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How much harmful sugar is in your beverage?

It’s common knowledge that water is the best source of hydration. On the other hand, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) may provide hydration but are some of the unhealthiest options we can consume. Despite this, they are the top culprits of excessive sugar intake in Canadian adults and children. They have been linked to chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, cancer and dental cavities. The issue is not only their high sugar content but, unlike food, they provide no sustenance to fill us up, resulting in extra calories in our daily intake.

The recommended daily limit for added/free sugar from all food and beverage is no more than 5-10 per cent of your daily calories (varies among health organizations). At five per cent, that’s nine teaspoons (38g) for men, six teaspoons (25g) for women, and three to six teaspoons (12-25g) for children depending on their age. A can of cola has nearly 10tsp (39g) of sugar. Getting a sugar fix on occasion is not a concern but the more frequent and excessive the intake, the greater the risk of health complications

The beverages (and foods) you choose are a personal choice but that should be based on informed decisions. The abundance of products and misleading marketing makes it challenging to figure out what’s in your drink. A beverage may claim to have zero calories, no added sugar, no artificial sweetener, naturally sweetened, but this only tells part of the story. If the beverage is sweet, it’s likely coming from concentrated fruit, other “natural” sugar sources or low calorie/artificial sweeteners. Note that sugar is sugar regardless of the type—from agave to syrups to honey.

Check the ingredients and nutrition label. The label states sugar in grams, for a quick conversion—4g sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar. Check the serving size too; an ‘individual’ bottle of juice may be listed as multiple servings per bottle. The ingredient list will state added low calorie sweeteners and sugars (more than 61 types!) in their many forms. Sugar often ends in ‘ose’ such as sucrose, fructose, glucose. Certain beverages may have high fat milk or cream. Check the % Daily Value—anything above 15 per cent is considered high in fat.

There are mixed messages on how much water we need a day—from eight cups, to drink when thirsty. Being thirsty is a sign that we’re already dehydrated. Most research recommends that an average women needs 11.5 cups a day and average man 15.5 cups a day. This includes about 20 per cent of fluids from foods therefore we need to drink 9.5 cups and 12.5 cups respectively. Children’s needs depend on several factors including age, gender and weight. Keep in mind, fluid needs can vary (more or less) depending on activity level, weight, climate, altitude, and certain medical conditions. 

Severe dehydration (and overhydration) can be very dangerous and life threatening, but even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, headaches, dizziness, impact mood, memory and concentration. Thirst and dark coloured urine can indicate dehydration but this isn’t always the case for everyone. Young children and the elderly may have a weakened sense of thirst or are too preoccupied. Medical conditions, medications and certain vitamins/minerals can cause dark or bright coloured urine. It’s best to sip water throughout the day to keep hydration stable.

What if you find plain water boring or you just want some variety? We know some of the heavy sugar hitters include pop, fruit punches and cocktails, lemonade and fancy sweetened coffees. What about other beverages like milk, sport drinks, sparkling waters, 100 per cent juice, coffee/tea? Can jazzing up your water make it more enjoyable?


Caffeinated beverages

There are mixed messages whether caffeine hydrates or dehydrates. The truth, caffeine has a mild diuretic effect (makes you pee) but it’s offset by the high water content, which actually contributes to your daily water intake. Black coffee and tea have little to no calories but it’s the added (by you or the manufacturer) high-fat cream and sugar that adds up. For example a large double/double coffee doesn’t have just two teaspoons of sugar and cream but nearly 8tsp sugar and 6tbsp of cream (15g fat). A large vanilla cappuccino tops you up at 14tsp sugar and 5tbsp cream (12.5g fat).

Energy drinks provide a dose of sugar with more than 13tsp (54g) per 16oz can. The amount of caffeine per serving (not necessarily per can) varies but typically is equivalent to a cup of coffee.

The recommended daily limit for caffeine in a healthy adult is 400mg per day or 4-5 8-oz cups of coffees (less for pregnant, breastfeeding women, and adolescents). Too much caffeine can elevate blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeat, insomnia, nervousness and irritability. Individuals who are caffeine-sensitive may feel side effects from much less.

bigstock/Fascinadora- Cut up fresh or frozen fruit/vegetable such as berries, melons, cucumber, citrus fruits.

Low-calorie beverages (LCB), aka diet beverages, contain few to no calories and sugar but still have a sweet taste from added artificial or naturally derived low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and stevia. Too good to be true? They may make a better choice than excessive intake of SSB, but the safety of regular and long-term intake of LCB remains inconclusive. Studies have shown potential side effects include weight gain, diabetes, stroke, dementia. The American Heart Association reviewed all existing research and came to an overall consensus that intake of LCB should be minimal, especially in children where the evidence is even more limited. LCB may be helpful as a transition beverage from sugar-sweetened to no-sugar beverages like water if going cold turkey is too challenging.

Milk and alternatives Cow’s milk contains only natural sugars unless it’s sweetened flavoured milk. If milk is not consumed in excess, the sugar content is not a concern. Choose lower-fat milks like skim or 1 per cent. It’s also packed with calcium, vitamin D and a is source of protein. Milk alternatives are usually equivalent in nutrients except they don’t contain protein (except soy milk). Milk is a good thirst quencher while also building strong bones. Like most things, more is not better. Stick to recommended two to three servings a day from all milk and alternative sources.

Sport drinks and vitamin waters tend to have less sugar than pop and juice and provide electrolytes, but unless you’re doing endurance exercise for an hour or more, they are unnecessary. Vitamin and mineral enhanced waters are a sugary multivitamin. If you’re not getting enough nutrients from your food, you’re better off taking a supplement pill that doesn’t include added sugar. Best to speak to your healthcare provider to determine if supplementation is necessary.

Bigstock/Beats-Smoothies blend the whole fruit, which includes the fibre and can be a convenient and tasty way to get your fruits and vegetables.

Fruit juice, juicing, smoothies 100 per cent fruit juice may have no added sugar, but the natural sugar content is about equivalent to pop. Removing all the bulk (aka the fibre) from many oranges results in a concentrated sugary beverage. There are vitamins and minerals, but at a fraction of the sugar content, eating a fruit is more filling while meeting your vitamin needs. If you enjoy juice, the recommendation is to limit to four ounces of juice a day.

Smoothies blend the whole fruit, which includes the fibre. They can be a convenient and tasty way to get your fruits and vegetables. But keep in mind, there are healthy and less-healthy ways to make a smoothie. Blending up fruits versus eating them whole makes it easy to drink a lot of fruit but that can also come with a lot of sugar. Balance and variety is a good approach by including lower sugar fruits and vegetables like berries, melons and spinach versus all high-sugar fruits like bananas, mango, pineapple.

Make it filling by adding a serving of protein from Greek yogurt or milk or an unflavoured protein powder. Use milk, a milk alternative or water instead of juice as the liquid.

Premade smoothies are often marketed as a healthy choice but can contain a lot of juice and added sugar with little whole fruit. Makes sense why a medium smoothie contains upward of 13tsp sugar and little to no fibre and protein. Check the nutrition info.

Bubbly/seltzer/sparkling waters are all the rage right now. You can get unflavoured or with a variety of fun flavours containing little to no sugar. They are a good way to stay hydrated and a great fizzy alternative to pop.

You can also purchase an at-home soda maker. They are often cheaper and better for the environment than individual cans and bottles. One CO2 cartridge will carbonate 60L of water and empties can be traded in for refills at many local stores.

There’s been concern about the acidity from carbonation causing tooth decay. Fortunately, the bulk of the research shows this has minimal effect on teeth making them safe to consume regularly.

Water: How to jazz it up 

Get fancy and creative. Add any combo of cut up fresh or frozen fruit/vegetable such as berries, melons, cucumber, citrus fruits. Fresh herbs and spices like basil, mint or ginger also provides an extra fresh flavour. Refrigerate the infused water for several hours or overnight for full flavour. This has visual appeal as well. For a quick infusion option or for soda water, squeeze or muddle the ingredients to extract the flavours into the water. Strawberry, ginger and lemon water anyone? A quick Google search will give you tones of creative combos to try.

  • Make ice cube combos with mixtures of pureed/chopped fruit and fresh herbs and pour into ice cube trays for a convenient and flavourful chilled water.
  • Fruited, black or green tea bags—the tea will infuse even in cold water, just let it steep until it’s reached desired flavour. Tea bags are convenient to have on hand at all times.
  • Still need a little sweetness? Add a splash of juice, sugar or sweetener. Then you control the sugar content as opposed to the manufacturer.

Bottom line: unfortunately, there’s no secret beverage that’s going to be as sweet and flavourful as SSB with the same health benefits as straight up water. If you’re up for the challenge, gradual change is best. Even downsizing your sweet beverage and/or replacing one a day with water can be beneficial. You may also be surprised how you can retrain your taste buds so that water quenches that thirst and palate.

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