Sugar's sweet – but are you eating too much of it?
You've likely heard health warnings about the possible negative effects of too much salt in your diet. But what about that other white granulated food additive? Should you be concerned about how much sugar you consume, too? Some recent studies suggest the answer is yes.
From 1970 to 2005, the availability of sugar and sweeteners in the American diet jumped by 19 percent. On average, Americans consume 30 teaspoons (480 calories) of sugar and sweeteners daily. Teens eat even more, averaging 34.3 teaspoons a day. These averages are well above intake levels suggested by the Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization, and American Heart Association. The AHA, for example, recommends a daily sugar intake of no more than about 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories, for women and about 9 teaspoons, or 150 calories, for men.
What's wrong with sugar? After all, it's natural--produced from sugarcane or sugar beet. But when it's refined and added to foods, it packs calories but no nutrients. Your body doesn't need refined sugar.
Tale of two sugars
Sugars, like starches and fiber, are carbohydrates, which provide energy to the body. The average American diet includes two types of sugars: naturally occurring and added. Naturally occurring sugars can be found in vegetables, whole fruit (as fructose), and milk products (as lactose). Unlike added sugars, which provide no nutrients, foods containing naturally occurring sugars also contain vitamins and minerals.
Added sugars come in many forms. Sugar added to foods during preparation or processing can include granulated sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, molasses, malt sugar, and fruit juice concentrates. These added sugars are the ones that have health experts most concerned.
You may already know eating too many sweet treats can rot your teeth. That's because sugar makes it easier for bacteria to grow in your mouth. But too much added sugar may also affect your weight and contribute to obesity, which can increase your risk for serious health conditions, such as heart disease.
In the U.S., some health experts have noted a correlation between the rise in obesity and the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. A number of studies suggest a link between consuming too many sweetened drinks and a higher risk for being overweight or obese. However, many experts believe more research is needed to confirm this connection.
Other research also suggests that loads of sugar, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, may affect blood pressure and cholesterol levels and put you more at risk for heart disease. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that out of approximately 6,100 adults, those who ate more added sugar had higher triglyceride levels and a lower amount of HDL, or "good," cholesterol in their blood.
Check the label
Most added sugar we consume comes from regular soft drinks. By drinking only one can of regular soda, you'll take in 8 teaspoons of sugar, or about 130 calories.
With research showing how too much added sugar may affect your health, what can you do to limit your intake? First, read food labels. Much of the sugar you eat isn't the kind you add for flavor. Simply glancing at the nutrition panel on a food product can give you a sense of how much sugar it contains.
In the list of ingredients, you'll find sugars under various names. Look for words ending in "ose," like maltose or sucrose. Other names include molasses, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, cane syrup, cane juice, honey or fruit juice concentrates. The higher up an ingredient is in the list, the more of it by weight is contained in that food item. Limit foods with added sugars listed in the top three ingredients.
Also keep in mind that the line listing the amount of sugar in grams - known as "total sugars" - includes both added and naturally occurring sugars. So if a food item contains some milk or fruit, the number of sugar grams listed will represent both types of sugar. That can make it hard to know just how much added sugar is in a certain food, but it still gives you an idea of which foods to limit or avoid.
Want to cut back?
Try the ideas below to further slash sugar intake:
- Hide your favorite sweeteners—white sugar, brown sugar, honey—in a cabinet. You're less likely to use them if they aren't readily at hand.
- Limit the amount of sugar you add to coffee, tea, cereal or other regularly consumed foods. Instead, try fresh or dried fruit on your cereal, or a low-calorie or calorie-free sweetener in your favorite beverage. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved aspartame, sucralose and saccharin as safe to use.
- Choose water, sugar-free drinks or low-calorie beverages over sugar-loaded ones. One-hundred percent fruit juice is better than fruit drinks but is high in calories, so limit consumption or consider diluting it with water.
- When baking, consider adding one-third to one-half less sugar in a recipe. Or try substituting unsweetened applesauce, used in equal amounts to the sugar needed.
- Instead of cake or ice cream for dessert, serve fresh fruit.