The sugar debate – helping consumers digest the facts

Today consumers have a much greater awareness of the importance of eating healthily and as such, the demand for healthier options has grown rapidly. People all around the world eat sugar as part of a balanced diet, however, many people worry that eating sugar may be bad for their health, and such attitudes have developed over time, influenced by factors such as up-and-coming scientific research and public policy and recommendations. Diet and health focussed groups have recently re-examined the role of sugars in the diet and provided new recommendations on their consumption. Consumers get most of their health and nutrition information from the media and are exposed to a vast amount of information on dietary sugars. But how much do they really know about sugar? What are the current consumer attitudes towards it?

Sugars and how they work

Sugars are a class of carbohydrates and therefore a source of energy. Carbohydrates can be divided into two different groups, complex carbohydrates, which include: oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, and simple carbohydrates i.e. sugars.

Sugars can be further divided into two groups, monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides consist of only one ‘sugar’ unit; examples include fructose, galactose and glucose. Disaccharides consist of two chemically-linked monosaccharides; examples include lactose, maltose and sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar. Commonly consumed foods which contain simple carbohydrates include products such as white our, honey, candy, chocolate, fruit, cake, jam and packaged cereals.

During digestion, simple and certain complex carbohydrates, break down into monosaccharides. These sugars are absorbed from the intestine into the blood stream and travel to the cells, where they are used to provide energy for cellular functions. Numerous factors influence the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of the various types of sugars occurring in the human diet. Evidence indicates that the form in which the sugars are ingested and the physical and chemical properties of the food matrix, has a significant effect on the rates of absorption; whereas the source of sugars in the food, does not in itself, affect the rate of absorption or the metabolism of the sugar.

As explained, the chemical structure and the classification of the carbohydrate, provides some information about how the carbohydrate will behave in the gastrointestinal tract. The rate or ability of carbohydrates to be digested and absorbed in the small intestine contributes to their effect on blood glucose concentration. Due to their chemical structure, simple carbohydrates are easily and rapidly absorbed by the body because of their simple chemical structure, often leading to a faster rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion from the pancreas. If a person is repeatedly exposed to a diet of this nature, it can have a serious negative effect on health, such as the development of insulin resistance, increased blood pressure, abnormal blood lipid profile, diabetes, cancers and numerous cardiovascular diseases. Complex carbohydrates take slightly longer to digest, and they do not raise the glucose levels in the blood as quickly as simple carbohydrates.

This article is available in full in the Autumn 2015 issue of Nutraceuticals Now