When too much sugar leaves a sour taste


Sugar is a major contributor to global obesity, yet we can’t seem to get enough of the sweetest thing, writes CAROL RYAN

SUGAR HAS been called “dietary crack” and “the villain of obesity” and in Ireland we cannot get enough of it.

A survey by Food From Britain revealed the extent of our sweet tooth. We are the biggest consumers of chocolate in the world, devouring 11.2kg per capita per year (even more than the Swiss who consume 10.7kg).

In recent decades, sugar has become a key ingredient in the Western diet – we are being swamped with it in our food. People are eating less fresh fruit and vegetables and replacing them with processed, sugary foods.

If you had to guess how much sugar you consume daily, chances are you would be way off. There are liberal doses in most packaged goods on the supermarket shelves. Everything from salad dressing, pizza, ready meals, baby food, pasta sauces and yoghurts contain hidden sugar.

Consumer watchdog Which? tested the sugar content in more than 200 popular breakfast cereals and found a massive 76 per cent contained high levels of sugar.

Even supposedly wholesome cereals are often not what they appear. A bowl of Special K, skilfully marketed as a healthy choice, was found to have almost the sugar equivalent of a serving of Tesco Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake Premium Ice Cream. Little wonder the slinky red dress remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Worryingly, 88 per cent of cereals marketed to children were high in sugar (for example, Kellogg’s Coco Pops and Frosties contained 37 per cent of pure sugar per serving).

Children are vulnerable to developing a sweet tooth and companies are regularly chastised for adding too much sugar to their foods. Farley’s Rusks, a popular baby’s biscuit, recently came under fire for containing more sugar than chocolate digestives.

Dr Declan Byrne, a specialist in general and geriatric medicine at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, says it is important to limit children’s intake of sweet food.

“We can chide the food industry, but they are responding to the demands of the population. The role of the family with children is as important as the role of policy makers. If parents don’t take responsibility for exposing children to good food, that child will go into adult life looking for food that mirrors what they got in early life.”

Sugars are divided into two main groups; those that occur naturally in foods essential to a healthy diet such as fruit and milk, and the “added sugar” put into food and drink by manufacturers.

Sugar is used in food production for preservation (in jams, for example), to improve colour and to aid fermentation in bread products. Mostly, it is added to make food more palatable because producers understand we have a weakness for sweet food.

Scientists have known for decades that this “added sugar” is not doing us any favours healthwise. The World Health Organisation has said sugar (particularly in fizzy drinks) is a major contributor to the global obesity epidemic.

They found populations with high consumption to be at increased risk of chronic disease and recommend that sugar account for no more than 10 per cent of a healthy diet. This stirred up a storm with the global sugar industry, which would prefer a 25 per cent slice of the average diet.

In a world awash with sugary treats, sticking to the 10 per cent guideline is difficult. Dr Daniel McCartney, Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute dietitian and DIT lecturer, suspects most people don’t realise the amount of refined sugar they take in or the damage it can do.

“On a 2,000 calorie diet, that would be 200 calories . . . roughly 50g of sugar per day. To put that in context, if you have one 500ml bottle of cola, that is your entire sugar allowance used for the day. If you put two teaspoons in your tea and take four cups a day, that gets you up to about 40g irrespective of what you are eating.”

A high-sugar diet can predispose people to heart attacks and strokes by raising the levels of triglycerides (unhealthy fats) in the blood. These bad fats clog the arteries in a manner similar to cholesterol.

Refined sugar contains no nutrients, no vitamins and no fibre, so overall health suffers when sugary foods replace more nutritious foods such as fruit and vegetables in the diet. It also makes us fat – when sugary foods are consumed, the body responds by producing lots of insulin.

High insulin levels alter the metabolism, making us more prone to weight gain. Because it causes weight gain, people with a habitually high sugar intake are at greater risk of developing diabetes. To slash sugar intake, avoid obvious sources such as chocolate and confectionery, but also try to minimise reliance on processed products.

Consumers need to become more aware of what is in their food, according to Byrne. “One of the most important things people can do is actually understand what is in the food that they are eating. A lot of things are being snuck into people’s diet and if they had the information they would not make those choices.”

Examine ingredient lists for sugars. This is trickier than it sounds as sugar is often called by one of its many chemical names (sucrose, glucose, dextrose, maltose – look for words that end in “ose”). Also, check for “syrups” and “sweeteners”, not to mention honey, molasses and cane juice. If any of these are near the top of the list, the product is high in sugar.

Read the nutritional information on the label and look for the “carbohydrates (of which sugars)” value. A useful trick to visualise the sugar content is to divide the “carbohydrates (of which sugars)” figure by four which will give you the number of teaspoons of sugar in the product (4g is equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar).


Mars Bar (58g bar) contains 8.5 teaspoons of sugar

Coca-Cola (330ml can) contains nine teaspoons of sugar

Weight Watchers Sweet and Sour Chicken and Long Grain Rice (400g portion) contains four teaspoons of sugar

Tesco Carrot and Coriander Soup (600g carton) contains 5.5 teaspoons of sugar

Tesco Value Cheese and Tomato Pizza (480g size) contains 8.5 teaspoons of sugar

Yop Yoghurt Drink (400g bottle) contains 12 teaspoons of sugar

Glenisk Organic Low Fat Strawberry Yoghurt (125g tub) contains four teaspoons of sugar

Kelloggs Frosties contain 2.5 teaspoons of sugar per 30g (recommended serving)

Special K Fruit and Nut Clusters contain three teaspoons of sugar per 40g (recommended serving)

Uncle Bens Sweet and Sour Sauce (500g jar) contains 22.5 teaspoons of sugar

Starbucks grande (16fl oz) caffe vanilla Frappuccino made with whole milk contains 15 teaspoons of sugar