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A more holistic approach is needed to slash our sugar intake as it’s not enough to just cut down its consumption in beverages, writes Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan
EVERYWHERE, Malaysians are living the sweet life. From teh tarik and pisang goreng at the stalls to free-flow fizzy drinks at many restaurants, the nation is in a long-standing love affair with sugar. And it isn’t about to end.
Shoppers buy bigger bottles of sweetened drinks because unit cost is cheaper. Children grow up with food from packages, many of them laden with sugars. Read the ingredients of food staples such as bread and biscuits and you will find sugars listed.
We don’t need sugar— not this much and not from these sources anyway. “If we have sufficient carbohydrates in our diet, we don’t specifically need sugar because we obtain glucose from starch and other carbohydrates,” says Nutrition Society of Malaysia president Dr Tee E Siong.
Sugar or sucrose is a disaccharide, made up of two single monosaccharides — glucose and fructose. These sugars are metabolised in the body to produce energy.
Starch in rice is a complex carbohydrate. Made up of many glucose units (polysaccharide), the body’s enzymes break down the starch, producing glucose, which is burnt for energy.
“A better choice of carbohydrates comes from rice, noodles and cereals, especially whole grains,” says Sunway Medical Centre dietetics service manager Lau Wai Hong.
Perhaps it is easier to ask for teh tarik kurang manis (less sweet) or cut consumption of sweet treats such as cakes and kuih. What’s tricky is navigating the supermarket aisle to make better food choices.
“It is compulsory, by law, to include the amount of sugars in one serving of a drink in the nutrition information panel. It could contain up to 30g or 6 teaspoons of sugar per can of 325 ml, which is 120 kcal,” Tee says. “You need to walk 40 minutes to burn that off.”
But things aren’t clear-cut with processed foods such as bread, buns and cookies since it is not compulsory to indicate the amount of sugars in them.
“The consumers have to read the ingredient listing on the food label. Also note the position of the sugar or its equivalent. If it is at the beginning, then sugar is one of the main ingredients.”
Lau says consumers should refer to the Guide To Nutrition Labelling & Claims published by Food Safety & Quality Division, Ministry of Health (2006), for content details.
“Food label reading is something that we dietitians feel is lacking among Malaysians. When a product claims to be sugar-free, the sugar content should be less than 0.5g per 100g (or 100ml).”
CHILDREN AND SUGAR
Paediatricians, nutritionists and dietitians agree that to get the nation to consume less sugar, parents are ultimately the role models.
“Parents should reduce intake of sugar-rich foods and beverages. Children watch what parents eat.
“It is important not to introduce sweet foods to children at a young age. Train a child aged below 1 to accept plain water, low-sugar beverages and meals without added sugar,” Tee says.
Lau says children consume more sugars from beverages such as soft drinks, packet beverages, fruit juices and cordials. “Beware of isotonic beverages and flavoured milk as they are high in sugar.”
Tee goes for an educational approach. “Prepare breakfast for children, talk to them about buying foods in canteens and healthier versions of snacks. Banning children from taking sugary foods and drinks is not the right approach. Allow them to take these sparingly.”
BLAME IT ON SUGAR
Is sugar solely to blame for the nation’s expanding waistline?
Three years ago while launching a campaign to get the public to consume less sugar, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said the prevalence of overweight adults rose from 16.6 per cent in 1996 to almost 30 per cent a decade later. Obese adults tripled from 4.4 per cent to 14 per cent in the same period.
Yet to put the blame on sugar alone is like eating all kinds of berries for their antioxidants without adjusting other eating habits.
“I have seen people opting for black coffee to cut sugar intake, but at the same time, eat a slice of cake laden with sugar.
“Sugar does not cause obesity. It is the extra calories that a person takes that lead to extra body weight. But a person who takes an excessive amount of sugar will be adding extra calories daily, which can add to his weight. It is important to focus on reducing calorie intake from all sources rather than on sugar alone,” Tee says.
What the doctor orders
PAEDIATRICIAN and paediatric cardiologist Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail is worried about parents freely feeding infants and toddlers sweetened food and drinks.
“Infants and toddlers should not be introduced to food and drinks with added sugar. Parents determine kids’ sugar eating habits, so teach kids how to eat right, not be taught by them,” he says.
Correct complementary feeding is important since food habits start from young. “Parents should taste test milk products and decide if there is too much sugar in them.”
And here’s his most important point: “Bribing kids with chocolates and sweets is outdated.”
He disapproves of doctors giving sweets to pacify children. “That’s why I give my patients stickers— no dental cavities and no sugar.”
Can you lie to your brain?
ARTIFICIAL sweeteners are marketed for being sweet while containing low calories, but is it all it’s cooked up to be?
“I find that obese and diabetic people drink diet fizzy drinks to cut their sugar intake but a study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio has added to a growing research that diet fizzy drinks are not a ‘guilt-free’ treat at all,” says ILife Nutrition chief nutritionist Hong Ya Chee.
“Your brain can tell the difference between real and artificial sugars. Artificial sweeteners trigger more communication in the brain’s pleasure centre, with less actual satisfaction.
“When you consume artificial sweeteners, your body craves more sugar, because your brain is not satisfied with the sugar impostor.
“Regular soda is not a healthy choice, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that the diet version is healthy just because it’s low in calories.”
Sugar coding it
Sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and maple syrup. All mean the same thing: sugar. Sugar is sucrose and provides 4 kcal per gram. Here are the different sweeteners available.
An intermediate product in cane sugar production, it is a tan, coarse granulated product obtained from the evaporation of clarified sugar cane juice.
The most common form of sugar to consumers. Obtained from refining raw sugar.
A thick, brown to deep black, honey-like substance made when cane or beet sugar is processed. It is enjoyed as a sweetener in many countries. The British call it treacle. Molasses may contain small amounts of minerals such as iron and calcium.
Sugar crystals coated in molasses syrup. This is often produced by boiling molasses syrup until brown sugar crystals form.
Due to the high level of fructose, honey is sweeter than table sugar. Some nutrition experts say honey contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals.