The Sweet truth: Not all sugar is just badadmin
“I have a sweet tooth” some proclaim, almost with pride. Sweetness is the most preferred taste amongst all and virtually every child is weaned on it. Sugar, or cane sugar to be precise has been used as a sweetener for daily use, for generations. Sugar (sucrose) is a simple carbohydrate being a disaccharide composed of 2 monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. For human consumption sucrose is extracted and refined from, generally sugarcane, or at times beet sugar.
While people relished the value it added to taste, sugar began to be reviled in equal measure. As medical research began unravelling the perils of excess sugar consumption, its association with a host of ailments came to the fore. From dental cavities to weight gain to even feeding cancer cells. Diabetes, and the role of the hormone insulin, became part of common discussions on dietary habits.
But is all sugar just bad? Or can there be ‘Dark Knights’ after all!! To understand this better we will have to look into the concepts of Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL)
Each sweet food item has different amounts of sugar in it and each has a varying impact when consumed. This is where the concept of GI or Glycaemic Index and Glycemic Load was coined. You may have read a lot of processed food packs boasting of them as “low GI”.
GI is a value assigned to different foods based on how slowly or quickly these foods caused an increase in blood glucose levels. Foods with a high GI tend to release glucose quickly and vice-versa. Nutritionists have arrived at the GI values of almost all common food items. As a thumb rule GI value of 10 or less is considered low and 20 and above is high. White sugar has a GI score of 58 to 84 depending upon the type and Glucose has a GI score of 96 to 114, depending upon the type.
But the GI tells only part of the story. It does not tell you how high your blood sugar could go when you actually eat the food. To understand a foods complete effect on blood sugar, you need to know both how quickly it makes glucose enter the blood stream and also how much glucose per serving it can deliver. A separate measure called Glycemic Load does both- which gives an accurate measure of a food’s real-life impact on your blood sugar. The GL of a food is a number that estimates how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it. One unit of Glycemic Load approximates the effect of eating one gram of Gucose. Watermelon for instance has a very high GI of 80 but the amount of carbohydrate is so little that the Glycemic load is just 5. For general assessment of sweet items both GI and GL are considered.
One common attribute ascribed to sugar is that of “empty calories” i.e. increasing calorie content without any nutritional benefits. Such foods are digested fast and not a source of sustained energy. This is true, as one gets the high after a can of cola, only to feeling drained soon after. So, if one can “fill” those “empty” calories with other nutrients, suddenly the picture changes and the sweet item is no more a villain. So, for example, if you were to consume two drinks, one a can of 250ml cola and another of 250ml protein drink with the same amount of sugar in both, the latter is more healthy, not just because of the additional beneficial items in it, but also because the proteins and other nutrients will bring down the GL. While there will be a glucose spike after the consumption of both, it will not be as sharp in case of the protein drink.
Therefore, It is important to understand that not all sweet foods are bad, a judicious approach to sugar consumption can allow you to pamper to your sweet tooth with freedom. The overall impact of the sweet item on raising blood glucose levels as reflected by the GL is of more consequence than the speed with which the spike comes.
You may keep away from a mango thinking it is loaded with calories and prefer a cream biscuit with relatively lesser calories, but would that be a wise choice? No. The few calories notwithstanding, a mango as a sweet food is much healthier than the latter with a lower GL and filled with nutrients.
If you use a little discretion, life can be milk and honey (now go figure the GL for honey)!