Sweet Poison

Sugar is an integral part of our daily diet but it's also called the white poison because of its harmful side effects. Learn more about the risks today

By Smitha Suresh

Sweet Poison

The journey from Bengaluru to Mysore in Karnataka is one of the most scenic in the country. Particularly attractive are the seemingly endless fields of sugar cane, especially when they are in bloom. Having made this trip hundreds of times, my enjoyment of this sight ceased once I started studying nutrition. I realised that while lush greenery is soothing to the soul, the crop I was admiring was not only water and chemical-intensive, it was going to become a ‘food’ that contributes to our population’s ill-health!

All the debate about white sugar has been resolved – yes, excessive sugar intake over a long period of time really does cause diabetes, heart disease, cancer and asthma, in addition to creating a body environment that promotes other diseases as well. Most scientists, nutritionists and doctors now agree that sugar should rightly be classified as a ‘toxic’ substance.

There is a war being waged against sugary foods around the world, including India. Parents especially want laws passed to make it mandatory for food manufacturers to reduce the sugar present in their products to a minimum level. They want clearer food labels, which will help people distinguish if a product is high in hidden sugars.

Unhealthy sugary foods

  • Indian sweets and desserts 
  • Jams, jellies, marmalades and even ketchup/tomato sauce
  • Biscuits (especially those with cream filling) and cookies 
  • Cakes, muffins, pastries, waffles, pancakes, doughnuts, bread based sweets like croissants 
  • Ice-cream, ice candies, flavoured yoghurts, smoothies, shrikhands , chocolates, mints, hard-boiled candy 
  • Processed fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates, dehydrated fruit pulp snacks, even fresh fruit juice or milkshakes from a vendor
  • Carbonated (soft) drinks, flavoured sodas, sports drinks, ‘energizing’ drinks, flavoured milk or soymilk
  • Sugary breakfast cereals including muesli, energy/nutrition bars 

Types Of Sugar

Ideally, stick to natural foods, which are much healthier. But if you must choose processed foods, look at the food labels. Here are the different types of sugar: 

  • Nutritive Sweeteners Contain calories, so they are not really of any use for the health conscious. Examples include white and brown table sugars. 
  • Non -Nutritive Sweeteners Contain chemicals which have to be dealt with by the liver, therefore they are not really any healthier than refined sugar. Examples include aspartame, acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose. 
  • Processed Vs Unprocessed Sugars Table sugar/ sucrose, powdered sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose are processed sugars. Unprocessed sugar includes brown sugar, fructose or fruit sugar, glucose, honey, lactose (milk sugar), maltose (malt sugar), mannitol, molasses, raw sugar, xylitol, sorbitol.

Sugar Impact On Kids

Kids are most susceptible to excessive sugar intake. Look at the list above. Some food or the other from this list makes its way to your child’s mouth on a daily, if not weekly, basis. The impact of sugary foods on children’s systems is much worse. They consume these foods at the expense of healthy ones, and these can lead to

  • Dental caries, tooth decay 
  • Behavioural problems related to sudden sugar highs and lows 
  • Irritability and tantrums.

Obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes can result from prolonged excessive consumption. Temporary disturbances like drowsiness and headaches can be seen after a child’s sugar binge.

Children don’t need sugar, even in milk. Sugar and sugary foods cause a sudden increase in blood sugar levels, which is followed by a just-as-sudden drop in glucose levels. This see-saw effect is responsible for most of the above consequences.

Parents should ensure that their child gets a steady supply of calories from the complex carbohydrates in whole grains, pulses and sprouts in their diet. Even sugar from fruits and dry fruits is preferable to processed sugar. Refined carbs like white rice and maida products are no good as they affect the body in the same way as sugar.

Sweet Poison

Pregnancy & Sugar Intake

There is evidence that excessive sugar intake during pregnancy can affect the infant’s taste preferences; so avoid sugary foods and sugar consumption during this time. While you are at it, reduce your sugar needs during breastfeeding as well. Though traditional practices may dictate lots of high-calorie sweet foods during this sensitive stage, do your best to avoid them. You can also educate the elder women in the family!

As you consistently include more whole grain cereals and pulses, you consciously cut out the hidden sources of sugar listed above. Eat fruits when a craving hits; that way, you will train your brain and body to create a healthy metabolism again. 

Sugar Substitutes

Children should avoid artificial sweeteners and foods containing them at all costs. Their livers are much more sensitive to the chemicals present in these. Not only that, children (and adults) who routinely use artificial sweeteners or consume products containing these may develop a dislike for less sweet or non-sweet, healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods. They will keep consuming more artificially flavoured foods with less nutritional value. The brain’s ability to correlate sweetness and calorie perception is also affected.

So how much sugar is okay? Assuming you are limiting other sugary foods in the diet, your child and family members can consume a maximum of 2-3 teaspoons (10 to 15g) of any type of sugar per day. This is however just the maximum allowance – you can avoid sugar completely and it will be even safer for all of you! 

Smitha Suresh is a renowned nutritionist and child specialist from Chennai