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Put Under The Microscope: Sugar

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Anindra Siqueira brings you the facts behind some commonly held beliefs surrounding that one loved and hated kitchen ingredient, sugar

Sugar has been getting a bad rap, and to lay to rest a few commonly thrown-out statements relating to sugar, we spoke to doctors and dentists from across the city. Find out if what you thought about sugar was myth or fact.

Sugar makes you hyperactive

Myth or Fact? The jury seems to be out on this, but it can be classified as a myth.

Many believe that sugar can cause hyperactivity (albeit temporarily), at least in children. Dr. Pradeep Gadge, diabetologist at Gadge Diabetes Centre, tells us, “Sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, which can lead to higher adrenaline levels and thus symptoms similar to those associated with hyperactivity.”

However, Dr. Tejal Lathia, consultant endocrinologist at Hiranandani Hospital Vashi – A Fortis Network Hospital, is of a different opinion. She says, “This is largely a myth based on expectancy and common association. Studies and a meta-analysis published as far back as 1994-95 in reputed journal JAMA by Wolraich et al. showed no impact of consumed sugar on either behaviour or cognition of children.”

Sugar causes diabetes

Myth or Fact? Myth!

This is probably the biggest myth about sugar and many people believe it because with diabetes, blood sugar levels are elevated. However, sugar does not directly cause diabetes.

Dr. Tejal says, “In a prospective study — published in the journal Diabetes Care in 2003 by Janket et al. and involving almost 39,000 women, which primarily looked at consumption of sugar and new cases of type 2 diabetes mellitus — no relation was found between sugar consumption and new cases of diabetes.”

Added sugar is bad for health

Myth or Fact? Fact!

Many believe this... and it turns out to be true! The reason for this is because added sugars don’t contain essential nutrients that other natural foods have in addition to sugars. And so, a large proportion of the food is just calories in the form of sugar, which will only aid weight gain.

Dr. Tejal says, “Added sugars lead to weight gain and tooth decay. They are also missing important nutrients and cause an increase in triglyceride (bad fat) levels.” Dr. Pradeep concludes, “Added sugars (like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) contain calories with absolutely no essential nutrients. For this reason, they are called ‘empty’ calories.”

Brown sugar (or raw sugar) is healthier than white sugar

Myth or Fact? Myth

Many people switch to brown sugar because it is portrayed as unprocessed or raw sugar with healthy benefits, but the truth is that there is hardly any difference between the two kinds. Dr. Pradeep tells us, “White sugar is carbohydrate, which can be stored as fat. Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added to make it brown. Otherwise it is the same as white sugar.”

And if you think that brown sugar is better for health because it has minerals over the white variety, Dr. Tejal puts that to bed. She tells us, “Brown sugar has slightly more mineral content than white sugar, such as potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium, but the quantities are so small that they have no practical benefit.”

Natural sugar is healthier than refined sugar

Myth or Fact? Myth

This is a commonly held belief, but it seems to be more subjective than the blanket statement with which it is generally associated. Dr. Tejal says, “Natural sugars, the kind found in fruits, vegetables and honey, also carry with them vitamins, anti-oxidants and fibre. This causes them to be released slowly into the body, as opposed to refined sugar. However, consumption of large quantities even of natural sugar will be detrimental as it is stored as fat in the body. Eating excess sugar, whether natural or refined, is not recommended.”

Dr. Pradeep tells us that refined sugars have undergone purification processes, which often turns the sugar into crystals that are easy to add to foods. Natural sugars are found in foods. Examples include lactose in milk and fructose in fruit. There are also sugars that are naturally produced and added to foods, such as honey, stevia, agave nectar and maple syrup. “While it seems as if natural sugar are healthier, that’s not always the case. Watch your sugar intake even if it comes from natural sources,” he says.

Going sugar-free is the healthier option

Myth or Fact? Myth!

This one also needs clarification, rather than accepting the blanket statement. While reducing your sugar intake can definitely be beneficial, going sugar-free isn’t necessarily a healthy option. Dr. Tejal explains it succinctly. She says, “All foods have sugar (carbohydrate), even though they may taste salty or sour. So essentially, when we talk about going sugar-free, we mean eschewing sweet-tasting foods, but you will still be consuming carbohydrate. And, as long as proportion of carbohydrate, fat and protein is balanced in a diet with healthy amounts of total calories, there is no harm.”

Fruit contains sugars, so you shouldn’t eat too much sugary fruit.

Myth or Fact? This one is quite subjective, it seems.

Whether this applies to you seems to depend on your body’s response to insulin. That is to say, whether you are diabetic or have normal blood glucose. Dr. Pramod Tripathi, founder of Freedom From Diabetes, says that diabetics shouldn’t eat a lot of sugary fruits, while there is no such restriction for those who don’t have diabetes. He says, “Fructose in fruit gets converted into glucose or fat in the liver. So, diabetics should have fruits with low and medium glycaemic indices, such as apple, pear and guava.”

However, like with most things, the key may be portion control. Dr. Tejal says, “Some fruits are more dense in sugars than others. So, smaller quantities of sweeter fruits vis-a-vis larger portions of less sweet fruits is permissible, just so that you don’t miss out on vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.”

Sugar causes obesity

Myth or Fact? Myth

While this is largely a myth, Dr. Tejal says that there might be something to this statement. Again, the key lies in quantity. She tells us, “Sugar does not directly cause obesity if consumed in proportion in a diet with limited number of calories. But, when sugar constitutes more than 20% of a hypercaloric diet, the excess calories are stored as fat.”

Artificial sweeteners are healthier than sugar

Myth or Fact? Can’t be sure

There is a lot of debate surrounding artificial sweeteners, with strong supporters in each camp. Some believe that they are the saving grace for those with diabetes; others link their use with health issues. About artificial sweeteners, Dr. Pramod tells us, “They damage healthy intestinal bacteria. Many trigger auto-immune responses and create gastrointestinal disturbances and skin issues over the long term.” However, Dr. Tejal says, “The risks of artificial sweeteners have been scrutinized intensely for decades, but to date, none of the sweeteners approved by the FDA has been linked with any cancer. They have been approved for use even in pregnancy in restricted quantities.”


Processed sugar is worse for your teeth than unprocessed or raw sugar

Myth or Fact? Myth

The fact is, says Dr. Ratnadeep Patil, MD at Smile Care Expert Dental Centre, that all sugar, processed or unprocessed, leads to acid formation and tooth decay.

“There is an impression among people that sugar derived from natural sources is not as damaging as processed sugars, but that’s not true. Both natural and processed sugar have an equal role to play in wreaking havoc on your pearly whites,” says Dr. Karishma Jaradi, aesthetic dentist at Dentzz Dental Care Centres.

“One tends to eat more sugar when it is refined. However, brown sugar, molasses, honey and other unprocessed sugars could have the same effect on your teeth, if not eaten in moderation,” Dr. Ratnadeep adds.

Sugar causes tooth decay

Myth or Fact? Myth, although there might be something to it

Dr. Ratnadeep tells us that sugar alone is not the culprit; acid produced by the bacteria in the mouth is the real cause. He says, “It’s true, sugar in sweets could cause tooth decay. But then again, it’s not just sugars like those found in toffees and chocolates that are responsible. Along with these sugars, the bacteria in your mouth metabolises other fermentable carbohydrates present in foods such as fruits, milk, raisins and dates (natural sugars) as well as porridge, bread and pasta (added sugar) and form acid. This acid attacks and eats away at your teeth, destroying and demineralizing the enamel and forming cavities, ultimately leading to tooth decay.”

Dr. Karishma tells us, “Dental cavities are not directly instigated by sugars, but by what happens after introducing sugars to the mouth. People who frequently devour sugar-rich foods are at a greater risk of falling prey to dental caries, chiefly if the food they eat is sticky or has been consumed in between mealtimes.”


Dr. Karishma says, “It’s a complete misconception that the more sweet treats you eat, the greater the risk of developing dental cavities. The truth is that there is absolutely no direct connection between the quantities of sugar consumed and the likelihood of getting an oral cavity. While it is true that sugar is converted to acid, which corrodes the tooth enamel, the amount of sugar you eat is not at all relevant. Eating one cookie is just as destructive as eating two cookies where tooth deterioration is concerned. The key to averting cavities is functional brushing and flossing regularly, mainly after eating sugary foods.”

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