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What’s the Scoop on Sugar?
Our early ancestors only knew the sweet taste of fruit and honey and not the intense flavor of refined sugar. Since our early ancestors battled bees to obtain honey and fruit, sweetness was not always plentiful – the taste of sweetness was an occasional treat.
According to Kelly Brownell, PhD, a professor at Yale University and director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, “The brain didn’t evolve to handle sugar and the amounts not found in nature. Once it became processed and we started putting sugar in so many foods, the body doesn’t know how to recognize it. When I go back to when I was a boy, the number of fast-food restaurants was much lower and the available size and containers for foods were much smaller. Sugar-sweetened beverages were reserved for special occasions, and they were in smaller bottles. Now they’re huge, and there’s sugar in so many foods now. The sugar landscape has changed in profound ways.”
Sugar, either natural or processed, is a simple carbohydrate that the human body uses for energy. Vegetables, fruits (fructose), and dairy food (lactose) contain sugar naturally. Added sugars are the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing. The top sources of foods with added sugars for most Americans are desserts, sodas, sweetened beverages, breakfast cereals, energy drinks, and sports drinks.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories or 13 percent of their total daily calories. Most added sugar comes from processed and prepared foods, although we sometimes add sugar to food ourselves. One teaspoon of sugar contains 4 grams of carbohydrates or 16 calories. The American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended that Americans cut back on added sugar to help slow the obesity and heart disease epidemics.
- The AHA suggests an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.
- There’s no nutritional need or benefit that comes from eating added sugar. A good rule of thumb is to avoid products that have a lot of added sugar, including skipping foods that list “sugar” as the first or second ingredient. However, the growing use of alternative sweeteners can make it difficult to determine which ingredients count as sugar, because there are multiple sources of sugar with different names.
Currently by law, The Nutrition Facts Label must list the grams of sugar in each product. However, some foods naturally contain sugar, while others get theirs from added sweeteners, and food labeling laws don’t require companies to differentiate how much sugar is added sugar. Spotting added sugar on food labels can take some investigating. The new food label laws will require added sugars to be specified by July 2018. It is important to examine the list of ingredients in each food or drink to find the added sugar. Since the human body doesn’t distinguish between natural or added sugars, paying attention to total sugar is the key.
Some other names for added sugars that you may see on food labels include: agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, High-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup.
A major source of extra calories are soft drinks which can contribute to weight gain and provide no nutritional benefits. Studies indicate that liquid carbohydrates such as sugar-sweetened beverages are less filling than the solid forms causing people to continue to feel hungry after drinking them despite their high caloric value. They are coming under scrutiny for their contributions to the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories/10 teaspoons of sugar. Having one serving each day, without reducing calories to compensate, will result in a 10 pound weight gain over two years.
Here are some ways to reduce your added sugar intake:
- Read food labels and ingredients. Fill your grocery cart with naturally sweet foods such as fruits and vegetables.
- Replace sugar-laden beverages with water, flavored seltzers, and nonfat milk. TIP: Try adding citrus slices or herbs to your water for a flavor boost!
- Mix flavored yogurt with plain unsweetened yogurt.
- Cook at home more often. By preparing your own marinara sauce, muffins, and baked goods you control the ingredients. When baking, often you can reduce the sugar by a quarter or up to half of what is called for without affecting the end product’s taste or integrity.
Eat foods with naturally occurring sugar most of the time and save the added sugar sweets for truly special occasions.
Debra Dobies, MA, RD, LDN, is Beebe Healthcare's Ornish Reversal Program Registered Dietitian and Medical Nutrition Therapist. Beebe Healthcare's Ornish Reversal Program is now open in the Beebe Medical Arts Building at the Rehoboth Beach Health Campus. For more information, go to www.beebehealthcare.org/ornish.