Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Sugar: not just sweet

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Image by m01229 on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence

A couple of weeks ago I attended a webinar titled: Beyond Sweetness: The functional roles of sugar in foods and the challenges in replacing/reducing itThis was put on by the Canadian Sugar Institute so I was expecting a big pro-sugar, pro-industry bias. Naturally, it wasn’t anti-sugar, but it was much less biased than most other industry sponsored webinars I’ve attended. I was a little disappointed because I was hoping to get some good ranting blogging out of it. Upon further reflection, I decided that even though it didn’t make me ranty that there was information worth sharing.

The webinar began with an overview of the functional properties of sugar in foods by Professor Douglas Goff. These are worth looking at because as many celebs (cough *Jamie Oliver* cough) decry sugar as the latest nutritional villain we need to remember that making food sweet is not sugar’s only role as an ingredient.

Sugar is important for sensory properties of foods. It adds sweetness, but it also masks bitterness or acidity. It can also enhance the aroma of a food and its texture (what’s known as “mouthfeel”).

Sugar can also prevent microbial growth in foods by lowering water activity (think: jams and jellies). It’s also important as food for encouraged microbes such as yeast in wine and beer during fermentation, or for yeast in bread so that it will rise.

Sugar plays an important role in chemical reactions in foods. Without sugar we would have caramelization of onions or sweet potatoes. We wouldn’t have the maillard browning reaction (taking me back to my first year nutrition food lab days) which gives us colour and flavour changes in combination with heat and amino acids (think: browning meat and toast). We also wouldn’t have the plasticization of polymers which sounds very frankenfood but is really just things like the formation of starch gel (aka pudding).

Finally, sugar is essential for phase transitions. Things like crystallization and candies, depressing the freezing point to give us “scoopability” in ice cream.

The second part of the webinar, by Professor Julian Cooper, centred around the difficulty in replacing sugar in foods and actually improving the “ingredient deck” and nutrition profile at the same time. As you can see, in many foods it’s not just about replacing the sweetness in the food. Sugar can serve numerous functions in a food.

The presenters pointed out that in replacing sugar you may actually end up with a more calorically dense food than the original sugary version. Replacing sugar in a food doesn’t necessarily make it healthier. Which, brings us to the point that I’m always trying to make when I see sugar being demonized: by removing sugar we may actually end-up making foods that are worse for us (like we did when we took fat out of everything).

In some cases, manufacturers could certainly remove/replace some of the sugar in their products and end-up with a perfectly acceptable lower-sugar version. In some cases, you’re going to end-up with an inferior product if you remove/reduce/replace sugar. Rather than trying to re-engineer all of the food on the market we should be making more mindful choices. There’s nothing wrong with having a cookie, chocolate milk, or (gasp) craisins. Sugary foods should just make-up a smaller portion of most of our diets.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

4 thoughts on “Sugar: not just sweet

  1. Very nice article. I know so many want to make sugar the villain but there is a purpose for sugar. Reminds of the how new diabetics react, “Go ahead and tell me all the food I CAN’T eat.” With reassurance we work on a plan that will better control their blood glucoses.

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  2. I loved this callback to all my food science knowledge ;) I’m pretty moderate when it comes to what causes obesity, etc. etc., because I feel like everything has a hand in it. And while sugar contributes to the issue, it’s not something we can call the sole cause of obesity and chronic diseases. Just like everything, it should be in moderation!

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