Get Smart About Sugar

We know it’s bad, but we love it anyway. Experts constantly warn we need to cut down our sugar consumption, but added sugars seem to be hiding everywhere — making it difficult to make smarter dietary choices.

We all know that too much sugar contributes to weight gain and obesity — which in turn raises our risk for many illnesses including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

However, empty calories aren’t the only issue: sugar can also affect the healthy functioning of the pancreas. Current thinking is that foods high in added sugars cause blood sugar levels to spike. When this happens too often and over a long period of time, this “working overtime” eventually leads to glucose intolerance.

Another problem may lie in how we metabolize certain kinds of sugars — particularly those high in fructose (like table sugar, which is 50 per cent fructose). In fact, the body treats fructose the same way it treats alcohol: most of the metabolic burden gets passed to the liver. As with alcohol, the liver can handle sugars in moderation, but too much leads to toxicity. Liver toxicity is serious as it leads to chronic inflammation in the body, high blood pressure, an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and an upset to our blood’s natural balance of lipids. (Endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig explains this process in his lecture, Sugar: The Bitter Truth.)

Sugary foods and drinks can even affect our body in the short term. For example, studies have shown that our immune system slows down immediately after consuming sugary beverages. Sugars can also slow our body’s response to food by disrupting the hormonal signals that tell our brains we’re getting full. Enjoy a sugary drink before dinner and you’ll wind up eating more.

The science behind sugar can be quite complex, but the results are fairly straightforward. When you look at the healthiest diets in the world — like the Mediterranean diet and traditional Asian cuisine — they may differ in their choices but they all limit or avoid sugars.

How much is too much?

Notice a trend here? Remember that when it comes to diet, it’s overall habits that matter. The problem isn’t enjoying sugar in moderation — it’s that the average person consumes far too much of it.

Unlike salt, experts haven’t set an official recommended daily intake for sugar — though they do advise we should get 50 per cent or more of our energy from carbohydrates (mainly from fruits, vegetables and whole grains). We’re simply told to limit or avoid added sugars.

However, The American Heart Association (AHA) has stepped up to offer more specific advice to help avoid reduce the health risks. It advises women should limit their consumption to 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day (that’s about 100 calories or 24 g). Men should aim for less than 9 teaspoons a day (about 150 calories or 36 g). The association doesn’t offer guidelines for children or teens.

How do these numbers translate to real life? Consider this: one 12-ounce can of soda has about eight teaspoons of added sugar and roughly 130 calories. One can is more than enough sugar for an entire day. With all the added sugars in our diet, it’s not hard to see why the average person consumes 21-22 teaspoons (84-88 g) of added sugar each day.

Where is the sugar hiding?

We would certainly think twice about consuming that much sugar if we spooned it out of a jar. We expect to find high amounts of sugar in foods like cookies and candy, but they only account for part of our sugar consumption. Some sources of added sugars aren’t so easy to spot.

So where does all the sugar come from? Some of it is naturally occurring — like the fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. However, most of our intake comes from “added sugars” — the sweeteners we add to processed and prepared foods. Don’t let the name fool you: it isn’t just white or brown sugar. The category includes ingredients like honey, maple syrup, beet sugar and molasses as well as not so familiar names like galactose, mannitol and dextrin.

Unfortunately, food labels don’t distinguish between naturally occurring versus added sugars, and there’s no per cent daily value to use as a guide. It’s up to consumers to be informed about what they’re eating.

So where is the sugar hiding, and how can you make smarter choices? Here are some places to exercise caution:

Beverages. The number one source of added sugar in the average diet isn’t dessert: it’s what we drink. Sodas, sports drinks, fruit drinks, fruit juice and other sweetened beverages account for 30 per cent of our sugar consumption. For instance, adding a teaspoon of sugar to your tea or coffee three times a day equals one half to one third of your daily allowance. Even healthy-sounding beverages like a 473 mL bottle of sweetened green tea contains 36 g of sugar.

Canned and packaged fruit. In addition to naturally occurring sugars, many products like canned or packaged fruit, sorbets and apple sauce are spiked with added sweeteners. For instance, some apple sauces contain as much as 25 g of total sugar per half cup serving. A serving of fruit packaged in “light syrup” can have a total of 16-17 g.

Sauces and salad dressings. While you wouldn’t spoon sugar on your salad or French fries, a tablespoon of your favourite dressing or ketchup could add a teaspoon of it to your meal. While you might not be surprised that plum sauce has 6 g of sugar and barbeque sauces range 14-16 g, even soya sauce and mayonnaise have 2 g of sugar. A half a cup of store-bought tomato sauce can contain up to 12 g.

Low fat products. To make up for the loss of flavour from fat, manufacturers have upped the amounts of sugar in many prepared foods. One common culprit: yoghurt, which we’re eating more of thanks to its probiotic benefits. Even varieties without fruit can contain 12-15 g per half cup serving.

Bread. Your morning toast contains sugar before you even add the jam. Added sugars increase the shelf life of baked goods and add to the flavour and colour. A single slice of bread can contain a teaspoon’s worth of sugar. (In comparison, many yeast-free and sour dough breads don’t have any.)

Speaking of jam, think before you spread: between the fruit and added sugars, you could be looking at 9-12 g per tablespoon.

Baked goods and cereals. Think some baked goods are better than others? Believe it or not, a large muffin from your local coffee shop can range 26-40 g of sugar while a plain donut only has about 7 g. Commercially prepared baked goods are notoriously high in sugar, even at the grocery store.

And watch out for cereals — “healthy” varieties can have as much as 17 g of sugar per serving, and flavoured instant oatmeal packets can have up to 14 g compared to plain oatmeal (which has 0).

Snack foods. Reaching for a cereal bar or granola bar? Expect about 16-19 g of sugar. Even low-fat, low calorie choices like flavoured rice cakes get a high percentage of calories from sugar.

Other strategies to dodge the sugar

Looking for ways to cut down? Here are some strategies to help:

Compare labels. Don’t fall for claims like “no sugar added” or “25 per cent less sugar” — check the nutritional labels and compare. Look for fewer grams of sugar per serving, and the lower down the list added sugars appear, the better.

Remember your sugar math: 1 level teaspoon of sugar = 4 g and about 15 calories. (Beware: some sweeteners like honey have 20 calories for the same volume.)

Brush up on your sugar vocabulary. There are dozens of names for added sugars and sugar alcohols, so it doesn’t hurt to consult a few online lists before you hit the stores.

Look for products with less sugar. For instance, choose whole grain yeast-free or sour dough breads instead of sugar-sweetened varieties. Eat fresh fruit instead of canned, or opt for unsweetened applesauce.

Substitute. For some people, artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame or neotame are an option to cut calories and keep blood sugar in check. Some people prefer naturally-sourced stevia or xylitol, which don’t impact blood sugar levels.

Make it yourself. When we prepare our own foods, we can control the ingredients. Experts note that you can reduce the sugar by 25 per cent in most baking without a noticeable difference, and 100 per cent fruit juice or unsweetened apple sauce can often be used to sub for honey or syrup

Use other flavourings. Instead of sugar, try adding cinnamon, cloves, ginger, coriander, vanilla or almond extract to add flavour to food. Tea extracts and fruit juices (like lemon or lime) can perk up water.

The bottom line: in order to help reduce our risk of health issues, experts recommend we cut down our sugar consumption. Until there is more research and public policy changes, it’s up to consumers to do their homework when it comes to sugar.