10 year olds.
Hidden sugars in food
So it seems that the problem isn’t so much the sugar we pop in our coffee or sprinkle on our cereal but the hidden sugar in foods that we might not realise is present or in what quantities. Sugar is often used much like salt to help extend the shelf life of foods such as tinned fruit and vegetables as well as bread and cereals. And while we know fizzy drinks have a lot of sugar in them, diet foods and low fat snacks often have just as much.
In fact, it seems almost everything has sugar hidden in it, even when you wouldn’t think it. Savoury foods such as ready-made soups and sauces can contain sugar while sugar is often used to bulk out and improve the taste of diet products that are low in fat.
Fruit is known for having sugar in it but it can be surprising how much. Some new varieties of apple, such as Pink Lady, have a higher amount of sugar than traditional varieties as people crave sweeter fruit.
Finding the hidden sugars
One of the reasons that we can get conned by hidden sugars is that they often aren’t labelled as ‘sugar’ and use different terms that might not be immediately known for what they are – examples include sucrose, fructose and glucose. Other sugar ingredients include honey, agave, molasses and syrups such as corn or rice syrup.
There’s currently no law that says food and drink manufacturers have to tell us what sugars are in an item but you can get an idea by looking at the section ‘carbohydrates (of which sugar)’ – according to BBC Science, more than 15 g of total sugars per 100g means it is a high sugar content items while less than 5 grams per 100g is a low sugar content.
There’s no doubt that hidden sugars are an issue – especially when you are talking about diet or ‘sugar free’ items that actually have plenty of them within their ingredients. It makes it harder to manage your daily intake or even have an idea how much you are eating. But there is also a view that making sugar the new scapegoat for health issues is an oversimplification of the matter. Perhaps the aim is for balance in all foods, including those currently labelled as bad for us?