What do a Tall Mocha Frappuccino, a packet of pancake syrup, an 8 ounce tub of fruited yogurt, or a half cup of chocolate fudge brownie ice cream have in common? They all meet or exceed your daily added sugar quota for the entire day. You may be consuming much more sugar than you realize, according to Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Food & Mood, who gave us the scoop on how much sugar sneaks into our diets every day and from some surprising places.
1. How much sugar are we consuming these days?
Back at the turn of the last century, people averaged about 4 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Today, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), we drench ourselves in 30 or more teaspoons of added sugar every day (that’s not counting the natural sugars in milk, fruit, or other unprocessed foods). That is roughly 100 pounds of sugar every year for every man, woman, and child. That’s more sugar than has ever been eaten by any creature in the entire history of the planet.
Think about it - 30 teaspoons of sugar. That’s 497 calories a day (the calorie equivalent of a hamburger and fries!), more than 25% of a person’s dietary intake from a substance that provides nothing but calories and heartache. Put another way - if all you gave up diet-wise was added sugars, you’d lose 50 pounds in a year!
2. Let’s talk about natural sugars versus added sugar....Isn’t a sugar, a sugar? Does it matter if it’s natural or added?
You’ve probably heard that all carbohydrates - whether they come from a candy bar, brown rice, or an apple - have 4 calories per gram. That’s only true in theory. Pure carbs from any source are all the same calorie-wise. However, in the real world, carbs are diluted in whole grains, fruits, or starchy vegetables because of the water and fiber. Processed sugary foods often don’t have that fiber and water...they are just concentrated calories. Ounce for ounce pure sugar has about four times more calories than an ounce of cooked rice or an apple slice, because the sugar molecules in real foods are diluted by all the juice and crunch.
To make matters worse, most added sugars are typically in foods that also are dripping with fat, such as cookies, muffins, cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy bars, granola bars, and the like. The calories in fat add up more than twice as fast as those in just pure sugar. The combination of sugar and fat make foods sweet and creamy, which is the ‘kiss of death’ with sugar making fat taste good so we consume even more calories.
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear right now. We are talking ADDED sugar, not NATURAL sugar. You only need to focus on added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars in real foods, like fructose in fresh fruit or lactose in plain milk or yogurt, is not an issue. The tiny amount of sugar in an apple or a glass of milk comes packaged with a ton of nutrients.
3. When reading a food label, how can you tell a natural sugar from an added one?
You can’t. At least not from the nutrition panel on a food label, since companies are required to only provide the total sugar content, not where the sugar came from. So, you must be a sleuth and go to the next best thing - the ingredient list. Even then, sugar comes disguised under a slew of aliases, including:
brown sugar fructose invert sugar raw sugar
corn sweetener fruit juice concentrates maltose rice syrup
corn syrup glucose malt syrup sucrose
crystalline fructose high-fructose corn syrup molasses sugar
dextrose honey maltodextrin syrup
4. What about all those “natural” sweeteners?
Count them as part of your added sugar quota. Teaspoon for teaspoon, barley malt and brown rice syrup have more calories than refined white sugar. Turbinado is less processed, but it still is added sugar, while molasses is slightly more nutritious, but these days it is made from a mix of molasses and refined sugar. Lo Han comes from a Chinese fruit, but has a bitter, metallic aftertaste and has not been approved by the FDA. Agave nectar or syrup is an extract from a Mexican plant. It is mostly fructose and is sweeter than honey, so you can use less and it might have a lower glycemic index (GI) than other sugars. But it also has little research to prove it is any safer or more nutritious than other sweeteners.
5. What can you do?
Here’s a rule of thumb when reading labels on any processed food that comes in a carton, bag, box, pouch, or bottle: Skip any food
that contains sugar (or any of its aliases) in the top three ingredients or with several mentions of sugar throughout the list.
On the other hand, don’t ...
- be fooled by new reduced-sugar foods, such as Frosted Flakes, which have just as many calories and carbs, as their full-sugar counterparts (the sugar has been replaced with more refined flour!).
- worry about natural sugars in fruit, vegetables, plain yogurt, or milk, since these sugars come packaged with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, and/or protein.
- switch to “natural” sugars, such as honey, brown sugar, raw sugar, or turbinado. The dusting of nutrients in these sugars makes nary a dent in your dietary needs. (It takes 15 cups of honey - containing 15,450 calories - to supply the calcium in one cup - 90 calories - of nonfat milk.)
- be fooled by healthy-sounding foods, like fruited yogurt, bottled fruit smoothies, granola bars, super-fruit drinks, or by the words “natural” or “organic” on the label.
- fall victim to foods labeled as “made with real fruit.” You might see a strawberry or banana on the label, but none in the bag. Whether it’s a breakfast bar or a candy bar, most of these products have little or none of the nutrition, fiber, and phytochemicals of real fruit. Manufacturers put a drop of juice into the product, then flavor it with sugar, oil, and colorings, yet call it fruit.
- Same goes for a product that says on the label that it is “made with real fruit juice.” In most cases, added sugar outweighs fruit.
6. Sometimes our cravings just take over. How can we cut back on sugar, yet still satisfy a sweet tooth?
A. Focus on foods that are the biggest offenders. More than 75% of America’s sugar comes from soda and fruit drinks, candy, sweet baked goods like cookies and muffins, and ice cream. Cut these out of the diet, and most Americans will eliminate up to 78,000 calories and drop up to 20 pounds in a year.
B. De-sweet recipes. When baking, cut the amount of sugar by 1/4 to 1/3. You won’t even notice the difference.
C. Control temptation. Don’t bring trigger foods into the house. If you can’t say ‘no’ to oatmeal cookies, then leave them at the store. If you are forced to have sugary foods at home, divvy them into individual serving-size baggies and place them out of sight.
D. Stick to the good stuff. Why waste your sugar allowance on foods that aren’t even sweet, like canned chili and a frozen Salisbury steak entree? Skip the junk and focus on small amounts of the best desserts, which are most satisfying, such as a small amount of high-quality chocolate.
E. Frantic for a sugar fix? Then focus on the first one to three bites. This is where the endorphin rush kicks in and the tastebuds are soothed. After that, you’re just pigging out.