Why we need to rethink our sugary drinks

Feeling sluggish and in need of a pick me up? Chances are that if you are prone to the phenomenon known as mid-afternoon slump, which affects everyone from office workers and cabinet ministers to teachers and stay-at-home parents, your quick fix is likely to be a sugary drink. You may perceive it as a healthier, less indulgent choice than a few chocolate biscuits or an energy bar, even though the reality is that they can all contain the same amount of sugar.

And whether your preferred sugary drink takes the form of a can of Coke, a glass of orange juice or a big mug of tea or coffee made more reviving by a couple of heaped teaspoons of the granulated stuff, a new study published in the British Medical Journal last month suggests that people who ingest sugar in liquid form are upping their risk of developing cancer.

Research undertaken by a team at Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, shows a correlation between the consumption of sugary drinks – including fruit juice, milk drinks and soft drinks such as diluted cordial – and cancer. The study involved more than 100,000 participants over a five-year period.

Defining a sugary drink as one containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, the study came to the startling conclusion that consuming an extra 100ml of such drinks per day – the equivalent of two standard fizzy drink cans per week – resulted in an 18pc increase in the risk of developing cancer. The link between obesity and a number of different kinds of cancer has already been established, but these results established an increase in the risk of developing cancer even among slim people consuming more sugary drinks. There was a particularly strong correlation with breast cancer, although it should be noted that three-quarters of the participants in the survey were women.

■ It may be a case of rethinking our drinking.

We Irish love our soft drinks. The introduction of the sugar tax last year in a move to combat obesity led to some manufacturers re-formulating their beverages so that they would be exempt from the tax, which applies to drinks containing over 5g of sugar per 100ml. It’s estimated that 76pc of soft drinks now sold in Ireland are currently exempt from the tax.

Maeve Hanan, dietitian at Orla Walsh Nutrition, says that the conclusions of the study are interesting, and that we should all be more mindful of the amount of sugar that we consume.

“It’s a large study of 100,000 people,” says Hanan, “but based on an online questionnaire that participants submitted themselves rather than in-person interviews. And its findings are observational, rather than definitively pointing to cause and effect.”

Hanan says that we should all be limiting our intake of ‘free’ sugars, so called because they are not bound up with other nutrients, but that there is no need to limit our consumption of naturally-occurring sugars in fruit and dairy products such as milk and cheese, and in starchy carbs such as bread and potatoes.

“Examples of free sugars would be added sugars in foods and drinks, as well as things such as honey, chocolate, biscuits and fruit juices. We digest these free sugars quickly and they hit the bloodstream fast. According to the WHO we should limit free sugars to 10pc of our daily energy or calorie intake, but really 5pc is better.”

To put that in perspective, 10pc would be the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar, while 5pc would be 6/7 teaspoons of sugar. A standard can of Coke contains the equivalent of almost 9 teaspoons of sugar, while energy drinks such as Red Bull or Monster can contain up to 14 teaspoons of sugar – so drinking just one of these will put you over the recommended WHO daily limit, while one standard fizzy drink would put you over the lower limit suggested by Hanan.

Many of us have grown up thinking of fruit juice as a healthy drink, and one that many parents offer to their children with a clear conscience. But the reality is that a glass of fruit juice can contain as much sugar as a can of a sugary, fizzy drink.

“With fruit juice it’s really about the dose,” says Hanan. “A 150ml glass of juice can be one of your five a day, you get the vitamin and mineral benefits, and it doesn’t count towards your allowance of added or free sugar, but any more than a glass does.”

And what about diet drinks?

“Most of the studies relate to rats and no direct human study has indicated that there is any real risk to humans in relation to the consumption of artificial sweeteners,” says Hanan, who notes that the European Food Safety Authority puts such drinks through rigorous tests before they are permitted to be sold to consumers. “They may, on the other hand, not be so good for gut microflora, but that’s another issue. Swapping from sugary drinks to no-sugar drinks is healthier and helps keep blood sugars stable.”

If you have a liking for soft and fizzy drinks, and like the sound of a fizzy drink that may benefit rather than damage your health, you may want to try one of the new water kefir and kombucha drinks that are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland. These fermented drinks bring with them the micro biome-boosting properties of other fermented foods such as proper sourdough bread, milk kefir and kimchi.

But as with all drinks other than pure water – which is, after all, the only drink one needs to stay hydrated – it pays to keep your reading glasses handy and to read the label to check that you are not being hoodwinked into consuming more sugar than you want. Even juice drinks that look as if they may contain just vegetable juice may be sweetened with fruit juice that you need to consider when assessing the quantum of free sugars that you are going to consume as you chug on that refreshing drink.

“Some kombuchas contain a lot of added sugar,” says Hanan, “so the same rules apply to those as they do to any other drink. If you are going to have any sugary drink it’s better to have it with a meal as the sugar will be absorbed more slowly, thereby lessening the likelihood of elevated blood sugar.”

The French team identified elevated blood sugar as the likely link between sugary drinks and cancer but said that this needed further research.

One Irish-made drink brand that does not contain added sugar is the King of Kefir’s fermented water kefirs which come in flavours such as Chilli & Ginger and Cucumber, Mint & Thyme. These are sweetened with natural sugar alternative, stevia, and a small quantity of apple juice; they are suitable for diabetics and contain just 0.15g of sugar per 100ml.

And if fruit juice is your weakness, rather than buying a carton in the supermarket, or using a traditional juice extractor that removes all the fibre and just leaves you with sugary juice, think about investing in one of the powerful electric blenders into which you can throw your preferred combination of fruits along with a little water, which will give you a drink with all the flavour and fibre of the fruit itself, with nothing lost.


What’s in your drink?

Remember: 4g of sugar equals one teaspoon

■ RED BULL – 11g per 100ml, 27g per 250ml can

■ MONSTER ENERGY – 11g per 100ml, 55g per 500ml can

■ COKE – 10.6g per 100ml, 35g per 330ml can

■ INNOCENT BERRY SET GO – 10g per 100ml, 33g per 330ml bottle

■ NAKED MANGO MACHINE – 9.6g per 100ml, 34.5g per 360ml bottle

■ VEG OUT REJUVENATE – 8g PER 100ml, 20g per 250ml bottle

■ KING OF KEFIR CHILLI & GINGER – 0.15g sugar per 100ml, 0.495g per 330ml bottle

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