Sugar has a bad rep. It’s often referred to as being toxic. It’s not. Don’t get me wrong, sugar when eaten in excess damages the body. However, you could use that argument for most foods or nutrients as eating anything in excess isn’t good for us.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrate can be a sugar. What makes them different is how long or short they are or put another way, how many sugar molecules they contain. When they are short in length, they are called ‘simple carbohydrate’ or ‘sugar’. When they are longer in length, they are called ‘complex carbohydrates’ or more often just ‘carbohydrate’.

Both complex carbohydrates and simple sugars are broken down by the body to create glucose, which is the preferred fuel source for the brain. Glucose is also the energy source we use when our heart rate rises, we are out of breath and being active. When it comes to optimising health, it’s important to tailor the amount of carbohydrate and sugar we eat to meet our body’s needs.

WHO recommends that free sugar intake should account for no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake. This equates to less than 50g of sugar if eating 2,000 calories a day. In everyday terms, this is about 12 tsp of sugar each day. If you’re not munching on sweets and cakes all the time, this leaves your full quota to be used to make healthy food taste even more delicious.

For example, you may add a little bit of sugar to your tomato soup to offset the acidity. Tomato soup counts as 1 of your 5 a day. It’s also a great source of vitamin C and fibre. If there is 1 teaspoon of sugar added to your bowl of tomato soup during the cooking process, that’s just 8% of the quota that WHO advise.

Are sweeteners preferable to sugar? A systematic review looked at the published research on the effect of artificial sweeteners on weight and a range of medical conditions. This type of review is great for collating large amounts of data. As with all areas of research, this isn’t 100% conclusive and scientists will continue to try and investigate further for a great understanding and a more concrete answer.

The studies within this review of the evidence followed a group of people over a timeframe varying from 9 months to 38 years to see if there is any link between artificial sweeteners and particular outcomes. The review reported that those who consumed the most artificial sweeteners had a 14% increased risk of diabetes and stroke as well as a 31% increased risk of metabolic syndrome which is a combination of high blood pressure, obesity around the waist and diabetes. The review of the studies also found that those who had a lot of sweeteners within their diet had an increase in BMI (a measure of weight for a person's height), obesity and waist circumference when compared to those who completely avoided sweeteners. It’s important to note that these studies aren’t trying to find a cause and effect but rather a possible link. This review suggests that there is a link between artificial sweeteners and disease. Are artificial sweeteners the perfect alternative to sugar? It appears not.

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Article by Orla Walsh