Here’s a grim truth for sweets-lovers: Nobody needs added sugar. On top of that, the substance may even be playing a nefarious role in your health.
Registered dietitian Lisa Fischer paints a clear portrait of the stuff. Next time that brownie stares you down, at least you’ll be armed with the facts.
Added vs. Naturally occurring
Limiting total sugar is important, but there is a difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar.
Added sugar is almost always refined (stripped of all its vitamins and minerals) and is most associated with the detrimental effects of sugar. Food companies use 56 names (see box) for added sugar on food labels. Dextrose, brown sugar, dehydrated cane juice, and high fructose corn syrup are just a few.
To sweeten items without adding calories, food companies use artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. They’re not naturally occurring, and more research is showing their ill effects on our health, including raising insulin levels. It’s best to avoid these altogether.
Naturally occurring sugar is found in foods like unsweetened dairy (in the form of lactose) and fruit (in the form of fructose). These tend not to spike blood sugar as rapidly. If you want to sweeten your meal, consider adding fruit first, or use limited amounts of minimally processed sweeteners that still contain vitamins and minerals, such as blackstrap molasses, raw local honey, pure barley malt syrup, or 100 percent pure maple syrup.
By the Numbers
Some truths can be hard to face: we don’t need any added sugar in our diets. Zero. Zilch. None.
But the average American consumes 152 pounds, more or less, of sugar a year. That’s about 22 teaspoons (88 grams) every day per person. Kids take in about 34 teaspoons every day (136 grams).
The American Heart Association’s guidelines state:
- Women should limit their added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons (24 grams) a day—that equates to roughly -cup of cranberry sauce, or a large bowl of Frosted Flakes.
- Men should keep to 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for the day: two Pop-Tarts, say, or a medium piece of that pumpkin pie.
Chances are more likely than not that there’s sugar hiding somewhere in your next meal.
There are countless sources of added sugar potentially in your path, some more surprising than others. Bread, processed meats, pasta and other sauces (think teriyaki), milk alternatives (soy, almond, rice, etc.), salad dressing, yogurt, granola bars, cereal, packaged fruit, coleslaw, dried fruit, ketchup, bran muffins: all of these can, and often do, contain added sugar. And don’t forget that you could be drinking it, too. That latte or bottle of sweetened tea alone could be enough to push you over your daily limit.
Too much sugar has consequences. If you down too much over time, you might face tooth decay, weight gain, fatigue, shakiness, headaches, irritability, cravings for more sweets, increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes if left unchecked), and disrupted digestive health. Harvard researchers calculated that people who ate 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar doubled their risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who ate 10 percent or less of added sugar.
What’s more, it’s absolutely possible to dull your appreciation of sugar over time, if you indulge too frequently. Taste buds can be overstimulated and lose their ability to taste sweetness. (Sidebar: this can also happen with salt!) Many folks who overdo it on the sugar can no longer appreciate the taste of fresh fruit, and they avoid anything tart or bitter (tastes which usually signal healthy foods) because they’re used to sugar in, and on, what they eat. Fortunately, this diminished appreciation can be reversed.
If you need help getting a handle on your sugar, please contact the University of Rochester’s Healthy Living Center at the Center for Community Health to arrange to meet with a dietitian.
Lisa Fischer, MS, RDN, CDN, was a registered dietitian in Pediatric GI/Nutrition at Golisano Children’s Hospital at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital at the time of this publication.