Sunday, 19 September 2021

Sugar: naughty or nice?

“What even are sugar plums anyway?” Just one of the many deep and incisive questions my friends ask me from time to time. But this one got me thinking enough to look into the answer.

As it turns out, they really have nothing to do with plums but everything to do with sugar.

The original form that gave children their festive visions through the 19th century were essentially hardened balls of sugar wrapped around a seed or a nut. Not a plum in sight.

As we now know, this sort of sugary treat was only the beginning of our obsession with this marvellous stuff, particularly surrounding big festivals like Christmas.

Back in those days and even earlier, sugar was relatively hard to come by, so it was something of a luxury.

As far back as the 14th century, sugar was so rare that a pound cost two shillings — the equivalent in today’s terms of around £75 per kilo — and it became known as “white gold”.

Sugar is a form of carbohydrate that is stored in plants as a reserve of energy. The Polynesians living 1,000 years ago are thought to have identified sugar cane as an excellent source.

From there, the knowledge spread very slowly to the Middle East and it was only discovered by western Europeans in the 11th century during the crusades.

It was introduced to the Caribbean by Columbus in 1493 and plantations soon spread to other similarly tropical climates.

For the more temperate regions like Europe and North America, sugar beet was later discovered as an excellent alternative.

In order to make sugar as we know it, the raw sugar cane (or beet) is taken to a refinery where it is broken down into the stuff we add to our food.

During the Industrial Revolution, large refineries were able to refine vast amounts of sugar cane and beet, making this former rarity altogether more commonplace.

Indeed, nowadays it seems to be in everything. The global annual consumption of sugar is at least 120 million tons and I suspect that sugar will be having a big part to play over the next few weeks.

Far from wanting to dampen anyone’s spirits, I hope you’ll forgive me for volunteering a cautionary word or two about the sugar that our taste buds crave.

I will start, though, by highlighting its benefits. Sugar gives our bodies the energy to function, both mechanically and mentally.

When we eat it, our pancreas (an organ near the stomach) releases insulin into the blood in order to help deliver the sugar into our cells.

When we have excess sugar in circulation, our liver converts it to fats in case it’s needed at a later date.

Predictably, the problem occurs when we eat too much of it. If you are partial to a few more sugar plums than is perhaps sensible then there are several things that can happen.

Firstly, the insulin used to deliver it to our cells becomes less and less effective, either from reduced production or, more likely, as the cells themselves become resistant to their effects.

From then on, all of that sugar drifting around our blood vessels is stranded outside the cells where it is needed most. Lots of sugar in the bloodstream is bad news as it damages your blood vessels. Most importantly, this is the process that leads to diabetes.

Secondly, the liver deals with a lot of the excess sugar by converting it into more fat than we actually need. This leads to weight gain, high cholesterol and risk of heart disease.

Thirdly, the bacteria that feed off sugar caught in the teeth leads to tooth decay.

It is no coincidence that the above ailments have sharply increased ever since sugar has become more readily available in our diets. Diabetes in particular has become a massive problem.

There is an important distinction to make when talking about different types of sugars. The stuff that naturally occurs within fruits and vegetables and milk is more favourable, as it has not yet been refined into its simplest form.

Instead, your body can gradually break it down and utilise it at its own pace.

The refined, or free, sugars are the problem. They have already had everything stripped and so are ready to go straight away.

As soon as we consume free sugars, the body has to spring into action to deal with them — the so-called sugar rush.

Unfortunately, these instant hits act almost like a drug (sugar has been found to have addictive qualities), resulting in large hormonal swings that we have not yet evolved to deal with.

Free sugars can be found in all sorts of things, sweet and savoury. They include any sugar added to food or drinks, for example chocolate, fizzy drinks, breakfast cereals, pasta sauces and sugar plums — honeys and syrups, fruit juices and smoothies (although smoothies are technically made from fruits, the process of blending converts the natural sugars into free sugars).

It is recommended that adults should have no more than 30g of free sugars a day and their total sugar (including the natural sugars you get in fruit and veg) should be no more than 90g.

A can of fizzy drink may contain around 39g of sugar or the equivalent of just over nine teaspoons, so go for the diet or sugar-free versions.

For children, free sugars should be below 24g for seven- to 10-year-olds and below 19g for four- to six-year olds. Try to avoid it altogether below the age of four.

If you need to find the amount of sugar in a food, just look at the back of the packet. Generally you will find it under carbohydrates “of which sugars”. A value of 22.5g per 100g or above is classed as high and below 5g per 100g is low.

It is rare for just free sugars to be listed so you will often have to do the leg work in finding out what type of sugar is included in that total. If you look at the ingredients list and see things like cane sugar, honey, corn syrup, glucose, fructose or sucrose, you’ll know it’s not going to be healthy.

This is just something to think about as the festive season furnishes us with those all too tantalising treats.

I am all too aware of the temptation to overindulge as my room at the surgery is perilously close to the one with the biscuits in but I will endeavour to remain restrained.

In the right form, sugar is an important part of our diets but you really can have too much of a good thing. Merry Christmas!

Next time: New Year health resolutions.

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