Sugar: The Bittersweet Story

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For the past 10 years, the debate about the health hazards of sugar has been raging locally and globally. This comes as no surprise when you consider how much sugar South Africans consume daily.

A study by the University of Witswatersrand revealed that South Africans devour between 12 and 24 teaspoons of sugar per day, and four to eight of those are from sugar-sweetened beverages or drinks that have sugar added to them during their processing. These include soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, vitamin water drinks and ice teas.

A can of Coca-cola has just more than 8 teaspoons, while a Fanta Grape holds about 10.5 teaspoons, and the average amount in a can of fruit juice is estimated at about 9 teaspoons. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends about 12 teaspoons per day, including added sugars – less than 10% of the total energy intake for grown-ups and children. In South Africa, that is 202 calories based on the recommended calorie intake for women and 250 calories for men. However, a 5% sugar intake reduction is claimed to provide added health benefits.

Sugar tax

South Africa was not out of the loop on the debate, and we saw the results of these when our government introduced the “sugar tax,” which came into effect on the 1st of April 2018. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) started collecting the Sugary Beverages Levy (SBL), which is fixed at 2.1 cents per gram of the sugar content that exceeds 4 grams per 100ml. This means the first 4 grams per 100ml are levy free.

The levy was introduced by government “to prevent and control non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, stroke, cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. and assist in the prevention and control of obesity”.

Not all sugar is made the same…

So, how do we make sure we don’t end up eating or drinking more of the sweet stuff than is recommended? As always, the first step is knowing the facts. Here’s the breakdown of different sugars and what to look out for when choosing your diet.

Natural sugar, in the form of a carbohydrate and commonly found in fruits (fructose) and milk (lactose), is part of a healthy diet and safe to consume. They also contain nutrients such as vitamins and fibre and tend to be low in calories and sodium, which makes them part of a balanced diet.

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Added sugar is typically refined from sugar cane or sugar beets and gets added to almost all processed foods to make it sweeter, prolong its shelf life or change its colour, form or texture. This is the type to avoid. Foods like cereals, flavoured milk or yogurt, some fruit juices, energy drinks, fruit bars, bread, salad dressings, sauces and ready-made meals, amongst others, mostly contain added sugars, which have been associated with lifestyle diseases.

What is important to note is that added sugars have no nutritional value.

While they can be added to nutritious foods, they simply add to one’s calorie intake and spike your blood sugar levels.

Foods recommended for a low-sugar lifestyle include fruits and vegetables, because of their natural sugar content, full-fat versions of foods (as low-fat may contain added sugars) and whole foods (unrefined and unprocessed foods). Try to cook your own meals to control the amount of sugar you consume, eat plain yoghurts as opposed to flavoured ones, and try raw oats for cereal along with dried fruits, nuts and dates for snacks and dessert.

Low-sugar beverages: Water and flavoured water – flavoured with cucumbers, mint or lemon – fruit and herbal teas or unsweetened tea and black or flat white coffee.

Water, flavoured with slices of lemon , cucumber or mint, are great low-sugar alternatives.
Water, flavoured with slices of lemon , cucumber or mint, are great low-sugar alternatives.

While some argue that sugar does not cause diseases like diabetes, research has shown that being overweight or obese (sometimes caused by sugar intake) increases the risk for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer by four to eight times. What’s worse, it’s addictive, and like any other addictive substances we should aim for moderation.

The main message: Avoid hidden sugars, read food labels and consume in moderation.

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