La dolce vita. Sweetness is synonymous with a beautiful life, and sweet foods are nutritious, comforting and make us feel good. That’s why we naturally want some, especially after a workout. Sugar is classified as a type of carbohydrate. That’s why pastries and pizza are popular!
We also crave sweetness to compensate for stress. Because there’s so much stress out there, and the taste of sweetness can be artificially enhanced, we can be confused into an endless cycle of buying and eating more and more. How do you avoid such artificially enhanced foods? Here’s a primer on sugar.
1. How to identify sugar
In brief, there are naturally occurring sugars, and refined/industrially processed sugars. Naturally occurring sugars are found in whole foods and are of many types, such as milk (lactose), wheat (maltose) and fruit (fructose, levulose). They comprise an intrinsic part of the whole foods that contain them, together with fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, phenols, etc. So, when you consume say, a mango, you eat the whole food, not just the sugars in it. Generally, whole foods don’t just contain one type of sugar, but several types. This has implications for how your body responds to sweet foods (see, #3).
2. How to identify refined sugar
Refined sugar is basically a naturally occuring sugar that has been industrially processed by stripping it from its whole food source, and packaged for convenience and shelf life. Its main use is in the food industry and it goes by many names or can be lumped under ‘natural sweetener’. The main sources of refined sugar are sugar cane and sugar beet (and also corn, i.e. corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup). The so-called ‘impurities’ of naturally occurring sugars, such as trace elements and minerals, are removed to make the end-product we know as refined white or ‘brown’ sugar (which is white sugar with a bit of molasses in it). These man-made products virtually odourless and have a bland sweet taste. Refined sugar is used to add sweetness to packaged foods and drinks, including sports and energy drinks, to boost their immediate appeal.
3. Not all carbs are equal
When you eat whole food, you’re not only eating the sugars or carbohydrates that are just a part of it. How fast your body breaks them down into the glucose that enters your bloodstream depends on what food you eat (meat, poultry, fish, veg, fruit, etc), and not just its sugar/carb content. This brings us to...
4. How to avoid the sugar rush and sugar high
They’re two separate things. The glycemic (GI) index is a basic measure of how fast the sugar in food enters your bloodstream. Foods with a high GI index, such as those made with refined flour and sugar, can make your blood sugar levels rise rapidly. This “sugar high” is almost always followed by a “sugar crash” after a big meal. Low-glycemic-index foods gradually increase blood sugar levels, and thus stabilise your energy levels over time. Refined or processed foods have the highest GI scores. For example white bread is rated at 75, while chapati is 54. Glucose, the most basic sugar, is rated 100.
In addition to their GI, foods have also come to be rated by their glycemic load (GL). This is a measure of how much (not how fast) it makes your blood sugar level rise. For example, watermelon has a GI score of 75, but a glycemic load of just 5. Moral of the story: measurements of nutrition like GI and GL are simplifications for general reference. Don’t try to eat by numbers. Eat whole foods.