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.
Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of “Food and Mood,” offers the scoop on how much sugar sneaks into our diets every day:
How much sugar are we consuming these days?
Back at the turn of the last century, people averaged about four teaspoons of added sugar a day. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (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 percent of a person’s dietary intake from a substance that provides nothing but calories and heartache. Put another way — if all you gave up dietwise was added sugars, you’d lose 50 pounds in a year!
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What if a person avoids sweets? Does that take care of the sugar problem?
My guess is you eat a lot more added sugar than you think. It’s obvious that frosted flakes, soft drinks and jelly beans have sugar. But a whole bunch of sugar in American diets comes from processed foods that aren’t even sweet, from canned chili, frozen turkey entrees, pizza, peanut butter and bread to hot dogs, spaghetti sauce, baked beans, canned soups and salad dressings. For example:
- Weight Watchers Smart Ones Teriyaki Chicken and Vegetable Bowl has more than 3 teaspoons.
- Simply Asia Pad Thai noodles has 7 teaspoons.
- Pop Tarts have more than 8 teaspoons.
- Yoplait Fruit Smoothie has more than 10 teaspoons.
- General Mills Oatmeal Crisp cereal has 5 teaspoons and Kellogg’s Smart Start has more than 4 teaspoons (compare that to Cocoa Puffs cereal, which has less than 3 teaspoons).
A sample daily rundown:
For Breakfast: A packet of flavored oatmeal, canned fruit and milk
For Lunch: Beans and franks, sweetened applesauce, chocolate milk and two small cookies
For Dinner: Spaghetti, salad with dressing, cranberry juice and frozen yogurt
The day’s food intake totaled: 47 tsp. (187.2 grams) of sugar or the equivalent of 17 mini- candy bars.
How bad is all the sugar for our health?
Everyone knows that a high-sugar diet causes all kinds of dental problems. But that is just the tip of the sweet-tooth iceberg. According to the American Heart Association, overly sweet diets raise blood triglyceride levels while lowering HDLs, the good cholesterol, thus increasing heart-disease risk. Other studies found that excessive sugar intake increases risk for pancreatic cancer, breast cancer and diabetes. Many researchers also suspect a sugar-laden diet is a culprit in the development and progression of depression and mood swings, memory loss, fatigue, osteoporosis, vision loss and kidney disease. It’s even been linked to pregnancy complications and birth defects. But, without consistent evidence, the jury remains out.
Whether sugar causes weight gain remains controversial. Some studies find no link to sugar intake and body fat, while others do. For example, one study from the University of Southern California found that the more sugar a person ate, the greater the risk for obesity and insulin insensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes. Another study from the University of Alabama found that even limiting sugar to 10 percent of calories isn’t enough to prevent weight gain or diabetes, heart disease and memory loss.
Of course, it goes without saying that every time you shove some highly processed food packed with sugar in your mouth, you miss the opportunity to nourish your body with foods loaded with mood-boosting nutrients, such as colorful vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, soy or low-fat milk products. Surprise, surprise: The more sugar you eat, the greater your chances of being malnourished.
Does it really matter whether we get our carbs from bread or from sugar?
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 caloriewise. 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.
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 only to 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.
So, just reading labels should be all it takes to identify high-sugar foods, right?
I wish it was that easy! By law, a food’s contents must be listed on the label in descending order from most to least. The nearer to the top of the list, the more of an ingredient is in the food. Manufacturers know you are smart and might check this out. They know sugar will be at the top of the list if they add a big dump of one type of sugar into their foods, and they know you are smart enough to figure that out.
So, they take advantage of a label loophole: They add different sugars in smaller amounts, which sinks each sugar a little lower on the list, even though the total added sugar content is still massively high. Even a savvy shopper has no way to tally the total amount of sugars when they are buried throughout the ingredient list. For example, a ready-to-eat cereal might have no sugar in the top three ingredients, but listed farther down the list is sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup solids, honey and maltose. Tricky, huh?!
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.
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.
How can we cut back on sugar, yet still satisfy a sweet tooth?
1. Focus on foods that are the biggest offenders. More than 75 percent 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.
2. De-sweet recipes. When baking, cut the amount of sugar by 1/4 to 1/3. You won’t even notice the difference.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Frantic for a sugar fix? Then focus on the first one to three bites. This is where the endorphin rush kicks in and the taste buds are soothed. After that, you’re just pigging out.