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Sugar Shock: How To Avoid Added — and Unwanted — Sugar in Your Diet

August 30, 2023

Sugar — like Florida alligators — is everywhere you’d think it would be and most places you wouldn’t.

From pickles to crackers, sandwich bread, soup stock and smoked salmon, added sugar is the Whac-A-Mole of the nutrition world. And that’s not counting obvious culprits like sodas, cereals and desserts. Complicating the problem are sugar’s myriad aliases: agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, dri-mol, flo-malt … we could go on.

Sugar and Your Body

Sugar occurs naturally in dairy, fruits and vegetables. But when you consume sugar from a fruit or veggie, you’re also getting fiber, which slows down your absorption. That’s why dietitians recommend whole fruits over juices, which can cause a blood-sugar spike. Fiber helps keep blood-sugar levels stable.

Why does this matter? When blood sugar spikes, your body must produce more insulin to use that sugar or store it for later. If you constantly consume sugar, your body no longer knows how much insulin to produce, so it over produces, which makes it harder for cells to use that glucose. Eventually you get to a condition where your body wears out and doesn’t produce enough or perhaps any insulin: diabetes.

Added Sugar Is Added Sugar

On nutritional labels, total sugar refers both to naturally occurring and added sugars. But even so-called natural sugars like honey, agave or brown sugar are still added sugars if they were indeed added to a product during processing. And while the sugar industry was busy pinning our national obesity crisis on fats, more and more sugar was being added to, well, virtually everything.

Every five years, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — their most recent release suggests added sugar should account for less than 10 percent of calorie intake. In a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that’s 50 grams — 4 tablespoons — or a quarter cup. The American Heart Association goes further, recommending 36 grams, or 9 teaspoons, for men and 25 grams, 6 teaspoons, for women.

That can lead to some pretty complicated math, so in 2022 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to break out added sugar on nutritional labels, to make it easier for consumers to follow the guidelines.


The Soda Trap

Take a look at the sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of America’s favorite cola: a whopping 65 grams, all added. This is the soda trap: While few folks would sit down and eat more than a third of a cup of granulated sugar — and many might even find the idea kind of nasty — it’s deceptively easy to consume in liquid form without even thinking about it. If you’re not drinking mostly water, you might be taking in far more sugar — and fat, and who knows what else — than you think. Also, we drink much more quickly than we eat, and more often. Added up, it’s easy to see why your soda with lunch or on your commute might be an overlooked danger zone.

What You Can Do About It

Hidden sugar isn’t really a new topic — remember the old Nickelodeon PSA alerting kids to the problem? “Glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose … all words that rhyme with GROSS!” Checking ingredient lists for -ose endings is a good way to start investigating how much sugar is hidden in your food.

Want to do this with no math whatsoever? Use the magical “percent daily value” rule: Anything listed as 20 percent or more of a daily value is considered high, be it sugar, fat or salt. Anything at 5 percent daily value or less is low. So any food with a daily value percent of 5 or less for sugars is a low-sugar food. (This also makes it super-easy to compare products.) Foods with zero percent added sugar are the best possible choice.

One easy way to make changes: Start by checking the labels of foods or drinks you buy all the time. If you can change or cut back on a weekly staple or things you use daily, that’s going to give you much more benefit than something you eat occasionally, like desserts. One common culprit: jarred pasta sauce. Look for sauces without added sugar, or it’s easy to make your own. Yogurt is another food with surprisingly high added sugar — buy plain and add your own fruit. Even if you add a dab of honey — an added sugar — at least you are controlling how much. Buy unsweetened products when you can, and give yourself time to get used to them.

The tough truth is, if you eat a lot of processed foods, it’s going to be hard to minimize sugars because they’re everywhere. If that’s the case, just go for the least amount of sugar you can — awareness is the first step toward change. If you’re already working to keep sugar in check, think about following the AHA guidelines.

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