Avoiding sugar may seem like a simple task. Eliminating chocolate, ice cream, candy, and other desserts would get rid of most of your dietary sugar, right? You might think so, but the sugar count has risen in many of our everyday foods. In fact, two-thirds of our sugar comes from manufactured foods - granola bars, fruited yogurt, and even pizza. Decreasing dietary sugar is very hard to do when you don't know what you are looking for. With that conundrum in mind, here's some background information for all the Sherlocks out there who want to detect this sneaky sweet.
Not so Sweet
Dietary sugar has been accused of causing lots of problems. The most obvious are dental problems and obesity; but sugar is also suspected of increased risk for heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. Yet is sugar guilty as charged?
To uncover the truth, we must look at the way our bodies process food. Most of what we eat is converted into sugar because our bodies only burn calories when food is in sugar form. Insulin is necessary to move this sugar into "storage" parts of the body such as muscle tissue and the liver, where the sugar is converted to glycogen, a fuel for the body.
However, the body only has storage for 2500 calories of glycogen. When these areas become full, insulin transports sugar into other areas, known as fat storage. Because your body is already converting most of the food you eat into sugar, adding lots of additional sugar can cause an overload and an increase in your body's fat stores. Additionally, diets high in calories and increased fat stores contribute to Type II diabetes.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that the average adult not exceed 10 teaspoons of sugar per day, but the typical American eats 30 or more teaspoons daily. This means that almost everyone in the country is eating around 120 pounds of sugar per year - 70 pounds more than the recommended amount. The typical consumer isn't the only person responsible for this, though. Food processing companies know that many Americans have become more health conscious, so they use tactics to hide the amount of sugar. Unless you know what you're looking for, it's hard to know exactly what you're eating.
You may think that finding the sugar content in a food is pretty easy - after all, ingredients in a food must be listed from most to least on the package. Finding where sugar falls on the list should be pretty simple, but companies get around this rule by using several different types of sugar in small amounts. This way, sugar doesn't appear to be one of the main ingredients.
These food con artists use many disguises to hide sugar content. The following are just some of the aliases for sugar: corn sweetener, maltose, rice syrup, invert sugar, corn syrup, glucose, malt syrup, sucrose, crystalline fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, molasses, brown and raw sugar, dextrose, honey, and maltodextrin syrup. Anything that ends in "ose" can generally be considered a sugar.
Now that you know your sugars, you are in good shape. By purchasing very few foods that have any of sugar's aliases in the top three ingredients, or several of them throughout the list, you are making wise nutrition decisions.
Natural vs. Refined: What's the difference?
Many healthy foods naturally include sugar, for example, milk contains lactose. Some sugars, including most refined sugars, have a high glycemic index, which means that the sugar is quickly introduced into the bloodstream - the cause of a "sugar high" (and afterward, a "sugar crash"). Although some naturally occurring sugars, like fructose and sucrose, have high glycemic indexes, substituting foods in which they occur naturally has other benefits - sugars in these foods are less likely to have come into contact with chemicals and are usually packaged with other nutrients, like calcium and vitamins.
Here are some of the "good guys" for replacing added sugar:
- Stevia: Naturally 300 to 1,000 times sweeter than refined sugar, this herb alternative is the only option that doesn't affect blood sugar levels. It can be found in powder or liquid form.
- Maple sugar flakes: These can be used instead of both white and brown sugar in baking. The flakes are made by drying pure maple syrup and crushing it.
- Agave nectar: Made from the Mexican agave plant, it is usually found as a liquid sugar. This option does contain calories, but because it is sweeter than refined sugar, you shouldn't have to add much to please your sweet tooth. It also has a low glycemic index.
Right now, you might be thinking, "Okay, now I can't eat anything without feeling guilty," but you don't have to remove sugars completely from your life. By being aware of these sneaky sugars, you can start to pull yourself away from the average 100 pounds of sugar eaten you probably eat annually.