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Got a sweet tooth? Find out all about your everyday sugars and sweeteners.
While everyone loves a sweet treat, too much sugar can cause health problems if eaten in excess. Alternatively, many see sweeteners as perfect sugar substitutes, but are they without downsides? Time to find out the truth behind sugar and sweeteners!
Sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in a wide range of foods. From lactose in milk to fructose in fruits and honey, sugar is commonly used to enhance the taste of our food. We need some sugar in our diet to supply quick energy for our muscles and brain to function.
Many processed foods contain added sugar, so energy is packed into loads of calories with very few nutrients (in other words, “empty calories”). Eating too much sugar sets us up for a vicious cycle:
Moreover, our body converts the excess sugar we eat into fat and stores it. By eating large amounts of sugary foods, we place ourselves at risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.
Added sugar should contribute to
no more than 10% of our daily energy intake. That amounts to 45 – 55 grams or 9 – 11 teaspoons (180 – 220 calories).
*Please note that the calories (kcal) listed with each food item below refer only to the amount contributed by sugar, and does not reflect the item’s total calorie count.
As illustrated, it’s only too easy for us to go over our recommended daily sugar intake on any given day. We need to be conscious of the sugar content in the food we eat so as to take better control of our daily sugar consumption.
Understanding the sugar content of a food product can be tricky.
These added sugars are all sources of extra calories. That’s why it’s best to learn their names and look out for them on the product label.
Here’s a list of common added sugars and their calorie count per 100g:
Cut the following food items from your daily diet:
A single can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch contains about 7 teaspoons of sugar (140 calories). Drinking a can daily on top of a typical diet can see an estimated weight gain of 5 – 7 kg in one year.
Water is your beverage of choice. If you must have sweetened beverages, choose drinks with lower-sugar content like diet or low-calorie beverages, or other drinks labelled with the Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS).
You can find high amounts of added sugars in many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, cereal bars, instant oatmeal with added flavouring, and pastries. Chocolate-coated cereals and cereals that are frosted with sugar, for example, are high in sugar content.
Buy unprocessed breakfast foods with short ingredient lists, like a simple apple or a bowl of non-instant oatmeal. Choose wholegrain cereals, as they are generally packed with fibre and other nutrients; but be sure to check that there’s no more than 10g of sugar per serving. Do also look out for products with the HCS logo!
Food like mee siam, black fried carrot cake, desserts such as ice kacang and chendol, and drinks like teh and kopi can add lots of sugar to our diet.
Ask for less or no syrup, sugar and sweetened condensed milk in your drink or dessert. You can also request for less or no sauce or gravy on your savoury dishes.
We use sugar even in our home-cooked meals; whether it’s baking or stir-frying, sugar is added to our food as a way to enhance the flavours of our dishes.
Use ingredients like carrots and apples, as these are packed with naturally occurring sugar. You can also try natural alternatives like stevia, xylitol or honey in place of refined white sugar when you’re cooking or baking. Besides giving food more flavour, these naturally occurring sugars tend to have added nutritional benefits, vitamins and medicinal properties.
These sugar substitutes – chemical-based or derived from natural compounds – offer the sweet taste without as many calories. They fall into two categories:
Caloric Sweeteners (Sugar Alcohols)
Sugar alcohols – not the same alcohols like wines and spirits – are found in plants. They have fewer calories than sugar, and are used in sugar-free sweets, beverages and desserts.
They don’t cause tooth decay, and don’t affect blood glucose levels the way sugar does.
Non-caloric Sweeteners (Sugar Alcohols)
With very few or no calories, their intense sweetness somewhat differs from the taste of table sugar. This means these sweeteners are used less often, or are used in combination with other sweeteners to give a more palatable flavour.
Here are some examples of non-caloric sweeteners:
Relative sweetness compared to sugar
Affect blood glucose level?
Cause tooth decay?
For most people -
Sweeteners in our food products are safe for consumption. Any food containing sweeteners can only be sold here if it follows regulatory requirements and is approved by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
In the case of children, as their taste preferences are still developing, it’s best to control their consumption of sweeteners. A high intake of sweet foods or drinks may have an unhealthy influence on their preferences.
Do note that, in general, consuming sugar alcohols in large amounts can have laxative effects or cause other gastric symptoms, so eat in moderation.
For those managing weight -
Sweeteners can help you manage weight. Recent studies have shown:
But remember, sugar-free foods may still be high in calories, so always check the
Nutrition Information Panel before buying them!
For diabetics -
Sweeteners can be safely used for diabetics as it does not increase blood sugar levels when consumed.
For people with phenylketonuria –
Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare condition where the body cannot break down the amino acid phenylalanine, causing it to build up and become toxic. That’s why people with PKU cannot take aspartame, as it breaks down into phenylalanine on digestion.
You can replace sugar with sweeteners in your recipes, but do take note:
Aspartame is not heat stable
Aspartame is the only sweetener that breaks down and loses its sweetness in prolonged or high heat. Use other sweeteners like acesulfame K and sucralose for baking and cooking.
Less bulk and browning
Sugar offers bulk, browning, colour and aroma to baked goods. You get less of everything if you only use sweeteners. To fix this, simply replace 50% of the sugar with sweetener.
Use the right amount
Check the sugar equivalent of the sweetener, so you can convert the amount of sugar suggested in your recipe to the amount of sweetener you should use.
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