Sugar - why are we obsessed with substituting it?Published on October 19, 2015

  • Executive Chef Geoffrey Morden; Shaw Centre 

  • Executive Chef Geoffrey Morden; Shaw Centre

Sugar has gotten a bad reputation is some circles but when you stop to think about it, labels, marketing and packaging are the true villains, not sugar.  Our society today has become obsessed with reading packaging and labels.  While labeling on food is important, many labels on processed foods can give a false impression of being nutritious. Look at packaging images as well as phrases like 'all natural' or 'whole grain', all of which can deceptively imply a product is good for you when in fact it is no better - and possibly even worse - than its shelf-mates in the grocery store. Just because the label says the product will provide, for example, 80 % of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A doesn't mean that item is at all nutritious, despite what the manufacturer would like us to believe. We are constantly seeing labels and advertisements telling us that a particular product is "low fat", "a good source of vitamin C" or "high in dietary fibre", but there is no evidence to support these packaging claims. In my opinion, one of the worst phrases is "no sugar added". I'm always left wondering what was added to replace the sugar. Why are we being conditioned to believe that "no sugar added" is a good thing? What's so bad about sugar? Is it really better for us to be consuming Acesulfame K, a common artificial sweetener used in food, cosmetics and personal care products?  

Here are a few important things to understand about sugar:

- Sugars, both simple and complex, are actually a very important part of a balanced diet.  Sugars are fuel for our bodies. While complex carbohydrates are seen as the best source of sugar energy, simple sugars can still play an important role in maintaining a balanced diet. The key is to consume refined sugar in moderation, just like other nutritional basics like protein, and fats. Substituting these traditional sugars with artificial chemical-based sweeteners does not provide any type of nutrition, and some would say they even have harmful effects.

- If you cut out all sugars, your body would soon begin to fail. Your brain especially relies on sugar, or glucose, to function. If you don't have enough sugar in your bloodstream, you can become confused, forgetful, or even lapse into a coma.

- As we are learning, artificial sweeteners are potentially not all they're purported to be. It can be difficult to decipher the truth as there is so much information out there and much of it is very confusing. To me, common sense should prevail.  A sweetener derived from the juice of the sugar cane plant seems far more sensible to use and consume than the byproduct of a lab experiment, such as saccharin (commomly known as Sweet and Low).

- Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in a host of different foods from lactose in milk to the fructose in fruit and honey. In fact, we need some sugar in our diets to supply ready energy to fuel our muscles and keep our brains active. The problem is that many processed foods have added sugar which supplies energy in the form of calories...and very little else. I'm not saying processed sugar is a win-win.  It's not. Far too much of the North American diet is comprised of processed food high in added sugars which have been incorporated to enhance flavour and 'hook' consumers with a yummy sweet taste.

- Rather than eliminating sugar entirely, let's look at cutting back. Avoid soda pop, reach for lower sugar versions of things like chocolate milk if that's a treat your family enjoys. Here are a few tips to cut down on unnecessary sugar consumption and maintain a healthy diet:

    Reduce the sugar you add to hot drinks. Do this gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust. Try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to cappuccino or hot chocolate, cinnamon helps stabilize blood sugar levels and adds flavour without the sweetness. 

    Avoid low-fat 'diet' foods which tend to be high in sugars. Instead have smaller portions of the regular versions.  Sugars are used to enhance the flavour replacing the void left by removing fats.

    Be wary of 'sugar-free' foods. These often contain synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame. Although these taste sweet, they don't help curb a sweet tooth so they tend to send confusing messages to the brain, which can lead to over-eating.

    Use natural sweeteners when looking to reduce the amount of refined sugar in your diet.  Honey is a great alternative to refined sugar; maple syrup makes a great sweetener and as a bonus it will impart a unique flavour.  Agave syrup - a popular natural sweeting liquid derived from the sap of the agave plant - is another good option.

Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners are an almost ubiquitous ingredient in today's mainstream world.  Avoiding artificial sweeteners is becoming more and more difficult as our society focuses so much on calorie counts and labeling.  My suggestion is cut sugar some slack, stay away from foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners and consume sugar in moderation.    

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