Sugar-free is getting sweeter

2019-06-10 12:04

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Think you’re living a sugar-free lifestyle? Think again.

While you may have cut out all the refined sugars found in sweet treats, like chocolates and fizzy drinks, experts have said the concept of a sugar-free diet is “virtually impossible”.

A “sugar-free diet” is also unnecessary when it comes to leading a healthy life.

Experts say there are now more sugar-free products on the market than ever before.

An increase in health awareness has also added to the idea of going sugar-free.

However, we do need natural sugars to keep a balanced diet and these usually come in the form of carbohydrate-type foods.

Of the total glucose levels in our body, 33% is used by “insulin non-responsive tissue such as the brain and red blood cells”.

This is according to Professor Shahidul Islam of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of life sciences, biochemistry, genetics and microbiology.

Islam specialises in biochemistry, nutritional biochemistry, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and food science.

He said because our bodies already contain glucose, a high sugar diet means the concentration of glucose in the blood will make the blood a lot thicker, making it impossible to reach the fine and narrow blood vessels of, e.g. the eyes, kidney and brain, and eventually these organs will be affected.

However, with the number of “zero-sugar” fizzy cooldrinks, chocolates, biscuits and cereals on our supermarket shelves, it has become much easier to avoid excessive sugar and be healthy.

Islam said the use of sugar replacers is expanding very rapidly in a host of different ranges of products from soft drinks to baked goods and ice cream. Years ago, sugar-free products for people suffering from diabetes were considered by many to be “bland” or “downright disgusting”, however, the market is changing and sugar-free goodies are more delicious than one would think.

Hilton Quarry SuperSpar is only one example of a store stocking various sugar-free products.

Sugar Free.Moeketsi Mamane

Happy dad Tawe Mbanjwa lets his son Kelo (5) pick out some sugar-free sweets at the Hilton Quarry SuperSpar on Thursday. Photo: Moeketsi  Mamane

Store manager Sunil Mothilal said that although not all stores follow the same policy, there will be other shops in the Pietermaritzburg area with a similar range of sugar-free goodies.

One would need to inquire from their local supermarket about sugar-free products and if they are not available, ask if they would consider stocking sugar-free treats.

Mothilal said they started selling various brands of sugar-free biscuits and recently started stocking sugar-free cereal.

“The products have become popular among our regulars and are definitely in demand,” he said.

Weekend Witness staff decided to try different brands of sugar-free sweets and were pleasantly surprised by their taste.

UKZN’s Dr Kirthee Pillay, who specialises in human nutrition and clinical dietetics, said that many foods that we think do not contain sugar, actually have “hidden sugars”.

She said people need to look at their food labels very carefully to determine how much sugar is in the food they are about to buy.

“People are more health conscious nowadays, so it’s become easier to cut down on added sugars in the diet.

“People have also become more aware of the dangers of excessive sugar intake, so they find it easier to cut down.”

Pillay said there are more sugar-free products available now than ever before. “This may make it easier to reduce sugar intake.

“Because of the regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of food in South Africa, it’s become easier to identify products that contain sugar.”

Sugar Free.Moeketsi Mamane

Sugar-free sweets are becoming more easily available in South African stores. Photo pixabay

Senior registrar in the discipline of public health medicine at UKZN, Dr Avashri Harrichandparsad, said, however, that making healthy food choices shouldn’t be restricted to only sugar.

Harrichandparsad said: “The approach to healthy eating should rather be an integrated one.”

Harrichandparsad said we should aim to reduce known key risk factors such as salt, sugar and unhealthy fats, in our diets.

While most people associate a high sugar diet with weight gain, dental issues and problems with their skin, the long-lasting effects of a consistent high sugar diet can be devastating.

Heart disease, strokes, early onset of diabetes and obesity are just some of the issues a high sugar diet can cause.

He said the best alternatives to sugar-containing foods are to choose fresh fruit and vegetables “as the sugar contained in these do not have the same effects on a person’s health”.

He added that these foods will also have a greater nutritional value than processed foods.

“Limit the amount of processed foods you eat as these generally have a high sugar content. With any type of foods, fresh or processed, eating in moderation is generally advisable,” he said.

What are the dangers of a high sugar diet and why should we cut back on sugar?

Senior registrar in the discipline of public health medicine at UKZN, Dr Avashri Harrichandparsad, said the main danger lies in “free sugars”.

These are sugars added to a product by the manufacturer which increases its calorie content without increasing nutritional value.

“The main source of free sugars in our diets is sugar-sweetened beverages, which are consumed regularly by most individuals.”

Harrichandparsad emphasised that high sugar diets in children “are especially problematic”.

Sugar Free.Moeketsi Mamane

Sugar-free chocolates such as Nova Chocolate, Afrikoa, Caring Candies, Canderel  and some Nestle chocolates, are available in South  African stores. Photo pixabay

Not only does sugar affect one’s physical health, it also affects one’s mental health.

University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of life sciences, biochemistry, genetics and microbiology’s Professor Shahidul Islam said high sugar diets in children may affect their growth and brain function.

“It has been found in research that brain activity of a person who is overweight or obese is slower than a person who is at an average weight for their gender, height and build. Children taking a high sugar diet may have some other problems like dental caries, teeth and gum diseases if proper oral hygiene has not been followed,” said Islam.

Additionally, high blood sugar will increase stress and damage cells and organs.

“Higher sugar consumption may suddenly increase energy levels for a person with a healthy diet but chronic consumption of high sugar will have the opposite effects.”

Pillay said a high sugar intake can affect mood and cause increased feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression.

“It can impair the ability to concentrate and may negatively affect memory. Although it may initially cause an increase in energy levels due to a spike in blood glucose levels, it can thereafter bring about a drop in energy levels, leaving one with a feeling of fatigue and exhaustion,” she said.

She said a high sugar intake in children may be linked to depression and anxiety.

“It can also affect attention span and learning ability, and aggravate hyperactivity in children with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]. It can also reduce immune function leading to an increased risk for illnesses.”

How can we create awareness around the importance of a low sugar diet?

Harrichandparsad said we still need to use refined sugar  for a number of reasons but in moderation. “Social media, news media, radio,  television and newspapers can make a difference in promoting a low sugar diet.

“Having public policies supporting the production of food and drink with lower sugar  content would help. “In South Africa this includes the taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages,  which was called the Health Promotion Levy, launched in 2018. “This has resulted in soft-drink  companies reducing the sugar content of their products. “Regulating the marketing of sugar-sweetened food and beverages is also an example of a policy level intervention that could help make people lean toward a healthier food choice.” He added that creating environments with more healthy food outlets or grocery stores than fast-food outlets, would make it easier for  individuals to make healthier choices. “Making healthy choices more affordable is also key to creating an enabling environment,” he said. 

What are the alternatives to high sugar foods?

Islam said many beverages on the market still have refined sugars, including soft drinks and fruit juices. High sugar is also available in most baked goods like cakes, muffins and biscuits, as well as jams, jellies, ice cream, desserts and syrups.

“It is always better to look at the labels of a product before buying it to know exactly the sugar content.”

However, there are a range of tasty zero-sugar products available on South African supermarket stores.

These include several chocolates and candies by Caring Candies (the slogan is “no nasty stuff”), Afrikoa Chocolate, Canderel and Nestle, and Amajoya has rolled out a range of sugar-free candies.

Other products include Wild Earth Cereal, Gullón Biscuits and Nestle’s Dialite ice cream.

Even Pilsbury has brought out a few sugar-free baking products.

There are many other popular brands that are bringing out sugar-free products.

UKZN’s Dr Suna Kassier added that people must be aware that pure fruit juices do not contain added sugar but are high in fruit sugar (fructose) that is also linked to the developement of numerous chronic (non-communicable) disease.

“When drinking fruit juice, do so in moderation,” he said.

Seven tips to help cut out sugar

1. Take it slow

Do it gradually. Let it be a slow process.

Start by eliminating the most obvious sources of sugar like cakes and biscuits, sweets and sugary drinks. Reduce the amount of sugar in coffee or tea, gradually omitting it completely. Working up to a no-sugar diet can help retrain the palate so you don’t crave sugar.

2. Read labels

Once the most obvious sugar has been cut from your diet, start reading the labels on grocery products to help identify the types of sugars to avoid.

Sugar has many names and is in many different syrups and concentrates. There are at least 61 different names for sugar on food labels. The most common ones include:

• cane sugar or brown sugar

• corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup

• evaporated cane juice

• invert sugar

• beet sugar

• coconut sugar

• maple syrup

• agave syrup

• rice syrup

• apple or grape juice concentrate

• honey

• demerara

• sucanat

• panela or piloncillo

• turbinado

• muscovado

• Anything ending in the suffix “-ose” is also a type of sugar, like sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose and lactose.

• Products such as salad dressing and condiments, pasta sauce, breakfast cereals, milk and granola bars often have sugar in their ingredients list.

3. Avoid simple carbs

Many no-sugar diets also recommend that people avoid simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs include white flour, white pasta and white rice.

These can be broken down quickly into sugar in the body, which may cause the blood sugar levels to spike. Replace simple carbs with whole-grain options.

4. Avoid artificial sugars

Artificial sugars are a subject of controversy in the diet industry. They are much sweeter than sugar but contain little or no calories.

However, eating artificial sugars can trick the body into thinking it is actually eating sugar. This can exacerbate a person’s sugar cravings, making it more difficult for them to stick to a no-sugar diet.

A person on a no-sugar diet should avoid artificial sweeteners.

Look for the chemical names of these sweeteners in ingredients lists, especially in anything marketed as a low-sugar, low-calorie or diet food. 

These include:

• aspartame

• sucralose

• saccharin

• acesulfame k or acesulfame potassium

• neotame

5. Focus on whole foods

Aim to eat 100% whole foods. Processed foods are more likely to contain refined ingredients or added sugars.

Eat vegetables, fruits, lean meats, poultry or tofu, fish, whole unprocessed grains and legumes, nuts and seeds.

Some people may choose to keep a small amount of dairy in their meal plans, such as plain yoghurt, simple cheeses and milk.

6. Plan your meals

Sticking to a diet with no plan is difficult. When hunger strikes, you’ll be more likely to reach for that unhealthy snack.

Take a day to do shopping and meal preparation for the entire week. With food at the ready, you’ll be less tempted to reach for sweets or cool drinks.

7. Spice it up

The palate often misses sugar because it has no other flavours to replace it.

Many sweet-tasting herbs and spices can easily be added to food and drink to replace sugar.

Common replacements include cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla.

These can be added to coffee or sprinkled on top of oats or yogurt.



Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  sugar-free

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