By Morgan A. McLaughlin McFarland
When you think of sugar in your diet, your mind probably jumps right to that slice of birthday cake you had last week or the candy that gets passed around your office. And you're right; those are definitely sources of sugar. But sugar is sneaky, especially in today's world of processed foods, and it finds its way into many more foods than you might expect. Even the bread on your sandwich at lunch, the energy bar you snack on in the afternoon and the chicken strips you defrost for a quick weeknight dinner may all be culprits.
The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than about 37.5 grams, or nine teaspoons, of added sugars per day, and women should stay below 25 grams, or six teaspoons. But what are "added" sugars, and how can you spot them in your diet? Is it time to swear off all sugar?
A Sweet Staple
Don't worry, sugar isn't all bad. In fact, it's a crucial part of your daily diet. The American dietary guidelines recommend that carbohydrates, which are ultimately broken down into simple sugars for energy, make up 45 to 65 percent of people's daily calories. That simple sugar we use for energy is called glucose, and it is a key source of energy for all living things – even plants make their own glucose through photosynthesis.
Because sugars are created by plants themselves, many unprocessed, whole foods will contain those natural sugars. Fruits, vegetables and honey contain fructose, the sweetest and simplest form of naturally occurring sugar. Sugar beets and sugar cane produce a more complex sugar – a disaccharide – called sucrose. Even milk and other dairy products contain lactose, another naturally occurring sugar.
Not only are these naturally occurring sugars familiar to our bodies, but they are typically accompanied by a host of other nutrients like dietary fiber, calcium, proteins, essential fats, vitamins and more. Eating naturally occurring sugars along with these other valuable nutrients – such as when you eat an apple – helps to control blood sugar levels by slowing sugar absorption. In short, natural sugars are usually part of a well-rounded nutritional package.
Meagan Moyer, registered dietitian with Emory Healthcare, says, "Because natural sugars are found in foods like fruits and milk, the focus should not be on these [naturally occurring] sugars." Instead, she says, excess sugar consumption is typically the result of added sugars.
Sneaky Added Sugars
In today's world of processed food, food manufacturers use chemical means to preserve and sweeten their products. Even food that you may not think of as "processed" probably has been, such as a loaf of bread, a jar of pasta sauce or a bottle of salad dressing. In these cases and many others, food manufacturing companies try to improve taste by adding refined sugar, corn syrups, rice syrups, honey, fruit juice, agave nectar, cane juice, molasses and more to their products. The two most common added sugars are refined sugar, also called white sugar or table sugar, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Refined sugar comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beets. The sucrose is extracted from the plant, evaporated into crystals, and then further processed through several bleaching and purifying processes. Molasses, a byproduct of the refining process, may be added back to the refined sugar to make brown sugar. "Raw" or Turbinado sugar, which is a less processed form of cane sugar, is often presented as a healthier alternative to refined white sugar; in truth, this sugar has an identical caloric value and only minimally increased micronutrients compared to refined sugar.
High fructose corn syrup, a somewhat controversial sugar made from corn syrup, is processed to convert some of its glucose to fructose to produce a sweeter flavor. HFCS is found not just in dessert products and sodas, but also in a wide assortment of processed or packaged foods like bread, salad dressing and sauces, yogurt, and canned and jarred
A Sugary State of Health
Added sugars are so pervasive that The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found Americans each consume an average of 20 teaspoons a day, or 100 grams, which is two to three times more than the maximum recommendation of six to nine teaspoons. Most of this sugar is consumed in the form of sodas, sports drinks and juices, and the rest sneaks in through processed foods.
Unlike naturally occurring sugars, added sugars bring little to the table but calories and a quick spike in blood sugar. "Instead of providing nutrients, added sugars just add empty calories. Eat too much sugar, and it will be stored as fat," Moyer warns.
All this added sugar is contributing to a significant rise in obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. While some researchers place the blame specifically on high fructose corn syrup, the reality is that Americans eat far more of every type of added sugar than is healthy.
Cutting back on these added sugars can be a first step in improving overall dietary health.
Subtract Those Additions
Reducing the amount of sugar in your diet can begin with a few simple steps. Learning to read food labels is key, because, as Atlanta-based dietitian Rachel Brandeis points out, "Sugar is promoted in many different ways. Be label-savvy." Moyer explains, "Sugars always end in '-ose,' such as dextrose, fructose, maltose and sucrose. If they are listed on an ingredients label, sugar has been added to the food, so it's a good idea to stay away from it."
Moyer offers several additional suggestions for reducing added sugar in your diet, including the following:
- Eat whole fruit (not fruit juice) to satisfy a craving for sweets.
- Top pancakes with sliced fruit like bananas or strawberries instead of maple syrup.
- Drink water instead of sodas or other sweetened beverages.
- Cut the amount of sugar in half when cooking or mixing your morning coffee or tea.
And as always, cooking your own meals with whole, fresh, unprocessed foods is the best way to avoid added sugars – that way, extra sugars can't get in your meal if you don't put them there.
Rachel Brandeis, MS, RD – www.rachelrd.com
Harvard School of Public Health – www.hsph.harvard.edu
Meagan Moyer, MPH, RD, LD, Emory Bariatric Center – www.emoryhealthcare.org
Maziar Rezvani, MD, FAAAAI, Avicenna Allergy & Asthma – www.avicennaallergy.com
Terri White, Cann Dentistry – www.canndentistry.com