Sugar hidden in plain sight
You may be attempting to remove sugar from your diet by cutting out the main culprits namely, cakes, cookies, pastries and other sweet treats. This is a great way to start reducing your sugar intake, but once you have removed those foods from your diet you are probably still eating far more sugar than you actually realise. It appears that a number of foods contain what is commonly referred to as ‘hidden sugar’. These foods are often difficult to spot as they are marketed as healthy alternatives and initially appear to be low in sugar. As we edge closer to the holiday season, now is an important time to talk about our sugar consumption and how we can become more aware of misleading products. The following article will discuss hidden sugar, the sugar content of various common foods, artificial sweeteners and why low-fat foods are marketed as healthy.
It has become common knowledge that sugar is bad for our health. It has been linked with the likes of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, yet consumers are still purchasing foods that are chocked-full of sugar. So, why is that you may ask? It is because we cannot readily detect the sugar within these products and reading the label is often a tedious, confusing task to do during our shopping trips. A lot of these sugars are hidden within processed and packaged foods that are marketed as healthy. A lot of the time food companies give sugars unusual names which makes it difficult to notice the sugar content of a product. Ingredients to watch out for are glucose, fructose, and sucrose which are all different forms of sugar.
The following are some foods that are initially considered low in sugar, but in actual fact harbour a large amount of the sweet substance:
Another confusing topic is that of low-fat foods. Low-fat foods are often promoted as a healthier alternative to that of their full-fat counterparts. It is easy to fall trap to the idea that low-fat products are healthier than full-fat products as producers label their products with various health claims, such as “low in calories” or “light”. However, these products usually contain more sugar than that of the full-fat versions. But why is this so? When a manufacturer produces a product lower in fat it usually worsens the taste and is quite bland. So, to counteract that they add more sugar to improve the taste. Thus, your product is now a little house of sugar rather than a healthy alternative. Not only do food makers add sugar to low-fat foods, but also other ingredients, such as flour, thickeners and salt which all contribute to the higher caloric value of these products.
Current research has shown that it is important to include good fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, into your diet. Not only does fat make your food tasty, but also has a number of other important functions within the body. Good fats play a role in the absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A, D, E and K. The aforementioned vitamins are essential to the proper functioning of your body and cannot be absorbed effectively without the help of fat. Furthermore, fats play a key role in the maintenance of healthy blood vessels, aid in the proper functioning of the nervous system and are important in the synthesis of certain hormones. If your goal is to lose or maintain your weight, it is best to choose the full-fat option as products high in sugar can cause weight gain. This will certainly negate the effect that you are trying to achieve by deciding on the low-fat options in the first place! Focus your diet to include healthy fats from sources like nuts, unprocessed meat, fish, eggs and good-quality fats and oils instead.
You may be dabbling with the idea of artificial sweeteners as an alternative way to achieve the sweet taste in your food, but without the negatives of sugar and calories. However, what is the potential impact of artificial sweeteners on your health? It is known that a number of sweeteners have low caloric values and are popular among those trying to lose weight, but studies have shown that sweeteners can have negative effects on appetite and weight in varying ways. Past studies have shown that certain sweeteners are unable to activate our reward pathways in our bodies when we consume food, thus making us feel unsatisfied after a meal. This increases our appetite and causes us to eat more than what we would normally. This could lead to unnecessary weight gain. However, artificial sweeteners are not all bad. Certain sweeteners, like sucralose, appear to be less likely to cause tooth decay than sugar. Furthermore, studies have shown that products that contain artificial sweeteners are beneficial for those with Type 2 diabetes as certain sweeteners do not impact insulin levels or have an effect on blood sugar levels after consumption. Nonetheless, it is important to practice moderation when consuming products such as these as the effects can vary depending on the individual and the type consumed.
It is very important to read the nutritional labels when purchasing products, especially when they are highly processed. Rather opt for purchasing healthy whole-foods instead, like non-starchy leafy greens, eggs, unprocessed meat and healthy fats. Sugars are in actual fact quite unnecessary in your diet and bring about a number of medical issues that you would rather do without. Make the choice to cut out highly processed foods and to avoid foods that are high in sugars. If you are in a bit of a pickle and want to buy a packaged meal for convenience sake, read the label to make sure you know the contents of the meal before purchasing. It is important to be informed on the contents of a product rather than blindly consuming it.
We know it is difficult to completely remove sugar from our diet. This is because sugar stimulates the brain’s pleasure centres. Especially at a highly stressful time, the brain will look for ways to reduce stress. Be aware of this before you reach for any form of sugar. Our aim is to inform you so that you can make healthier decisions for your body.
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Nguyen, P. K., et al. “A systematic comparison of sugar content in low-fat vs regular versions of food.” Nutrition & Diabetes, vol. 6, no. 1, 2016. ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291946672_A_systematic_comparison_of_sugar_content_in_low-fat_vs_regular_versions_of_food. Accessed 23 December 2020.
Petre, Alina. “Artificial Sweeteners: Good or Bad?” Heathline, Heathline, 19 August 2020, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/artificial-sweeteners-good-or-bad#how-they-work. Accessed 21 December 2020.
Strawbridge, Holly. “Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Health Blog, 16 July 2012, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030. Accessed 21 December 2020.
Torrens, Kerry. “The truth about low-fat foods.” BBC Good Food, BBC Good Food, 6 December 2018, https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/truth-about-low-fat-foods. Accessed 22 December 2020.
West, Helena. “8 Ways Food Companies Hide the Sugar Content of Foods.” Heathline, Heathline, 19 April 2019, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/8-ways-sugar-is-hidden. Accessed 22 December 2020.
Sugar Cloud image curtesy of Dreamstime.
About the author
Shannon Mace has a BSc degree in Human Life Sciences from Stellenbosch University, she majored in biochemistry and physiology. She has a keen interest in metabolic physiology and hopes to further her studies in the subject. Shannon has joined The Noakes Foundation as a researcher, as well as an administrator. She looks forward to helping the foundation promote healthier living and happier lifestyles.