Probably one of the most controversial and emotional food topics is that of sugar. Mention the word 'sugar' and you will get the most amazing reactions.
Some people regard sugar as poison, vastly fattening, totally forbidden and altogether a bad, bad food.
This, like most other food myths, is not true as we will see below. So, let's have a look at some of the myths propagated about sugar and how they fit in with scientific findings.
Myth: Sugar is fattening
Sugar is a carbohydrate and, like all carbohydrates, it is low in energy when compared to other macronutrients like fat.
Sugar and other carbs contain 4cal or 16kJ of energy per gram, while fat contains 9cal or 37kJ per gram – a vast difference you must agree. For every gram of fat you eat, you will ingest more than twice as much energy as when you eat a gram of sugar or carbohydrate.
If eaten in moderation and not in combination with fats (e.g. cakes, tarts, pastries etc.), then sugar, added to beverages and used to sweeten bland foods, like porridges, is not fattening.
Top athletes who need large amounts of readily available energy to fuel their activity, use considerable amounts of sugar and sweetened foods to ensure that they can keep going. Most of them are as thin as rakes.
So, you can certainly eat sugar as part of a balanced, low-fat diet to make cereals and grains more palatable, and as a source of energy if you are very active.
Myth: Sweetened drinks are fattening
After a landmark publication by Dr Ludwig and coworkers in 2001, soft drinks sweetened with what Americans call 'calorific sweeteners' (in contrast to non-calorific sweeteners such as aspartame and cyclamates), have been singled out as highly fattening.
Ludwig caused a stir by saying that for every extra cold drink ('soda pop') consumed per day by children and teenagers in the US, these youngsters gained weight and had higher body mass indexes (BMIs) than children who did not drink these beverages.
American legislators are now contemplating banning the sale of sweetened cold drinks in schools and may even demand that such beverages carry a health warning.
But what most people did not read, was a second publication by Ludwig and coworkers that appeared as part 2 of their study. Here it was reported that the children who gained the most weight also did much less physical activity than the children who stayed thin.
In addition, the cold drinks marketed in the USA are manufactured with so-called high-fructose corn syrup as their sweetener.
In SA, our cold drinks are made with sucrose (cane sugar). I have often wondered if the association between obesity and cold drinks discovered by Ludwig and coworkers (2001) in the USA is not linked to their high intake of fructose instead of sucrose.
Parents who proudly state: "My children don't drink cold drinks. I give them healthy fruit juice instead!" should keep this possible link between high liquid fructose intakes and obesity in mind.
In addition, fruit juices contain as much, if not more, carbohydrate and energy than sweetened cold drinks (e.g. a typical fruit juice contains about 195kJ and 11,5g of carbs per 100ml, while a sweetened cold drink contains 167kJ and 10,3g of carbs/100ml).
So, there is really no difference from an energy point of view when you substitute fruit juice for sweetened cold drinks. Admittedly, the former does contain additional vitamins and fibre, but the energy and carbs are practically identical, with fruit juices containing about 17% more energy and carbohydrates.
Myth: Sugar causes tooth decay
There is no doubt that exposing dental enamel to sugar-sweetened beverages and foods can lead to tooth decay.
But what most people tend to forget is that many other foods and beverages such as 'sticky' carbohydrates (fruit, porridge, bread, cakes etc.) and drinks with natural sugar and acid contents (fruit juices), will also cause tooth decay because they either remain in the mouth for long periods (the sticky foods) or erode tooth enamel (acid foods).
To prevent tooth decay, it is important to rinse your mouth or brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste after eating – no matter what you eat!
Fascinating research conducted in Switzerland shows that in this country where people eat more chocolate than anywhere else in the world, children and adults have a low incidence of tooth decay.
This was not always so, but after World War II, when the Swiss started using fluoride and fluoride toothpaste, their dental decay rate plummeted. So, brush your teeth and preserve your them.
Using sugar with meals (i.e. on porridge, as jam on bread, or in tea and coffee) also shortens exposure of tooth enamel to sugar and helps to prevent decay.
Sugar causes Candida
Many individuals who are plagued by recurrent Candida infections blame this on sugar intake and embark on sugar-free diets. At a symposium I attended last year, one of the speakers specifically addressed this issue.
A careful study of the scientific literature showed that no one has been able to prove that there is a link between sugar intake and repeated Candida infections. The microbiologist remarked: "Going on sugar-free and other restricted diets to combat Candida starves the patient, but not the fungus!"
If you do suffer from Candida, obtain antifungal treatment from your doctor, and if it proves resistant, have the organism cultured to see which treatment should be used for resistant strains.
Also use probiotics like Acidoforte and Vagiforte, which are indicated for the treatment of Candida infections. Rather eat a balanced diet than starve yourself of essential foods while you have this type of infection.
It is evident that sugar used in moderation can be used in a balanced diet, without causing harm. To prevent tooth decay due to sugar or any other food or drink, brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste or rinse your mouth after eating. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc, September 2006)
(Ludwig DS et al (2001). Relationship between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks & childhood obesity. The Lancet, Vol 357, 505-508.)