The short answer is not if you are sensible, and you are probably better off worrying about what else is in your food.
Depending on who you talk to, sugar is either completely safe or the devil, or fine so long as you aren’t diabetic, or suffer gut problems, or any of a myriad of things terrifying or benign. So what’s the real story? Like everything to do with biology, it is a little more complicated than any one-line throwaway can explain.
Sugar is essential to almost all life on earth. With very few exceptions glucose is the source of energy for running cells. More than that, in complex organisms (like us) sugars play structural roles (such as in tendons and ligaments) and are essential for enzyme and hormone function. Without sugar, we would simply cease to work. Even when you eat fats and oils, they are converted back to sugar before you use them for energy in a process called gluconeogenesis (1).
So it’s too much sugar then? Not quite that simple either I’m afraid. Weight for weight grapes have more sugar in it than soft drink, yet grapes are known to improve glucose sensitivity in people living with diabetes and soft drinks are a definite problem.
So what’s the deal? The actual problem is that even though sugar is a major player in our metabolism, when we are talking about food quality it is almost irrelevant for several reasons. Part of the problem is that, while we certainly like sweet things from a pleasure point of view, it has been shown that we don’t have a switch in our brains for on and off sugar consumption, rather it is protein in the macronutrients, and vitamins and minerals in the micronutrients (2). The other problem is that our bodies can cope with sugar fine if we have all of those micronutrients that are found in whole foods. Levels of exercise and general wellbeing also play a major role in our glucose response and insulin levels.
The biggest problem with sugar is that food manufacturers use it to make unhealthy food taste good. The problem with a can of soft drink is not that it contain 40+ grams of sugar but that it contains nothing else of value. To a lesser extent, this is the problem with fruit juice – a lot of the good stuff is simply thrown away with the pulp. This becomes particularly important when you talk about gut health. High doses of sugar without the fibres, vitamins and other micronutrients that your “good” bacteria need allow pro-inflammatory bacteria to gain control, resulting in glucose management problems, and a range of other health issues from high blood pressure to depression (3-5)
So the simple answer to the question is forget about the sugar – look at whether the food is high in vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients – and I don’t mean eat junk food and take a tablet. Whole foods, the less processed the better, lots of colour for your anti-oxidants, lots of vegetables and if you are going to use supplements make sure they are made from complex foods not simple synthesised chemicals.
- Nuttall FQ, Ngo A, Gannon MC. Regulation of hepatic glucose production and the role of gluconeogenesis in humans: is the rate of gluconeogenesis constant? Diabetes/metabolism research and reviews. 2008;24(6):438-58.
- Raubenheimer D, Machovsky-Capuska GE, Gosby AK, Simpson S. Nutritional ecology of obesity: from humans to companion animals. The British journal of nutrition. 2015;113 Suppl:S26-39.
- Hu FB. Resolved: there is sufficient scientific evidence that decreasing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption will reduce the prevalence of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. 2013;14(8):606-19.
- Xi B, Huang Y, Reilly KH, Li S, Zheng R, Barrio-Lopez MT, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of hypertension and CVD: a dose-response meta-analysis. The British journal of nutrition. 2015;113(5):709-17.
- Flowers SA, Ellingrod VL. The Microbiome in Mental Health: Potential Contribution of Gut Microbiota in Disease and Pharmacotherapy Management. Pharmacotherapy. 2015;35(10):910-6.