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Added sugar can no longer hide

Created date

May 4th, 2017
Sugar cubes.
Sugar cubes.

Sugar in various forms is a naturally occurring part of many foods. After all, sugar is a basic building block of energy. As humans, we certainly have a taste for it. Thus, manufacturers have added extra sugar to many foods to make them more palatable to Americans. “Syrups or any type of extra sugars put into foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared count as added sugars,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., L.D., assistant professor of public health at the University of South Florida and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (see sidebar for examples).

On top of the sugar Mother Nature has already put into foods, average Americans consume 22 teaspoons more each day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). If you want to picture that in your head—it’s almost one-half cup. “Like excess dietary sodium, most added sugar in the American diet comes from processed foods,” Wright says. 

How does it affect the body?

Sugars are carbohydrates, which provide energy, but our bodies do not need the extra energy that comes from added sugar. “In excess, sugar can contribute to nutritional deficiencies by supplying calories without providing vitamins and minerals,” Wright explains. “Extra sugar can also cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity, heart disease, and poor control of diabetes.” 

Too much sugar in your diet is directly linked to elevated cholesterol. Over time, a particular type of fat called triglycerides tends to rise when you consume too much of the sweet stuff. “High triglycerides may increase your risk of stroke,” says Raina Patel, M.D., physician at Eagle’s Trace, an Erickson Living community in Houston, Tex. 

Excess sugar can also aggravate preexisting conditions. “Sugar can lead to inflammation, which can worsen arthritis,” Wright says. 

Even if you avoid added sugars, you can still consume too much naturally occurring sugar—especially if you drink a lot of 100% fruit juice. “Advertisers are adept at highlighting positive attributes of foods, not negative aspects,” Patel says. “The claim of  ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t mean a product isn’t still high in sugar.” 

Your body processes the natural sugar in fruit juice the same way it processes added sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages. “Foods high in fiber may sometimes attenuate the effect of sugar on your blood glucose,” Patel says. “Eating an apple, for example, will not have the same negative effect as drinking a glass of apple juice because apples have fiber.”

Where is it hiding?

You are aware of the obvious places—sweetened beverages, desserts, jellies, and so forth. But pick up a processed food off the shelf and there’s a good chance it will have added sugar in some form. You’ll find it in salad dressings, condiments, cooking sauces, and pasta sauces. Breakfast cereals are notorious sources—even more healthful varieties like some brands of raisin bran. Breads, especially whole-wheat and multi-grain varieties, and boxed preparations or mixes for baked goods, dinners, and casseroles have at least a few grams of added sugar. 

In many instances it seems as if you must know chemistry to analyze ingredients, but determining if a food has added sugar is about to get easier. The scientific community has become more aware of the harms of added sugar, thus the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that food manufacturers differentiate between added and natural sugars, and indicate amount (in grams) of each type on the new nutrition information labels. 

Living the sweet life

“The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate recommend people choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners,” Wright says.

The AHA suggests that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (2 grams) daily and men no more than 9 tsp (36 grams). “To look at it another way, the World Health Organization recommends that added sugar should not exceed 5% of your total daily calories,” Wright says. 

Your brain can become accustomed to less sugar the same way it becomes used to less salt. There are many ways to gradually cut back. “Drink water spruced up with lemon, unsweetened tea, or low-fat milk instead of sweetened beverages,” Wright suggests. “Trade sweet foods for naturally sweet whole fruit, and buy plain foods and sweeten them yourself. For example, sweeten oatmeal with a little honey and berries.”

Generally speaking, sugar substitutes in moderation are safe for healthy people. “The FDA states that sugar substitutes, or high-intensity sweeteners, including acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, advantame, and sucralose, are safe to eat in the amounts that people typically consume,” Wright says. “To get an idea of how much sugar substitutes can be consumed without adverse effects, consider the following example: A 150-pound adult can safely consume 17 cans of diet soda daily or about 97 packets of artificial sweetener containing aspartame. Interestingly, foods may naturally contain the same ‘chemicals’ used as a sugar substitute, and sometimes in greater quantities than the artificial sweetener itself.”

People with diabetes need to be wary of sugar alcohols, however, because they contain calories. Examples are xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, and sorbitol. They are also less sweet than table sugar and less sweet than many zero-calorie sweeteners. You may have to use a lot to get the same sweetening effect as sugar. “In some people, that might potentially affect their blood sugar levels,” Patel says.  “People can also have problems with diarrhea if they eat too much of a food containing a sugar alcohol-based sweetener,” Patel says. “It can be easy to eat too much, especially if sugar alcohols are in desserts or candy.”


Other names for added sugar:

agave syrup or nectar

anhydrous dextrose

brown sugar

cane juice/syrup

confectioner’s sugar

corn syrup

corn syrup solids

dextrose

fructose

glucose

high-fructose corn syrup 

honey

invert sugar

lactose

malt syrup

maltose

maple syrup

molasses

nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)

raw sugar

sucrose

tapioca syrup

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