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.)
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.
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.