Sugar is certainly in the public spotlight lately. Some questions often asked include – does sugar cause hyperactivity? Can sugar cause tooth decay? Is brown sugar better than white? Can eating lots of sugar result in diabetes? Are natural sugars healthier? Is fruit high in sugar? There are many myths and misunderstandings about sugar. We set out to bust some sweet myths.
Myth # 1: Sugar causes hyperactivity
This may be one of sugar’s greatest myths. Research has shown that sugar does not cause children to become hyperactive with an abundance of uncontrollable energy, even if they have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Studies have shown that the environment and activities make the child act more excited, not their sugar intake. Think about it: school breaks, birthday parties or visiting grandma are all fun-filled, exciting activities that work children up – and it just so happens that sweets are involved. Researchers have confirmed this by falsely telling parents their children were given sugar-filled fizzy cold-drinks and the parents rated their children as more hyperactive than usual, despite the fact they had consumed no sugar. Therefore, the parent’s opinion was based on perception, not truth.1,2,3,4,5,6
Myth # 2: Sugar doesn’t cause dental caries
This myth holds a bit of contradicting evidence around it. Some websites and different sources state that dental caries aren’t caused by sugar. Some say tooth decay is caused more from poor oral care and hygiene than from sugar, with the reasoning that even when carbs and sugars are eaten but good hygiene is practiced then there is no decay3. Some also state that ‘sticky carbs’ like bread, cereals, dried fruit, cakes etc can stick to teeth, remain in the mouth for longer and erode teeth enamel3,7.
However, there are other reports that state sugar can cause tooth decay. This belief comes from much stronger sources such as the WHO (World Health Organisation) and the Food Based Dietary Guidelines of South Africa (FBDGSA). The WHO’s Guideline for Sugar intake for adults and children states that there is a positive association between the level of ‘free sugars’ intake and dental caries. It would be important to note what is classified as a ‘free sugar’. According to the WHO, ‘free sugars’ include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.2” The FBDGSA supports this with evidence of a strong association between sugar intake and increased dental caries1. One needs to brush your teeth or use a mouthwash after all meals. Even rinsing your mouth with water afterwards will help to a certain degree6,7.
Myth # 3: Brown sugar is healthier than white
A simple but common myth. Brown sugar is basically white sugar that the manufacturers have added molasses back into, to give it that rich taste and colour. Molasses is a sticky, dark brown syrupy by-product of sugar refining. Brown sugar may have a tiny amount of minerals due to the molasses but it is too small to make a real difference. Brown and white sugar will give you the same amount of calories and both will increase your blood sugar level just the same5.
Myth # 4: Sugar causes diabetes
The confusion here may come in due to the fact that individuals living with diabetes have to monitor their carbohydrate and sugar intake to control their blood sugar levels, but consuming sugar is not directly linked to diabetes. But it can be indirectly linked. Let me explain. A person can develop diabetes for a number of reasons, one of which is if they are overweight/obese, leading a sedentary (inactive) lifestyle and having a family history of diabetes. Eating large amounts of calorie-dense foods (e.g. sweets, chocolates, refined sugars, fizzy cold-drinks and takeaways) will result in weight gain as these foods are high in unhealthy fats, sodium, refined carbohydrates and often sugar. If you consume more energy dense foods than needed and don’t do enough exercise, this will cause you to gain weight. This coupled with other factors discussed above, can result in insulin resistance and then the development of diabetes if no lifestyle changes are made (weight loss and including exercise). To prevent type 2 diabetes you need to maintain a healthy body weight by limiting energy dense food, exercise and regularly check your blood sugar level especially if you have a family history of diabetes 1,5,6.
Myth # 5: Natural’ sugars are healthier than refined sugars
Other sugars dubbed as ‘natural’, such as coconut/palm sugar, date sugar, agave nectar, etc, are not natural or artificial sweeteners but rather another type of sugar – just from a different source. The natural sugars may have some minerals still in them compared to white table sugar where all minerals have been removed. But one would be eating so little of this natural sugar that you won’t reap the benefits of those minerals anyway. Natural sugars also provide very similar calories so one would also have the same addition of energy to the diet5.
Myth # 5: Avoid eating fruit as its high in sugar
This is false as it needs to be looked within the bigger picture. Fruit does contain carbs in the form of naturally occurring sugars called fructose. Vegetables also have carbs but have much lower natural sugars than fruits in general. Because of the sugar in fruit, it will supply calories but there is so much that is so helpful and healthy about fruit that it shouldn’t be a concern. Fruit offers fibre to keep your gut healthy, keep you fuller for longer, lower your cholesterol and more. That is the one main reason why eating a whole fruit is better than drinking fruit juice. Fruits also provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – all with many uses, such as immune boosting, heart health, basic body functioning and more. Fruit is a fantastic snack or addition to a meal despite the sugar it contains5.
With these myths busted it’s easy to see that sugar is actually a white crystal with a bad reputation. We now see that sugar isn’t always, all bad. Having it fit into our balanced, healthy meal plans – in moderation of course– isn’t the end of the world.
- Food-Based Dietary Guidelines of South Africa (2013): http://www.adsa.org.za/Portals/14/Documents/FoodBasedDietaryGuidelinesforSouthAfrica.pdf
- WHO Guideline: Sugars intake for children and adults (2015): http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/149782/1/9789241549028_eng.pdf
- Eating Guidelines for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by ADSA http://www.pennutrition.com/viewhandout.aspx?Portal=VLGMKA==&id=JMDsXgw=&PreviewHandout=bA==