SUGAR, once considered a lesser evil than salt, now finds itself lumped with substances considered the most toxic to our lifestyles.
And, as the fourth highest consumer of sugar in the world, according to Euromonitor research, we know a thing or two about the sweet stuff.
We guzzle the stuff more heartily than many other nations, the average Irish person consuming a whopping 24 teaspoons daily, more than double the level recommended by the World Health Organisation in its most recent guidelines.
For health reasons, advises WHO, adults should limit themselves to 10 teaspoons a day — or six to improve their current wellbeing.
Consumption of too much sugar is now known to have devastating consequences in the long term.
And cutting down can have almost immediate benefits.
One recent study involving children revealed that cutting down on sugar can result in dramatic improvements in health after just nine days.
Robert Lustig, professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and an expert on childhood obesity, headed a team that recruited 43 obese children aged nine to 18 to take part in a trial that looked at the effects of sugar consumption on metabolic syndrome, linked to heart disease and diabetes.
For nine days the children, each of whom had at least one chronic disorder, such as high blood pressure, followed a diet plan from which all foods with added sugar had been removed, the goal being not to limit carbohydrates, but to replace sugary foods with starchy ones.
Results, published in the journal Obesity a couple of months ago, showed a drop in cholesterol and blood pressure levels, better blood glucose levels and improved liver function, shocking within such a short time frame.
Lustig, one of the most outspoken anti-sugar campaigners who has called for it to be controlled like alcohol and tobacco, suggested it provides further proof that sugar is toxic.
“This study definitively shows that sugar is metabolically harmful, not because of its calories or its effects on weight,” he said.
“Rather sugar is metabolically harmful because it’s sugar.”
He added that his findings reinforce how important it is “for parents to evaluate sugar intake and to be mindful of the health effects of what their children are consuming.”
But, when it comes to cutting down, where on earth should you start?
Sugar lurks ominously in the most unlikely places.
We all know we can expect to find nine teaspoons of it in a can of cola and several spoonfuls in some breakfast cereals, but we’re less likely to cast a doubter’s eye on a low-fat curry sauce or healthy-looking soups.
Yet, they too, are culprits of surreptitious sweetening.
Experts say you can go cold turkey, cutting sugar from your family’s diet in one fell swoop, with few ill effects.
Although you will undoubtedly experience some sugar cravings, the body adapts remarkably well to a sharply reduced sugar intake.
“The less sugar you eat the faster your taste buds will adapt and the quicker your cravings will go,” says Amelia Freer, the celebrity nutritionist and author of the best-selling book Eat, Nourish, Glow.
“Your family will barely notice sugar reductions if you are clever about it.”
1. Cut down on packaged food
Unless you have hours to spend scouring food labels every week, your best bet is to reduce the amount of pre-packaged food you buy altogether.
For this is where the worst culprits lie, especially in terms of products targeting children.
Savoury ready meals are particularly sugar-laden and provide 5% of the nation’s total sugar intake.
A survey by the British health charity Action on Sugar showed that some contain the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar, twice as much sugar as a can of cola.
Ready-made sauces and dressings can also provide a hefty sugar load with sugar comprising one-fifth of the weight of the total ingredients.
2. Sweeten things yourself
It’s best to start with a blank canvas to add sweetness to children’s food yourself.
“All sweetening agents like honey, maple syrup and agave are essentially the same thing and do contain calories,” Freer says.
“Some have a slightly better impact on blood sugar levels than table sugar, but they shouldn’t be used in excess. Remember, it’s the overall sweetness level you are trying to lower.”
Other ingredients such as coconut, vanilla pod and cinnamon can also add natural sweetness.
3. Look out for hidden sources
Since manufacturers go to great lengths to disguise the sugar content of food, checking food labels is no easy task.
It can be listed as corn sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high fructose glucose syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, invert sugar, isoglucose, levulose, maltose, molasses and sucrose.
4. Fruit shouldn’t be banned
Fresh fruit has been caught up in the backlash against sugar, but its reputation as unhealthily sweet is undeserved.
Even Professor Lustig doesn’t think fruit deserves to be lumped with sugar.
“It comes with its inherent fibre, and fibre mitigates the negative effects,” he says.
“The way God made it, however much sugar is in a piece of fruit, there’s an equal amount of fibre to offset it.”
In fact, fruit can be a useful and healthy snack for children.
Vary what you give them (a recent study showed that one fifth of all the fruit children consume comes in the form of apples), serving with plain yoghurt or fromage frais if your children will eat it.
Cherries, plums, peaches, pears, mango and blueberries all have a reasonable GI although Lustig advises avoiding grapes, describing them as “just little bags of sugar”.
5. Avoid artificially sweetened foods
Products containing artificial sweeteners are often labelled as having ‘no added sugar’.
They lack the calories of sugar-sweetened food, but are they a healthier option?
There are purported health risks linked to some sweeteners, but nutritionists also fear the blanket sweetening of foods is the really bad news.
Children detect the overall sweetness of a food without considering the source of that sweetness.
In short, they develop a taste for sweet foods whether they are flavoured artificially or with sugar.
6. Limit sugary drinks
Besides the obvious — lemonade, squash and cola — fruit juice is on the list.
Indeed, more than a quarter of fruit juices and smoothies aimed at children were found to contain as much sugar as Coca-Cola, and some considerably more, in a survey by Action on Sugar.
Writing in the Lancet last year, researchers from Glasgow University identified a possible link between high fruit juice intake and an increased risk of diabetes, claiming that fruit juice is potentially “just as bad for you” as fizzy drinks.
If you must buy juice, then water it down, for children. But plain water is best.
7. Don’t overload on dried fruit
Often claimed to be packed with ‘80% fruit goodness’, but another survey by Action on Sugar found that more than three- quarters of the dried fruit snacks tested by the charity exceeded the 47g per 100g of sugar found in Haribo Starmix.
Beware of yoghurt-coated raisins and flakes of fruit which were found to have the equivalent of more than four teaspoonfuls of sugar per packet, despite carrying the claim that they would count as one of a child’s five daily portions of fruit and vegetables and being “suitable for lunchboxes”.
Even plain dried fruit should be eaten sparingly because of its relatively high sugar content.
8. Lighten up
As sugar obsession takes hold, there’s a danger that parents become overly paranoid about avoiding it at all costs.
That could cause your efforts to backfire.
Nutritionists report a rise in the number of children seeking sugary foods outside of the home because their parents have imposed a blanket ban.
By all means cut down on sweetness, but don’t eliminate it completely.