How Bad is Sugar?

Sugar has had some bad press, being branded as “sweet poison”. But what’s the truth?

How Bad is Sugar?

Sugar has had some bad press in the last few months, branded as "sweet poison" and the "new tobacco". But what's the truth about sugar? Nutritionist Elspeth Waters explains

It seems that modern medicine is finally waking up to the fact that demonising saturated fat for the last 50-odd years has not made us healthier or happier and it's sugar that's the problem.

We tend to think of sugar as the white stuff in bowls that we sprinkle in tea and over tart strawberries which is refined from sugar cane. But there are countless other sugars hiding in our food supply that go unmentioned. The major group are the ones ending in -ose, such as fructose and glucose, as well as dextrose, maltose and lactose, but there are also the malts, such as barley malt and rice malt, the syrups, including maple syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup, date syrup, and the nectars, such as agave and coconut, and honey, of course. These sugars are everywhere - in cakes, biscuits and sweets, ready meals, yogurts, tomato ketchup, salad dressing, bread, salsa, crisps, gravies, stock cubes, breakfast cereals and more.


All sugars are refined carbohydrates. We digest them very quickly, the instant boost followed by blood sugar levels crashing just as rapidly so we feel tired and moody. We are programmed to reach for the nearest sugary food or drink in order to replenish our blood sugar, and the blood sugar rollercoaster continues. This activates our stress response, wiring us for anxiety and mood swings, accelerates fat storage and interferes with all the other normal physiological processes in the body.


Artificial sweeteners are equally, if not more, toxic to the body than regular sugars - especially aspartame, a known neurotoxin - but sucralose, saccharine and sorbitol are not much better.

Natural calorie-free sweeteners, such as stevia (a herb) and xylitol (a sugar alcohol) have a much lower effect on insulin release but they can have a laxative effect and are not recommended for anyone with a sensitive digestive system, so use them sparingly.


Entirely eliminating sugar isn't practical or necessary for most people, but you can make small changes to curb the habit.

  • Don't add table sugar to drinks or meals - enjoy their natural flavours.

  • For baking, use small amounts of honey, maple sugar or coconut nectar as they contain nutrients as well as sweetness.

  • Make your own condiments, muesli, granola, bread, cakes and biscuits as much as possible so you can control your sugar intake.

  • Eat your fruit - smoothies and juices are way too high in fructose without the fibre in whole fruit that helps slow the release of insulin to keep blood sugar stable.

  • Eat proper meals and snacks, containing good quality protein and fats and keep sweets treat-size. The more protein fat and fibre (from veg, nuts, seeds and beans) you eat, the more satisfied you'll feel, and the less likely you are to crave sugar.


Stress has a much bigger bearing on our health than any single foodstuff. So while it is good idea to eat balanced healthy meals and snacks, spending a lot of time worrying about what you eat will harm you much more than the odd slice of cake. So stick to small amounts of fruit and other natural sugars here and there and try not to overdo it. But when you do fancy a couple of chocolates, relax, enjoy them and let go of any guilt about it.

Trying to eat healthier? Take a look at our healthy recipes