Is sugar toxic? Despite what the media propaganda (and Dr Robert Lustig) would have you believe; no, sugar is not toxic to humans. Sugar is not a poison and our bodies are perfectly geared up to digest it. Certainly in the quantities that we consume it.
As with most nutrition myths, there is often little context given along-side these outrageous newspaper headlines, which leads to media scaremongering spreading fear and trepidation amongst the general population.
Anything consumed in vast quantities can be poisonous – even water! Context and dosage are everything when it comes to the sugar debate.
Firstly, not all sugar is created equal.
What exactly is sugar?
If you think sugar is just the white granulated stuff you get in sachets at Starbucks, prepare to be enlightened. Sugar is a carbohydrate and comes in many forms:
- A ‘simple sugar’ that cannot be broken down into a simpler state. They are: glucose, fructose and galactose. Fruits and honey are foods which contain lots of monosaccharides
- Contain several monosaccharides linked together in a chain. An example is raffinose which can be found in whole grains and veggies such as broccoli and cabbage
- Long chains of monosaccharides which usually contain ten or more units. Examples include starch, for example cereal grains and products like pasta and bread
Some sugars are found naturally in food while others are added to food to make them extra palatable. All sugars, natural or added, contain glucose and fructose molecules, in differing ratios.
Sucrose (table sugar), for example, is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. High fructose corn syrup is usually around 55% fructose, 45% glucose. When we eat any kind of sugar, the molecular bonds are broken down and the free glucose (and/or fructose) is absorbed.
Glucose - a carbohydrate - is one of the body’s two preferred fuel sources. Can’t be a bad thing, right?
So, why do people say it’s bad for you?
Newspaper headlines and industry zealots have you believe that eating sugar leads to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity. That’s not strictly true.. Over-consuming food and drinks containing added sugar could, however, can lead to weight gain and contribute to obesity related diseases. Overeating calories leads to weight gain and increases the risk of obesity related disease!
The problem with sugar is that it tastes so good! When added to calorie dense foods such as donuts and cookies, we get an almost instant feeling of satisfaction. That, teamed with it’s low satiety (we’re still hungry pretty soon after indulging), means we often reach for more of that tasty high calorie treat. And THAT can be a problem.
(If you’d like to read more about how sugar contributes to the obesity crisis, take a look at this article.)
What's the recommended daily amount?
Government guidelines suggest, for optimum health, you should limit added sugar intake to:
- For females - 100 calories/day (around six teaspoons)
- For males - 150 calories/day (around nine teaspoons)
Just remember - as long as you’re following a generally healthy and balanced diet, you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating a couple of chocolate bars or the odd doughnut a week.