How healthy or unhealthy is sugar?

Why can’t we resist sweet foods? Why is too much sugar harmful to our health? And why is Cola Zero not all it’s cracked up to be? We present surprising answers to these questions and many more.

19.12.2017 Daniela Diener 4 minutes

Let’s start off with the good news – sugar is not unhealthy per se. On the contrary, we need sugar to live, as it is an important source of energy. However, the amount of sugar we consume is important. Only too much sugar is unhealthy. But how much is too much? And how much is healthy?

Sugar is a sweet-tasting, crystalline foodstuff, extracted from plants. In its most recent guidelines published in 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that we eat a maximum of 12 teaspoons of free sugars every day (1 teaspoon = approx. 4 g). In these guidelines, “free sugars” does not just mean refined sugar, but also includes the sugars in honey, syrup and fruit juices. An average adult in Switzerland, however, consumes approximately 27 teaspoons of sugar every day. This means that the citizens of Switzerland have some of the biggest sweet-tooths in the world, as the amount of sugar that they consume is greater than the European average.

But why do we like to eat sweet foods so much? It’s common knowledge how important a healthy diet is for our physical and mental wellbeing. But there are evolutionary reasons why we are tempted by sugary snacks. There are very few substances that are both sweet and poisonous at the same time. The same can’t be said for bitter substances. A sweet taste provides us with a feeling of security – and is more or less good for our health.

Why is sugar addictive?

When we eat sweet foods, the blood sugar levels in our body rise quickly. As a result, our brain produces serotonin – our happiness hormone. This is why foods containing sugar provide us with a feeling of elation. This feel-good effect, however, disappears as quickly as it takes effect, which means it doesn’t take long for us to start craving another sweet or cake.

Doctors warn against eating too much sugar. If we snack continually on sugary foods, our pancreas will constantly release insulin. This hormone allows sugar to be absorbed from our blood and stored in our body’s cells. If we have too much insulin in our blood for prolonged periods of time, the cells in our body will become desensitised to the hormone. Experts refer to this as an insulin resistance, which is a preamplifier of diabetes mellitus.

If you consume large amounts sugar over a long period of time, you put yourself at risk of becoming overweight one day. This, in turn, can result in chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and even diabetes. In addition, your teeth can also be damaged by cavities.

Are there any healthy alternatives to sugar?

The topic of health plays an increasingly important role in our lives. It is omnipresent in the media. Most of us should know what might happen if we don't manage our diets properly. We have been made well aware of the potential health risks.

Many people therefore try to control how much sugar they consume out of fear of drastic illnesses. As a result, they look to “healthy” alternatives. Instead of eating normal sugars, they choose honey, stevia and other sweeteners, or they buy “diet” or “light” products. However, there isn’t really a healthy type of sugar.

Many people also believe that brown sugar and cane sugar is healthier than white sugar. This is simply not true. It is not the type of sweetener that matters, but the amount that we consume. So essentially, it makes no difference whether you choose white sugar or an alternative. Would-be “natural” sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave syrup and honey consist mainly of sugar. You should therefore always eat every type of sugar in moderation.

How “light” are light products?

If you reach for a light yoghurt and think you're making a healthier choice, you may be mistaken. This is because “light” doesn’t necessarily mean the foodstuff doesn’t contain any sugar. Every time you pick up a product in a supermarket, you should check the ingredients to see whether it contains sugar. What's more, the higher sugar is in the list of ingredients, the more of it the food contains.

Light products are just one example of how you can be mistaken about “low-sugar” foods. Two-thirds of the sugar we consume is actually not found in chocolate or sweets, but in other products you would not normally suspect, such as in bread, crunchy muesli, spreads, snacks, conserves, ready meals such as pizza or tortellini, salad dressings and ketchup. These foods can sometimes contain a surprisingly large amount of sugar.

What’s the deal with sweet drinks?

Sweet drinks contain large amounts of sugar. Even artificially sweetened “Light”, “Diet” and “Zero” drinks are not genuine alternatives. Although they contain less or no sugar, people get used to the sweet taste, just like with sweet drinks. They also contain tooth-damaging acids.

Why do children like sweet foods?

Children have an innate fondness for sweet foods and have to be trained to like other tastes and flavours. This is why children should not get too many of their calories from sugary foods at a young age. This can prevent obesity and help them to appreciate a healthy diet in their early years.

Therefore, parents should first and foremost set a good example, give their children a piece of fruit in their packed school lunch instead of a slice of cake, and cook balanced meals together at home instead of serving ready-made meals too frequently. The meals should include a balanced combination of high-quality proteins (e.g. dairy products, eggs, fish, meat and tofu), starchy foods (e.g. wholegrain pastas) and vegetables, salad and fruit.

Know what is healthy

The Swiss food pyramid developed by the Swiss Society for Nutrition (SGE) provides a good basis for ensuring a balanced diet. You can find information here about the best ways to create a healthy meal. And if you are unsure as to whether your current eating habits are healthy or not, you can quickly and easily find out by taking this test.

Further information

Read more

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