Sugar The New Fat

Stroll through any shopping mall and you’re bound to come across patisseries, candy stores and speciality chocolate boutiques displaying beautifully packaged confectionery, tempting even the most disciplined dieter. Before you step into one of them, be aware that medical researchers are exposing the addictive nature of sugar, and dozens of videos have been circulating on the Internet, vilifying sugar as public enemy No. 1.

Where once saturated fat was singled out as the leading cause of obesity, these days medical professionals like Dr Robert Lustig are making a strong case that sugar is the real culprit. Lustig’s 90-minute talk entitled Sugar: The Bitter Truth has received more than seven million views on YouTube. In it, the paediatric endocrinologist argues that fructose, not fat, is the villain of the piece.

How much sugar do we consume?

According to the American Heart Association, Americans consumed less than 10g (a little more than two teaspoons) of sugar per day in 1822; by 2014, sugar consumption had jumped to 88g — that’s a shocking 22 teaspoons — per day. That sobering statistic can be explained by the fact that refined sugar is widely available and has made its way into just about everything we eat.

In days gone by, sugar was only available in naturally occurring forms such as fruit and honey, nutrient-dense foods that were limited in availability seasonally and geographically. As a result, people consumed far fewer calories from sugar than we do today.

Experts like Dr Lustig trace the pervasiveness of sugar to the identification of saturated fat as the cause of heart disease in the 1960s. This caused fat to be removed from items such as yoghurt and milk, but that left these ‘skinny’ items unpalatable. To make them taste better, sugar was added. When low-fat items became must-haves because consumers believed that they were doing their heart a big favour, they did not realise that they were heavily dosing themselves with sugar.

On top of that, food manufacturers began to add fructose in the form of high fructose corn syrup to soft drinks and processed foods to titillate taste buds and stimulate the appetite. This excessive inclusion of refined sugar to the diet can mess with our bodies, promoting diseases and conditions like insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome [see below].

Sugar comes in numerous forms


  1. Composed of fructose and glucose, it is found in table sugar


  1. Found in plants, fruits and honey


  1. Found in pasta, bread, rice, fruit, cereals


  1. Found in milk


  1. Found in malted drinks and beer

This list is not exhaustive.

Too much of a good thing is bad

Does this mean we should avoid sugar completely?

No, says Food Equation dietitian and sports nutritionist Jane Freeman, who feels that sugar in moderation is not harmful. “There are certain groups of people — such as those who are active, the elderly and growing children — who need more energy from sugar,” she explains. If you were training for a marathon, for instance, you would need sugar on hand so that your reserves of glucose are not depleted. For most people, however, it is best to stick to the World Health Organization’s recommendation to keep sugar intake to no more than 25g (six teaspoons) daily, or 5–10% of the total diet.

“Sugar is not the new fat per se,” clarifies Freeman. “It is an empty calorie food nutrient that nutritionists have recommended the limit of for many years. It is also not a poison and is not the sole cause of these diseases. The point is that sugar makes food taste good. It is easy to eat, and when it is consumed in excess — which is easily done due to the amounts added or hidden in almost every food pack that is on the supermarket shelf — it certainly can have a hand in contributing to obesity, fatty livers, insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease.”

At the same time, Freeman points out that, in certain countries, there is a dichotomy between the increase in obesity and sugar consumption. In Australia, for example, sugar consumption has decreased, but obesity rates have increased. Freeman comments, “The real crux of the problem is that our world throws way more sugar at us than we need. There are sweets at airport counters and doctors’ surgeries; sugary treats jump out at you in supermarket aisles. So much needs to be done to redesign our environment so that it enables us to prefer and enjoy more of the healthier and whole food options.”

When it is consumed in excess, it certainly can have a hand in contributing to obesity, fatty livers, insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease.

Sugar in your drink

According to the Health Promotion Board, Singaporeans have increased their sugar consumption by 10% from 2009 to 2012. In order to keep your consumption in check, here is a list of how much sugar local drinks contain. For comparison, a can of Coca-cola and Pepsi contains 26.25g and 29.5g of sugar respectively.

Kopi   22.5g (4.5tsp)
Teh C   23.75g (4.75tsp)
Kopi C   18.25g (3.65tsp)
Barley   17.5g (3.5tsp)
Milo Dinosaur   23.75g (5.15tsp)
Red Bull   27g (5.4tsp)
Teh Halia   15g (3tsp)
Kopi Siu Dai   16.25g (3.25tsp)
Kopi Kau   22.5g (4.5tsp)

Bubble Tea   18.75g (3.75tsp)
Soy Bean Milk with Sugar   24g (4.8tsp)
Grass Jelly with Sugar   12g (2.4tsp)
Horlicks with Semi-skimmed Milk   26g (5.2tsp)

Note: 5g = 1 teaspoon (tsp) of sugar

Source: Ms Claudia Correira, Dietitian,
Raffles Diabetes & Endocrine Centre

Insulin resistance can give rise to metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions - such as body fat around the waist, high blood sugar, increased blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels - that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.