University of Calgary

Faculty Said / Alumna Said

Submitted by alumni on Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:00.

Faculty Said / Alumna Said

Is sugar as evil as they claim? What would life look like without red velvet cake? Two experts weigh in on the white stuff.

Sugar Wars
Not every tale has the sweetest of endings. Linked to obesity, cancer and heart disease, has sugar become a much bigger problem than fat?

That’s precisely why we turned to the experts — Dr. Sue Pedersen, MD’05, and Jodi Willoughby, BCR’01, co-owner of Crave Cookies and Cupcakes — to weigh in on the white stuff.

Dr. Sue Pedersen is a medical doctor and specialist in endocrinology and metabolism. Her research explores innovative ways to treat diabetes, obesity and how best to promote healthy living.

Is there a place for sugar in our diets?

A balance of calorie intake from the three sources of calories (protein, carbohydrate and fat) is important. Health Canada recommends about half of our daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrates.

The term “carbohydrate” refers to foods rich in starch (bread, rice, pasta), or any food that is rich in sugar (fruit and foods with added sugar such as desserts, candy, etc.). Complex carbs (whole grains, oats, etc.) are recommended as the main source of carbohydrates, as they generally have more nutritive value, more fibre and a lower glycemic index.

In the sugar-source category, fruit is a great option, but products with added sugar are not. The main problem with products that contain added sugar is the calorie count on these foods ramps up quickly, such that we often end up eating more calories than we need. These products are also often highly processed and low in nutritional value. Our bodies turn extra sugar into fat, and it is currently believed that it is actually excess sugar consumption, more than excess fat consumption, that is propagating the obesity epidemic. So, if you want to avoid excess body weight, avoid food products that contain added sugar.

Should there be a tax on foods with added sugar?

Not only is navigating the grocery store like a minefield in terms of avoiding food products with added sugar, but prices also come into play. Simply put, manufactured foods that contain added sugar are often cheap, sold in bulk and have expiry dates somewhere in the neighbourhood of Kingdom Come. Adding a tax on food products that contain added sugar has been proposed as a way to steer consumers away from the unhealthy food products and towards healthier alternatives.

Non-caloric sweeteners are probably better than added sugar, but the best answer is to avoid both.

The idea of a sugar tax has been met with much resistance in Canada. One concern is that it could make food affordability difficult for some. It has been suggested that sugar-tax earnings be applied to discounted vegetables, but playing this out in reality would be logistically challenging. So, while I am in favour of a sugar tax on the right products (with a utopian slashing of healthy food prices to compensate), I recognize this is a tough play in reality.

Which is better (or worse): sugar or non-caloric sweeteners?

The state of knowledge on artificial sweeteners is still very much in evolution. While studies suggest that sweeteners are overall safe, there is new information evolving on this topic; for example, sweetener consumption may alter our gut bacteria in favour of bacteria that actually promote weight gain.

My take on this dilemma: Non-caloric sweeteners are probably better than added sugar, but the best answer is to avoid both.

What would the world look like with no lollipops, crème brulee and red velvet cake?

Hey, I’m human. My family, friends and I enjoy a slice of red velvet cake to celebrate a special occasion just as much as the next. Sugary treats surely do give us great enjoyment — sugar stimulates “happy hormones” called endorphins that make us feel, well, just plain good. That being said, all sugary treats in our society are far too accessible, and portion sizes are far too large. Treats are part of a rich, diverse, exciting world — they just need to be treats, in moderation, not only in frequency, but also in size. U

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