Can you “detox” sugar? (Part I)
Sugar is at the tip of everyone’s tongue, from people trying to reduce their intake for better health, to heated arguments around regulating sugar like tobacco; with health warnings and taxes. But, for you, right now, a big question is “will cutting sugar out of your diet really change your health?”
There is arguably no topic hotter in nutrition right now than the health effects of sugar, and what we should be doing about it.
Recently, the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) Open Heart, published in partnership with the British Cardiovascular Society, ran an editorial that hit sugar hard: “Added sugars provide energy (calories), but in the context of consumption at current intake levels, they hinder the production of energy, and through the direct influence on a wide array of cardiometabolic disease processes, they lead to reduced quality of life and decreased lifespan, and thus cannot be considered food.”
This unprecedented scientific opinion reflects the emerging view in popular culture that sugar is toxic, and we should be eating a lot less. But how much sugar should we be eating? Is sugar really toxic? And can you really “detox” sugar? Fortunately the heat is on sugar so the answers to these questions have very recently become much clearer than they ever have been. So let’s dive in and find out.
How much sugar should we be eating?
If you asked an Hadza hunter-gather to cut down their refined sugar intake because it’s bad for their health, they would certainly be amused. The Hadza are one of the last remaining hunter-gather societies, and their diet shares a curiosity with people in the industrialized world; they eat loads of refined sugar. In fact sugar is a crucial part of the traditional Hadza diet and comprises around 15% of their total energy intake, which is a level thought to be consistent with many pre-industrial cultures. A key difference between the sugar in their diet and ours, however, is that it is exclusively from honey.
Honey has been an important part of the human diet for several thousand years, according to anthropological records, but likely extends much, much further than we know. Although honey is sometimes claimed to be more nutritious that refined sugar, it is not much different, and levels of nutrients other than sugar are utritionally insignificant. But traditional societies such as the Hadza are not plagued by sugar-related disease, far from it, they are exceptionally healthy. So where did we go wrong?
We can trace the rise in sugar to a single time-point; the industrial revolution. The per capita refined sugar (sucrose) consumption in England rose from 130g per week in 1815 to today’s consumption of added-sugars of344.4g per week for women and 478.8g for men, which is an average of 11.7 to 16 teaspoons per day respectively.
These figures are not much different for children and adolescents, which is particularly alarming as their relatively low energy expenditure and body weight compared to adults means that their sugar intake is disproportionally higher.[i][ii]
Contrast this to the current consensus on healthy sugar intakes and most people are at least double recommended levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend <10% total calories with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in England (SACN) pushing for <5% total calories, or:
- Less than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) per day for men
- Less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women
- Less than 3-6 teaspoons (12 - 25 grams) per day for children
The sugar in our diets is almost exclusively from added-sugars hidden in foods, mostly
sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g. soft drinks, fruit juices, milk drinks, energy drinks), and packaged and processed foods (especially cereals and baked goods). Case in point, a recent survey found that 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets contain added sugars.[iii] The prevalence of sugar in foods may be shocking, but food manufacturers use sugars with many different names which makes it hard to know what you are eating, here are just a few: Names for sugar and sweeteners:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Agave nectar or syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Barley malt
- Coconut sugar
- Cane sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Grape sugar
- Grape concentrate
- Raw sugar
- Brown sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Palm sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Date sugar
So it is clear that relatively recently sugar has become ubiquitous in modern, processed diets, and at levels that greatly exceed recommend intakes. But should we be worried?
Coming soon, part II of the sugar detox debate.Benjamin Brown, ND. Ben is a naturopath, nutritionist, speaker, and science
writer. He is Lecturer at BCNH College of Nutrition and Health, Technical
Director at Viridian Nutrition and author of The Digestive Health Solution.
[i]Cordain L, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54.
[ii]Official Statistics. National Diet and Nutrition Survey: results from Years 1 to 4 (combined) of the rolling programme for 2008 and 2009 to 2011 and 2012. From: Public Health England and Food Standards Agency. First published: 14 May 2014
[iii]Ng SW, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Nov;112(11):1828-34.e1-6