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Understanding Carbohydrates: Impact of Grains and Sugar Consumption

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: March 11, 2024 | Category: Nutrition

Understanding Carbohydrate Composition

Grains contain mostly carbohydrates in the form of starch and the starch in grains digest quickly and easily. As such, grains are among the biggest suppliers of glucose in the modern diet. The table below shows the carbohydrate content of sugar, grains and other carbohydrate foods:

FOOD per 100 grams                                                 % CARBOHYDRATES
White sugar                                                                                      99.9
White rice                                                                                          85.0
Brown rice                                                                                         81.3
Refined wheat flour                                                                          72.0
Wheat whole grain                                                                           51.8
Barley                                                                                                 77.7
Millet                                                                                                    73
Oats                                                                                                    66.3
Potato                                                                                                  31
Soybean                                                                                               30
Corn                                                                                                      19
Fruits: grapes, dates, banana, mango, pineapple                        10-20
Fruits: berries                                                                                     5-10
Broccoli                                                                                                1.8


Sugar and Its Limits in Consumption

Sugar is practically pure carbohydrate. But there is a limit to the amount of sugar that we can eat on its own because large amounts give a feeling of distaste. In the case of soft-drinks, an average can contains six to eight teaspoons of sugar and it is easy to gulp it down without feeling anything. This may be due to the neutralising factors of coldness, salt and phosphoric acid in soda drinks. But try adding that much sugar in the same amount of water, coffee or tea and you will have difficulty drinking it.

Having said this, it is also true that we can increase our tolerance for sugar. Most people cannot eat more than a few squares of chocolate, but some can eat an entire chocolate bar. Most people can eat no more than two or three scoops of ice-cream, but some can eat an entire tub. If you are a heavy sugar eater, be careful. 

With grains, you can eat all you want. You can even eat till you feel overly full and uncomfortable. Many people eat more rice, bread or pasta when they find the accompanying dishes tasty. When they eat spicy foods, they eat more grains to "neutralise" the spiciness. There is a strong tendency for people to eat more grains than what they need for energy.

The Evolution of Grain-Based Foods

More carbohydrates are consumed when grain products like bread are eaten with sugar. In the distant past, the breads of the Egyptians and Romans were made with whole grains mixed with peas, seeds, nuts and other ingredients. This provided a better balance of nutrients - grains supplied the starch while other ingredients supplied protein and fats.

Today, most breads are made with refined flour plus sugar. If the bread is soft, you can expect a lot of sugar in it - because sugar (and chemical additives) makes bread soft. You get carbohydrates plus more carbohydrates.

If you must eat bread, look for more traditional and natural breads made with just a few basic ingredients - flour, water, yeast or sourdough starter and maybe oil. If the bread is made from wholemeal flour, all the better. Additional natural ingredients would be good too. Look for breads with walnut, sunflower seed, pumpkin seed, flaxseed, olives, etc.
Ideally you should eat only sourdough bread, which is made by natural fermentation using yeast collected from the environment. It typically takes 12 hours or longer to produce a loaf of sourdough. Modern breads are made with plenty of yeast, sugar, chemical additives and factory short-cuts, such that a loaf of bread can be produced in as little as 40 minutes.

Sourdough and other natural breads tend to be sold at smaller, specialised bakeries rather than at supermarkets and convenience stores. They are not soft and spongy. If you find wholemeal bread that is soft, you can be sure that it has lots of sugar.

Exploring Healthier Bread Options

When you eat bread with jam, that's more sugar. Unfortunately, bread with butter and jam has become such a norm that some people cannot imagine eating bread with anything else. There are plenty more ways to eat bread, really.

For instance, you can enjoy bread with:

  • Olive oil (and sea salt or balsamic vinegar);
  • Butter - but not margarine and other vegetable oil spreads;
  • Cheese - natural, not processed cheese;
  • Nut or seed butters - peanut, almond, hazelnut, and sesame seed (tahini), etc.;
  • Soup, especially cream or pureed soup;
  • Smoked salmon, canned sardines and other fish or seafood;
  • Meat or preserved meats like ham and sausages, provided they are naturally made;
  • Eggs - soft or hard boiled, omelette;
  • Baked beans;
  • Vegetables such as lettuce, tomato, cucumber and avocado.

Health Implications of Sweetened Rice Dishes

Apart from soft, modern breads, most other flour products are made with refined flour plus sugar. These include cakes, pastries, cookies, doughnuts and so on. They should be avoided or, at most, reserved for special treats. Rice is less commonly eaten with sugar, but such combinations do exist. In Asia, many desserts and snacks are made from sweetened glutinous rice. These include: 

  • Various types of kueh in Southeast Asia, made either with glutinous rice or rice flour,
  • Mochi and similar products enjoyed in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Northern China. This is a sticky, chewy snack made from pounded glutinous rice or rice flour and it usually comes with a sweet filling such as red bean paste.

Sweet snacks such as these should be reserved for special occasions. Mochi used to be a New Year's treat for the Japanese, but it has become a daily snack.

Some poor people, such as in the Philippines, eat rice cooked with sugar into a watery porridge. This is really unhealthy and it lays the foundation for diabetes, obesity and other diseases of metabolic syndrome. If one is truly poor, a better option would be to eat rice with soy sauce, which is what the poor in China do. In Northeast Thailand, the poor eat rice with chilli or fresh herbs plucked from the fields. These are healthier options than rice with sugar.

The Rise of "Healthy Snacks" and Sugar Content

Meanwhile, growing health consciousness has given rise to various "healthy snacks", such as "energy bars". These are typically made with oats and sweetened with natural sweeteners such as honey, brown rice syrup and dried fruits. They tend to be very sweet. Such snacks may seem healthy. But they are, again, starch combined with sugar.

The quality of ingredients used may be higher, but the basic nature of the food is no different from regular "junk" snacks. Sugar is sugar! And grain is grain. Whether you buy it from a supermarket or a health foods store, you face the same risks if you eat grains combined with sugar.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.

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