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Sugar is an important taste enhancer and energy source. Here, you can read about the effects of sugar on the body, the foods that contain it and how much of this sweet substance you can enjoy without having a guilty conscience.
Get to know your sugars using our helpful infographic
Sugar as a flavourful energy source
Sugar is a carbohydrate. Our body uses it as an important energy source, to generate energy not only in the muscular system but also in the brain. If you eat a balanced, varied diet, your body will be provided with an ample supply of this energy source. The fact that so many people crave sugar is based upon our very first taste experience – our mother’s milk. Since breast milk has a sweet taste, many people maintain a lifelong preference for sweet foods.
Sugar in milk, fruit, etc.
Breast milk tastes sweet because of the sugar (lactose) that it contains. Lactose is found in all kinds of milk including cow’s milk and all products made from it (e.g. yoghurt or cheese). Another type of sugar is fructose, which is also known as fruit sugar. It is found in many kinds of fruit, including apples, pears, oranges and bananas. Honey is also rich in fructose, which is the source of its intense sweet flavour. Our granulated, white table sugar is saccharose or sucrose. Two thirds of the global demand for saccharose and sucrose comes from processed sugar cane. In Europe, however, sugar is obtained from sugar beet. This is because sugar cane cannot thrive in our climate.
Sugar as an important additive to many foods
Sugar not only provides us with energy, but is also used for other purposes in the preparation of dishes and the manufacture of food products:
- Lending a sweet touch: Whether you are baking or cooking – sugar can lend a sweet touch to many dishes and food varieties and can thereby round off their flavour. This is true, for example, for tomato dishes and Asian creations such as sweet-and-sour duck. In addition, sugar makes for a sweet flavour experience in dishes such as rice pudding.
- Extending shelf life: When preserving fruit, sugar is used to bind the liquid or water it contains. When the water content of a food is reduced, then mould cannot grow as quickly. So in this situation, sugar has a preservative function (for example, in candied fruits and marmalade).
- To promote fermentation: Many foods and alcoholic beverages, such as leavened baked goods or wine, are produced through fermentation. Sugar is required for fermentation to take place.
- Altering colour: Sugar can change the appearance of foods. It caramelises upon heating, producing a golden brown colour.
Enjoying sugar in moderation
Many people love to eat sweet foods. Yet nutritional experts recommend that no more than ten percent of daily food energy should be obtained from added sugar. For adults with an average daily energy requirement of 2,000 Kcal, this means a maximum of 50g of sugar per day. You can reach this quantity very quickly. Beverages sweetened with sugar have especially high sugar content. For example, an iced coffee (250 ml) can contain around 12g of sugar, and one glass of lemon tea (250ml) can contain 19g of sugar. But sugar is not only hidden in sugar-sweetened beverages. Foods with a particularly high sugar content include sweets, such as bonbons (5 pieces/20g contain 10g of sugar), fruit jellies (10 pieces/20g contain 8g of sugar), and milk chocolate (25g contain 12g of sugar). Especially when indulging in sugar-sweetened soft drinks, such as cola (250ml contain 26g of sugar), lemonade (250ml contain 25g of sugar) and iced tea (250ml contain 19g of sugar) you can quickly lose perspective of the quantities of sugar involved. Healthier alternatives include mineral water (250ml contain 0g of sugar), unsweetened herbal tea (250ml contain 0g of sugar) or fruit spritzers made in a ratio of 1/3 juice to 2/3 water (250ml contain 8g of natural sugar from the fruit). Once in a while, there is nothing wrong with having a glass of lemonade or cola or a square of chocolate – so long as you enjoy these foods in moderation. People who regularly exceed the recommended daily maximum consumption of sugar may gain weight in the long run. Being overweight is one of the main risk factors in the occurrence of the following illnesses:
- Diabetes mellitus type 2,
- Coronary heart disease,
- Back and joint pain.
Another negative consequence of excessive sugar consumption is tooth decay. It is especially the long-term consumption of sugary beverages that ends up harming the teeth. If you are careful to brush your teeth after every sweet meal, you are helping to protect your teeth from decay.
Sugar content of food products
There is no reason to stop enjoying sugar in moderation, as part of a healthy and balanced diet. In order not to exceed the recommended maximum amounts of sugar, it is helpful to examine food packaging closely. There, the sugar content is listed per 100g of food, and usually per portion as well. The figure listed on the label not only relates to the proportion of added sugar. It also includes the amount of natural sugar in all of the ingredients, so for example, the amounts of lactose and fructose. This is regulated by law. Please note that sugar can be hidden within various ingredients listed on the packaging, e.g. sugar can be present in the form of glucose syrup, grape sugar or dextrose, or fructose.