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For most people in North America, refined sugar has become hard to avoid. It’s in things you’d expect to contain sugar, like candy and carbonated beverages, and in less likely food products such as whole wheat bread and soy milk. In fact, sugar has become so embedded into the food and beverage industry that, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the average American consumes approximately 120 pounds of sugar per year—an increase of more than 50% than the average sugar consumption in 1950.
Natural versus refined sugars
There’s a big difference between natural sugar and added or refined sugars. Natural sugars are found in fruit as fructose and in dairy products—such as milk and cheese—as lactose. Refined sugars are typically sucrose, and are derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, which are processed to extract and purify the sugar. The human body processes and metabolizes natural and refined sugars very differently. Refined sugar is broken down very rapidly, causing a sharp rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Excess refined sugar is more likely to lead to diabetes and other health concerns that excess natural sugar. There are many different names for refined sugar that are listed in ingredients lists and nutritional information on food and beverage products, including agave nectar, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, carob syrup, date sugar, corn syrup solids, fruit juice, maple syrup, brown sugar, sorghum syrup, and caramel—just to name a few.
Refined sugar has many different purposes in food and beverage products. It can be used to hold moisture and prevent staleness in baked goods, to support fermentation in bread and other products containing yeast, and to enhance the flavour and texture of canned fruits and vegetables. It’s also used as a preservative and a sweetener, and in juice, carbonated beverages, and alcohol to enhance sweetness and taste.
The effects of sugar on health have started to be more closely and widely scrutinized. Dietary guidelines in North America—and around the world—have changed to recommend reduced sugar intake for people of all ages. The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams of sugar per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. The World Health Organization is now recommending that people restrict their sugar intake to no more than 5%-10% of their calorie intake. 5% would be about six teaspoons a day; 10% is roughly equivalent to a single can of soda.
Food and beverage vendors are also being encouraged to reduce the amount of unnecessary sugars in their products. Many are advertising new “sugar free” products to appeal to consumers’ rising concerns, but these products come with a catch—though they may technically be free of refined sugar, they are likely to contain sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, zylitol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Though considerably healthier than all refined sugars, these sugar alcohols still have an effect on blood glucose levels, something that needs to be taken into account by consumers with diabetes or with specific dietary requirements related to sugars.
It’s not likely that the sugar industry will be greatly affected by more people avoiding added and refined sugars. Sugar still plays a significant role in the food and beverage industry, and isn’t universally harmful in its applications. However, it’s likely that sugar alcohols and other sugar substitutes will continue to see a rise in their popularity as the health effects of sugar become more well-known and health regulatory bodies around the world continue to take into account the dangers of high-sugar diets.