Nutrition Meets Food Science

Just A Spoonful of Sugar

If asked in a crowd of 100 what foods they crave, 99 people will be able to list down at least a couple of items without hesitation. This is not surprising at all. A food craving is an intense desire for a specific food. And this desire is so strong that it is difficult to control at times until that particular food is given to the person craving for it. It is definitely different from normal hunger as no other food except the one craved for can satisfy this desire.

It is observed that most people crave for foods like chocolates, confectionaries and a lot other sweet dishes loaded with abundant calories. Food cravings can actually lead to adverse health effects, and they can disrupt efforts to follow a healthful diet. One of the reasons behind this is that these foods contain added sugar. And not just these but a lot of other foods we eat in a day may contain added sugars. When your body ingests sugar, your blood sugar spikes and your body releases insulin to lower it to a safer level. If the insulin brings your blood sugar level a bit too low, as often happens, your body craves foods that will raise it and increase your energy. So it is like you are on a sugar roller coaster, and it’s hard to get off it.

Talking about the added sugar it is needed that we know what these are. Added sugars are those that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. These are different from sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables. These are healthy foods that contain water, fibre and various micronutrients. Naturally occurring sugars are absolutely fine as they come along with certain health benefits, but the same does not apply to added sugar. The most common added sugars are regular table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup.

Sugar: Good or Bad for you?

The human tongue has certain taste buds that are connected to brain, so whenever you eat something good brain releases Dopamine, a hormone which gives you a good feel. In case of sugar, brain shows strong dopamine response that is one of the reasons why most people develop a sweet tooth and like eating dark chocolates, cakes, pastries & other sweets quite often.

The Consumption of sugars & its adverse effects on human health have been into controversies since decades. But is it fair enough to blame it totally? Because a day without sugars in our system will cease all the functions in our body. In fact, it is the best source of instant energy and kick starts the day with active mode on. It also acts as stored fuel for the future energy needs.

However, regular eating of too much of sugary foods is proven harmful for overall health. It may cause lot of damage as well as diseases, few of them are:

  • Tooth decay in children
  • Obesity or Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Consequently NAFLD (Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease)

Natural Vs Refined sugar: The right choice for you?

Indian culture has more reliance on fresh & unprocessed foods coming directly by the nature unlike other western countries. Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of natural sugar over refined sugar based on their nutritional aspect. It is supported with the fact that eating whole fruit or a donut can have a comparative effect on your body.

Beside carbs, a good amount of Dietary fibre are present in fruits & vegetable which can make the digestion process slower than usual thereby promoting steady rate of absorption & transportation of glucose to the cells.

Sugarcane, sugar beet, honey, molasses, are some natural source of sugar containing carbohydrate such as glucose, fructose, Sucrose, etc while lactose are found in milk & other dairy products. Sucrose & fructose are also found in varieties of fruits & vegetables.

Contrastingly, most of the modern foods containing sugar are also high in fats that will just add calories& very little nutritive value to diet. Therefore instead of highly refined sweetened foods it is more preferable to consume a little amount of sugar from its very natural source.

According to health experts, natural sugar found in honey, maple syrup & fruits can help to boost your brain health.

Brown sugar over White sugar: Health Benefits

Both white and brown sugars originate from the same crop- either sugarcane or sugar beet plant. According to studies, brown sugar has slightly more calcium, iron & potassium. It gives fewer calories than white sugar, however, the differences are almost insignificant. So, both white & brown sugar are nutritionally similar they just have unique colour & taste.

Moreover, brown sugar is produced by two methods it either undergoes less processing than white sugar to retain its molasses content or it is made by mixing white sugar with molasses which gives dark intense colour.

Can artificial sweeteners replace natural sugar: A nutritional perspective

Artificial sweeteners also known as sugar substitutes are chemicals used to sweeten foods & beverages. They can replace sugar in foods and drinks to give you a sweet taste but with few or no calories. They are often several hundred times sweeter than sugar. So compared to sugar, only a little is needed for the same sweet taste.

Because of its less calorie contribution, at present, artificial sweeteners are high in demand as people are turning more towards fit & healthier lifestyle. Increasing risk of Chronic Degenerative Disease and people’s demands have led many nutraceutical industries to produce sugar free products using artificial sweeteners.

They have been widely used for special conditions like

  • Diabetes management as unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners generally don’t raise blood sugar levels because they are not carbohydrates
  • Weight control- Artificial sweeteners have virtually no calories which make them appealing to include in weight loss diets. Also, you need only a fraction as compared to the regular sugar. However, the type and amount of sweetener to be used needs to be checked with a doctor or a dietitian
  • Avoiding tooth decay- Sweeteners also do not contribute to tooth decay, as they are not broken down to acid by bacteria in the mouth

Stevia, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, are some common sugar substitutes used widely in India.

However, certain studies suggest that consumption of sugar substitutes might cause metabolic diseases like T2D and obesity. Few studies also suggest the side effects of artificial sweeteners on gut health too. In contrast, a recent review study says that most of the studies that talk about the metabolic effects of artificial sweeteners are without concrete evidence due to the flaws in the study design and no follow ups. So, based on these findings it is better not to claim artificial sweeteners as metabolically inert and practice its consumption in moderation.

Bottom line

The World Health Organization suggests consuming no more than 5% of our daily calories in added sugar, which equals about 25 g of added sugar in a 2,000-calorie diet. And the bottom line is to consume any food even if marketed as healthy in moderation. Moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle.

Hence, rather than hopping on a number of alternatives, try to attain a balance in diet including foods packed with natural sugars where you can just have a spoonful of sugar(1 tsp or 5 grams) everyday without any worries.

Abir Ansari

Jr. Nutritionist, PFNDAI


Manager - Food & Nutrition, PFNDAI

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