By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
It is for good reason that sugar has been dubbed public enemy number one in the obesity epidemic plaguing our country. Here in the U.S., the largest single source of daily calories is from added sugars. In fact, on average, the typical American consumes around 3 pounds of sugar every week! That’s pretty alarming, especially since science has repeatedly shown that a diet high in sugar can have a devastating toll on overall health. And, all too often, it’s not the sugar you know you are consuming that is the problem. You may be surprised to find where some of this “sneaky” sugar is lurking.
You don’t need a degree in nutrition to know that sweetened beverages, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, and ice creams are packed with sugar. What you might not realize, however, is that processed sugar hides in everything from tomato sauce and salad dressing to crackers and bread. With sugar hiding in all kinds of unexpected places, it can be hard to avoid. As a nutrition expert, I am not so concerned with sugar in moderation. It is just 15 calories per teaspoon and a well-rounded diet should include some sugar. But by consciously eliminating some of the hidden (and totally unnecessary) sugars in your diet, you can avoid consuming many nutritionally empty calories, improve your health and better control your weight.
Confusing Sugar Facts
First, let’s have a lesson in the different types of sugars. Glucose is the sugar found in our blood, and a certain amount is vital for survival. Dextrose is the name given to sugar produced from corn. Sucrose is simple table sugar. Lactose is the natural sugar in wholesome milk. Fructose is the natural sugar in fruit.
1. When fructose is consumed in fruit, whether it is fresh, frozen, or canned in 100% juice, the calories from sugar are offset by the benefits of nutrients and fiber.
2. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) made from cornstarch is often added to foods that are not naturally rich in nutrients simply adding more empty calories to foods that already have limited nutritional value. For this reason, HFCS has received a reputation as the villain of all sugars.
3. Reading the nutrition facts panel on food to see if it contains added sugar, is not much help because the line for “sugars” combines both added and natural sugars.
4. To detect added sugars you must be aware of some of the names commonly used for added sugar found on the ingredient list on all processed food’s labels. Just a few of these follow: • Brown sugar • Corn sweetener • Corn syrup • Fruit juice concentrates • High-fructose corn syrup • Honey • Invert sugar • Malt sugar • Molasses • Raw sugar • Sugar • Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose) • Syrup
5. Unfortunately, since the natural occurring sugars and added sugars are lumped together on the nutrition facts panel, the consumer is unable to compare how much total sugar comes from each.
6. If the product does not contain fruit or milk products in the ingredients, all of the sugars in the food are from added sugars.
7. If the product is 100% fruit or a plain milk product (such as plain yogurt or white milk), the total sugar listed on the label refers to naturally occurring sugars.
Alternatives to Sugar
If you are looking for a sweet solution for your sweet tooth, look for sugar alternatives made from the stevia plant, an herb that has zero calories and won’t cause a jump in your blood sugar. These products are great for coffee and tea or sprinkled over fruit, cereal, or yogurt. Other popular all natural sugar alternatives are agave nectar and honey, which have health benefits not found in table sugar. However, they are not calorie or sugar free, so use sparingly.
A Spoon Full of Sugar…
But before you become a sugar tyrant, take a deep breath and look at the big picture. Often sugar is a part of the sweetest celebrations; birthdays, weddings, holidays, and Grandma’s baked treats made with love and sugar. Not to mention, a little added sugar can help kids get nutrients required for growth and development. For instance, flavored milk contains nine essential nutrients and anywhere from 2-4 teaspoons of added sugar per cup. But remember, about half of the “total sugar” in flavored milk is lactose, which occurs naturally in milk. By comparison, regular soft drinks contain as much or more “total sugar” but with none of the nutrients found in milk.
The secret to getting sugar consumption under control is to start by removing the unnecessary “sneaky” sugar from the everyday diet, so we can feel less guilty about savoring the sweet stuff during life’s special occasions.
Simple Tips to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet:
• Remove sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey and molasses from the table – out of sight, out of mind!
• Cut back on the amount of sugar added to things you eat or drink regularly like cereal, pancakes, coffee or tea.
• Try cutting the usual amount of sugar you add by half and wean down from there, or consider using an artificial sweetener.
• Buy fresh fruits or fruits canned in water or natural juice. Avoid fruit canned in syrup, especially heavy syrup. 8 Instead of adding sugar to cereal or oatmeal, add fresh fruit (try bananas, cherries or strawberries) or dried fruit (raisins, cranberries or apricots).
• When baking cookies, brownies or cakes, cut the sugar called for in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often you won’t notice the difference.
• Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon.
• Enhance foods with spices instead of sugar; try ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg.
• Substitute unsweetened applesauce for sugar in recipes (use equal amounts).
Source: The American Heart Association