No single nutrient always makes us healthy and no single nutrient always makes us sick. Yet while many nutrition experts say that sugar in moderation is fine for most people, multiple studies over many years have highlighted the association between excessive sugar consumption and negative health outcomes like weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.
This is a problem because one of the prime sources of sugar is soft drinks, which are now ubiquitous around the world. And despite being inexpensive, convenient, super-sized and energy-dense, they remain nutrient-poor.
Health experts and governments understand this and are acting on it. From their perspective, the rise in obesity rates around the world correlates with an increase in per capita consumption of sugary drinks. But it is not only soft drinks like Coca-Cola that are on their radar. Sweetened tea and coffee, flavored milk, fruit-flavored drinks, 100% fruit juice, energy drinks, sport drinks, flavored and vitamin water, drinkable yogurt: these are all foods that provide large amounts of calories - mostly in the form of sugar - and minimal nutritional benefit.
"Liquid sugar" is what these foodstuffs have come to be known as and below I've highlighted the main problems associated with them. Why? Because sometimes it's not enough to know that something is "bad" or "unhealthy". Sometimes it's good to know why. So here are six problems with liquid sugar.
1) CALORIE AWARENESS
We cannot easily identify the calorie content of liquid sugar. Unlike solid food, liquid sugar does not satiate us well and it doesn't set off many of the physiological mechanisms that tell us we are full and have eaten enough.
For example, a 355ml can of Coca-Cola has 140 calories, while there are 250 calories in a 450ml bottle of strawberry-banana smoothie. A Regular Coffee (with one portion of sugar and one of cream) at Tim Hortons has 105 calories. Consuming any of these between meals tends not to make us less hungry at meal time. In some cases, it does the reverse.
2) HABITUAL CONSUMPTION
We get hooked on the little boost sugar provides and when the slump comes, consuming sugar again seems like the best solution. This happens in adults as well as children.
The body adapts to sugar intake and demands more sugar, more often and in greater doses. Adult or child, the more sugar a person has, the more sugar a person wants.
3) AVAILABILITY AND SIZE
Compounding the problems above are the fact that sugary drinks are available everywhere, all the time, and in larger and larger sizes. Convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets, cafes: in these places sugary drinks are placed prominently and actively promoted to customers.
Also, standard sizes are increasing. The popular 355ml can or small bottle (39g of sugar) of Coke has been displaced by the 591ml bottle (65g of sugar); fast-food chains offer fountains with unlimited top-ups; restaurants offer unlimited refills; coffee beverages (that are closer to desserts than drinks) come with cream and syrup that often adds up to more total sugar than three doughnuts.
4) LIQUID VS WHOLE, ADDED VS NATURAL
The sugar that is frequently added to processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup, which is generally much cheaper to produce than regular table sugar. Many sweeteners like agave nectar and evaporated cane juice are labeled as "natural" and marketed as healthier alternatives to high-fructose corn syrup, but they are not that much different.
Most of the sugar we consume in our diets is a combination of glucose and fructose and the difference lies in the ratio of these two simple sugars. While high-fructose corn syrup has more fructose than table sugar, there is not enough evidence to prove that it is more harmful than other types of processed sugar.
The issue is that when we consume naturally occurring sugars found in foods like fruits, for example, we are also eating the fiber, minerals and vitamins. These components have a positive effect on the way our body digests and absorbs sugar. And although it is true that in terms of calories "added sugars" and naturally occurring sugars are the same, most people don't overeat naturally occurring sugar (unless they like to drink honey). It is easy, however, to eat a large piece of cake with a double-double coffee.
Orange juice is not the same as an orange. Naturally occurring sugars are not the same as added ones.
5) HEALTH HALOS
According to recent reports, there has been a decline in soda and juice consumption in some countries, including Canada and the US. At the same time there has been a significant increase in consumption of other sweetened drinks like energy drinks, sweetened coffee and teas, flavored milk, sport drinks, vegetable and fruit blends, and carbonated and flavored water.
Demand is shifting and one of the fastest-growing beverage markets is health-conscious consumers. "Diet"-this and "Light"-that are normal, and beverages are being marketed with words like "healthy", "enhanced", "fermented" and "functional" all over the packaging.
However, most of these "healthy" alternatives to traditional soft drinks contain as much energy as some solid foods and just as much sugar as a regular soda.
6) DEVELOPING MARKETS
Many consumers in countries like the US and Canada can afford to be health conscious. But things are very different in the low and middle-income countries where access to drinking water is limited. Soda companies continue to invest in developing markets across Latin America, Africa and Asia because, in these places, soda is both cheaper than bottled water and a significant source of daily calories.
Unfortunately, many health experts are convinced that these countries are beginning to experience the consequences of this increasing consumption of liquid sugar. Incidents of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental issues have surged in these countries in recent years.
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The above six problems paint a picture that is not pretty. But as I said, actions are being taken.
Governments are intervening and introducing regulation that controls the marketing of sugary drinks. Despite industry opposition, terms like "added sugar" have to be listed on drinks packaging and there will be further crack downs on the exploitation of the "health halo" effect.
Alongside government regulation, sugar taxes are being trialed and implemented in an attempt to encourage consumers to opt for healthier alternatives to traditional sugary drinks.
National food guides and guidelines issued by healthcare providers are changing, as well. For example, Canada recently published its new Food Guide. It places the emphasis on water and says it should be the "beverage of choice" for Canadians. Coffee, tea, lower-fat milk and plant-based beverages are listed as other options, though they are less preferred. Fruit juices are no longer recommended because of their sugar content.
Similarly, The World Health Organization recommends that adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% (about 50g or 12 teaspoons) of their total energy intake. According to the recommendation, a further reduction to below 5% (roughly 25g or 6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits. To put this in perspective: one 591ml bottle of Coke has 65g of sugar, which is more added sugar than an adult should consume in a day.
Finally, more people are aware of environmental issues and prepared to do their part. Single-use drinks bottles represent a huge environmental problem - polluting shorelines and the world's oceans, harming marine wildlife, spreading toxic chemicals - so changing what we drink and how can have a significant impact. Fortunately, more people than ever before are carrying reusable water bottles, which means much less single-use plastic entering and harming the Earth's ecosystems.
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Research, articles and headlines often leave us confused instead of enlightened. But making changes doesn't have to be a complicated thing. It can start with simple questions. In the case of liquid sugar we can begin by asking how much we are drinking, when are we drinking it, and why.
The answers will most likely guide us towards change, towards little nudges that can have a huge impact on our health. For example, we can reduce the number of sugary drinks consumed by replacing them with sparkling water. We can dilute fruit juices with water. We can order a small instead of a large and choose one sugar instead of two. We can carry a reusable bottle.
These steps are small, easy, and benefit the environment as well as your own health.