Sweet deception

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am


For those of us whose schedules are packed and whose mornings often start early, a quick bowl of cereal and milk or a sachet of wheat drink seems to offer a healthy, quick and convenient breakfast solution.

But we may be consuming sugar at levels far above what's considered to be healthy.

Health experts say we should take more time selecting what we eat and more care in preparing it.

'Thanks to advertising, people think all breakfast cereals are healthy,' says Sally Poon, a registered dietitian and editor with the Hong Kong Nutrition Association. 'In fact, they can have lots of hidden sugars.'

She cites a 2010 study by the Centre for Food Safety and the Consumer Council of nutrition labelling on breakfast cereals.

The research uncovered some alarming results. Among 21 cold-prepared cereals, the total sugar content ranged from 4.4 grams to a whopping 43 grams.

For the sample highest in sugar, eating the serving of 28 grams recommended by the manufacturer would supply 12 grams of sugar, or about a quarter of the recommended daily intake.

For hot cereals, including oatmeal and wheat drinks, a 32-gram sachet provided 16 grams of sugar, or about one-third of the recommended daily intake.

'The recommendation is that no more than 10 per cent of your daily total energy comes from sugar,' Poon says. 'For instance, no more than 50 grams of sugar per day, based on a 2,000-kilocalorie diet.'

Excess sugar in the body increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease, and it can also cause tooth decay.

Cereal manufacturers add sugar to improve taste and texture, so high-sugar varieties - those with more than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams - may taste good but offer very little beyond a sugar rush at the start of the day.

If sugar remains in the body, it can have a longer-term impact on health.

'Sugar provides empty calories, which means it doesn't provide any nutrients apart from those calories,' says Nicole Wong, a nutritionist with NutraCare Consultancy. 'Excess sugar will be converted and stored as fat in the body.'

Energy gained from sugar is not satisfying in the long term, resulting in hunger soon after consumption, which can lead to snacking.

Warning signs that sugar content is high can be found at the top of where the ingredients are listed.

'Ingredients are listed in order of weight,' Wong says. 'Cereals contain a high sugar content if 'added sugars' appears near the top of the list.'

Sucrose, high-fructose syrup, molasses, honey and corn syrup are all sugar derivatives and are worth noting if they appear high on the list.

Aside from the listing per 100 grams found on boxes, many manufacturers also recommend a serving size. These can range from about 28 grams up to 50 grams.

Often, producers of cereals high in sugars will recommend a smaller serving of about 30 grams, so that sugar levels appear lower.

These unregulated serving suggestions can be misleading. Spooning out 30 grams, for instance, will fill roughly two-thirds of a bowl - hardly enough to sustain most of us until lunch.

But do seek a good option and don't be tempted to skip breakfast.

Avoiding food in the morning can lead to a sluggish system, shakiness and fatigue.

Carbohydrates in the system are good for regulating metabolism and give long-lasting energy.

Ardyce Yik, a registered naturopathic doctor, says many of her clients believe that skipping the first meal of the day means they'll lose weight, a misconception that simply isn't true.

'People who eat breakfast - a healthy one, I emphasise - are generally less likely to be overweight,' she says.

'Skipping a meal makes you hungry, which may lead to overeating at later meals.'

So what can we eat for a healthier option?

On days when there is time, an omelette prepared with omega-3 eggs and vegetables is one of Yik's top picks. An alternative is wholegrain toast spread with almond butter and a sliced banana.

For quicker fixes, try wholegrains again, this time in cereals with simple ingredient lists that include oats, barley, spelt or quinoa.

Yik is particularly fond of 'steel-cut' oats. These are minimally processed, use the whole oat groat and have a nuttier taste and hardier texture different from the usual rolled-oat porridges and oatmeal.

Brands marketed to children with brightly coloured boxes and brightly coloured ingredients naturally arouse suspicion, but also pay attention to brands that appear healthy. Many cereals that promote natural or organic ingredients on the box fail to mention their high sugar levels until you look at the small print.

One imported muesli promoting all-natural ingredients and found in Hong Kong supermarkets was found to contain 41 grams of sugar per helping.

Lastly, don't be your own worst enemy. Buying a low-sugar cereal and then lavishing it with sugar sprinkled from the bowl at home defeats the purpose.

Instead, sweeten more gently with antioxidant-rich red berries, a spoonful of raisins and maybe a dollop of yogurt.