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Hidden Sugars: What You Need to Know

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A granola bar contains nearly as much sugar as a can of coke: welcome to the world of hidden sugars.

It’s fair to say that Singaporeans enjoy eating more than just about anything else. But with one in nine people suffering from Type 2 diabetes, it’s clear that our love affair with food is not always healthy.

But diabetes is entirely preventable through a good diet and exercise. There’s no reason we can’t have our chilli crab and eat it too.

What we need to do is look more closely at what we’re eating. Many popular foods that look innocent at first glance actually have large amounts of hidden sugars. Once you know how to read the labels for tell-tale signs, you can begin to adjust your food choices accordingly for a healthier diet.

What are hidden sugars?

The term “hidden sugars” refers to sugars that are identified on food labels by their chemical names or as other types of sugar products. The word “sugar” may not be included on the label, but rest assured there’s plenty of sugar in there.

Chemical names for sugar include sucrose, which is found in white cane sugar; fructose, which is fruit sugar; maltose, which is found in beer and alcohol; and glucose, which is a sugar made by plants during photosynthesis.

Products derived from cane sugar have very “un-sugary” names that mean they are often ignored by consumers. Molasses, which gives brown sugar its raw, earthy taste, is a derivative of cane sugar. Treacle and golden syrups are liquids derived from cane sugar that is often used in baking.

Alternative sweeteners, including agave, palm sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup and honey, are recommended by experts as less sugar-dense options, but you still need to consume them with caution. This is particularly the case if you have diabetes.

Foods that have “no added sugar” on their packaging often still have artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose (Splenda) in them. While derived from sugar, these artificial sweeteners are marketed as healthier alternatives for diabetics, as they are not converted into calories by the body. There are some concerns about the potential for artificial sugars to increase the risk of developing cancer, but the National Cancer Institute in the US says studies “have not demonstrated clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans”.

Foods with hidden sugars

Those who are diabetic or want to cut down on their sugar intake tend to avoid the usual suspects: sodas, biscuits, cakes, candies and so on. But some products that are marketed as healthy snacks or that we don’t necessarily associate with sugar are just as dangerous.

Here is a list of the worst offenders when it comes to hidden sugars.

Granola

Granola is a popular breakfast food that is often touted as a healthy alternative to a greasy egg and bacon sandwich. While its oats, nuts and dried fruit are full of vitamins and good fats, it is also high in sweeteners such as brown sugar and honey, which help to give granola its crunchy texture.

In fact, a granola bar weighing 100 grams contains 29 grams of sugar. That’s nearly as much as a can of coke, which contains 39 grams of sugar. So if you are looking to cut your sugar intake or are diabetic, best to steer clear of granola.

Pasta sauce and salad dressing

Store-bought pasta sauces are convenient to use but can contain as much as 11 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving, making for a meal packed with sugar and refined carbohydrates. If you find yourself feeling extremely hungry shortly after a spaghetti lunch, it’s probably the insulin crash that’s to blame.

There are a few ways to avoid this feeling. Choose whole wheat pasta, which takes a longer time to digest, and make your own tomato sauce with less sugar. You can make a large batch and freeze it for future use.

It’s a similar story with some salad dressings – at 4.6 grams of sugar for every two tablespoons of Thousand Island dressing, it’s best to consume it on the side. Corn syrup, fruit juice and honey are some of the common added sugars in salad dressings. A sugar-free mustard vinaigrette is easy to whip up and contains olive oil, which is rich in anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats.

Fruit juice and smoothies

Whole fruit is good for you: it contains plenty of fibre, vitamins and minerals. The problem with juice is that often the good stuff is discarded, leaving you with a whole lot of sugar – the sugar content of fruit juice and smoothies can be almost as high as soft drinks. A typical 250 millilitre serving of fruit juice contains 23 grams of sugar, while a 240ml can of soft drink has about 26.4 grams of sugar, typically from corn syrup.

Fibre – the roughage in fruit – is the key here, because it slows down the rate at which fructose is absorbed into your bloodstream, and helps to keep you full for a longer time. The roughage tends to be removed from fruit juice, which means you get a big sugar hit but soon feel hungry again. This is why nutritionists recommend eating whole fruit over juice.

Fruit juices sold in supermarkets often have added sugars, such as syrup and sweeteners, mixed in. So unless you are preparing juice yourself, it’s highly likely you are consuming a fruit drink instead of an actual juice.

Energy drinks

Pulling an all-nighter at the office often requires a serious dose of caffeine. Energy drinks are an obvious choice, but they can also be seriously unhealthy. For example, the 258ml can of a popular brand of energy drink contains 26 grams of sugar – again, almost as much as in a soft drink.

Energy drinks also contain artificial flavours and medical experts have found them to be harmful to the body in the long run. The heavy marketing of energy drinks as a pick-me-up for young people ignores their negative health effects, such as sugar crashes and extreme caffeine withdrawal. Consumption can lead to addiction, and being addicted to a sugary product is a ticket straight to diabetes.

If you absolutely need to perk up, instant coffee will do the trick just fine. It contains as much caffeine as an energy drink, with way less sugar (depending on how you like your coffee, of course).

Ketchup

Lastly, let’s look at everyone’s favourite condiment: ketchup. We know it makes fries taste awesome, but what many don’t realise is that it is also a huge sugar hit. You typically need two to three tablespoons of ketchup for a serving of fries, right? Well, one tablespoon of ketchup contains 3.7 grams of sugar, so that makes 10 grams for a serving. Add 10 grams of sugar to an already high-carb meal and an ensuing sugar crash is inevitable.

We can’t avoid ketchup completely – it’s a wonderful complement to burgers, fries and all things fried. What we can do is use it sparingly.

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