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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Busting your sugar limit?

Find out how you can watch your intake of all things sweet
The Straits Times - March 27, 2014
By: Joyce Teo
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Busting your sugar limit? -- PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: THE NEW YORK TIMES

The World Health Organisation is having a change of heart about how much sugar people should have.

It is sticking by its recommendation that sugar should make up less than 10 per cent of people's daily intake of food.

But it is also saying that cutting that by half - to less than 5 per cent -- is even better.

Singapore's Health Promotion Board (HPB) has been following the developments.

"HPB will review the WHO guidelines in the context of local sugar consumption patterns to determine if Singapore's current guidelines need to be adjusted," said a HPB spokesman.

WHO's public consultation, which aims to gather views and suggestions on the proposed guidelines on sugar intake started on March 5 and will end on March 31.

But you do not need an official guideline to tell you that too much sugar is bad for you. Sugar is a carbohydrate and too much of it can lead to unwanted weight gain and tooth decay.

Today is a good time to start thinking about how you can cut your sugar intake.

WHAT THE 5 PER CENT MEANS

If you have a normal body mass index (BMI) and your sugar intake is no more than 10 per cent of a day's total calorie count, you would be sticking to between 40g and 55g of added sugar, or between eight and 11 teaspoons a day.

Halving this means you would be consuming no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day.

One teaspoon of sugar is approximately 4g and would contain 16 calories.

It is not just the sugar that you add to your food and coffee or other drinks that you have to watch out for.

Added sugar also includes the sugar added during the processing of food and the sugar that is naturally present in fruit juice, honey and syrup. It excludes intrinsic sugar, which is the sugar naturally present in fruits and vegetables.

You have to know that added sugar comes in various guises. When reading food labels, watch out for its alternate names.

These include corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, malt syrup, molasses, cane juice, cane syrup and sugar molecules ending in "ose" such as dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose.

So-called natural sweeteners such as agave syrup and honey are also high in calories.

Common pitfalls

Watching your sugar intake requires discipline in today's world.

You would easily reach the current recommended daily sugar limit of 40g to 55g, or 8 to 11 teaspoons, with just one can of Coca-Cola or one Mars chocolate bar.

A recent survey done by UK-based group Action On Sugar showed that a 330ml can of original Coca-Cola or a 330ml can of regular Pepsi contains nearly nine teaspoons of sugar while a 250ml can of Red Bull energy drink has seven teaspoons of sugar.

A 51g Mars bar is packed with eight teaspoons of sugar.

"Carbonated soft drinks tend to have about 20 per cent higher sugar content than non-carbonated soft drinks," said the HPB spokesman.

If you do not want to bust the recommended limit, you have to choose plain water, sparkling water, "reduced sugar" drinks or "no sugar added" drinks instead.

If you have a sweet tooth, limit your intake of sweet treats such as cakes, ice cream or candy bars.

Look for jams without added sugar, suggested Ms Lynette Goh, a senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

"They can still taste sweet as they contain naturally occurring sugars," she said. "Limit the amount used to a thin spread. Also, avoid spreads that are high in sugar such as chocolate spreads, jams with added sugar and kaya (coconut jam)."

Most breakfast cereals are full of sugar. Avoid the "frosted" versions and opt for rolled oats, for instance.

BEWARE OF 'HEALTHY' TREATS

Choose natural yogurt instead of sweetened yogurt. Yogurt drinks, instant cereal and cereal bars are usually high in sugar.

If you are snacking on dried fruits, do so in moderation.

"Dried fruits and fruit juices are very high in sugar. Even though these are considered natural sugars, it is very easy to consume them in large amounts," said Ms Goh.

Keep to the recommended portion of one serving. A 100g serving of raisins contains 59g of sugar while a 100g serving of dried sweetened cranberries has 65g of sugar. As cranberries are naturally tart, sugar is often added to make them more palatable.

Another pitfall is fruit juice, which seems so healthy, when, in fact, they are a concentrated source of sugar.

"Half a cup (120ml) of fruit juice contains the same amount of carbohydrate as a piece of bread," said Ms Goh.

Wherever possible, eat the fruit instead of drinking the juice.

A cup of juice is usually made from a few pieces of fruit, which makes it equivalent to eating a few servings of fruit at one go, but without the fibre, added Ms Goh.

"The calories that add up because of the extra servings can bust your calorie budget for the day and lead to weight gain over a period of time.

"Excessive juice intake can also lead to high triglyceride levels - a type of fat in the blood that might raise your risk of heart disease," she said.

BEWARE OF HIDDEN SUGARS

Sadly, cutting back on sweet foods is not enough. You must also cut back on foods that are not necessarily seen as very sweet.

That is because a lot of the sugars we consume today are "hidden" in processed foods. The list includes sauces such as ketchup, barbecue sauce and pasta sauce; canned products such as canned soup and baked beans; and bread.

Watch out for hidden sugars when dining out as some local dishes contain a lot of sugar. These include rojak, satay, mee siam, mee rebus and fried carrot cake in black sauce.

Some dishes that you order at the zi char stall, such as lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork, have sauces that contain a lot of sugar, Ms Goh pointed out.

Other sauces to watch out for include dipping sauces for yong tau foo and the sambal chilli found in nasi lemak.

Ms Goh said two regional cuisines that are popular here - Thai and Japanese - can contain a lot of sugar. Thai stir-fry dishes use sugar while a lot of sugar goes into Japanese sauces such as the teriyaki sauce.

Sugar is also used as an ingredient in making sushi too, said Ms Goh, as the rice is seasoned with sugar, salt and vinegar.

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