Are You Eating More Sugar Than You Think?
There’s nothing sweet about added sugar. Learn where it can lurk
The problem is, it’s not always easy to tell how much added sugar we’re eating. Some seemingly healthy foods may be heavy with the sweet stuff, such as yogurt, cereals and granola bars.
Even sandwich bread can have added sugar. “We get the bulk of our added sugar from grain products,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, owner of betterthandieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It.”
Nut butters often have added sugar too. Taub-Dix says these should only contain the one ingredient you expect: peanuts or almonds. Sauces and condiments can be another sweet sinkhole in the diet.
In fact, one of the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations for revising nutrition labels on food packaging is to distinguish between added sugars and natural ones, such as the lactose in milk and the fructose in whole fruit.
Until then, you’ll have to do some detective work to figure out how much of the sugar in your diet comes from added sources and whether it’s more than is healthy.
Know your limits
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends women get no more than six teaspoons of added sugar each day, men get no more than nine teaspoons and kids, just three to four. For perspective, a 12-ounce can of soda has about 10 teaspoons of added sugar.
However, since nutrition labels list sugar content in grams, not teaspoons, it’s necessary to do a little math to figure out how many teaspoons of sugar there are in a given food. It’s a simple conversion: one teaspoon equals four grams. This means the daily sugar limit for women is 24 grams, for men the limit is 36 grams and for kids it’s 12 to 16 grams.
Related: Can Soda Shorten Your Life?
Added vs. natural sugars
Many healthy foods contain natural sugars. For example, a cup of skim milk has 12 grams (three teaspoons) of sugar in the form of lactose. An apple has 10 to 12 grams of sugar (as fructose).
Unlike the sugar in, say, a handful of jellybeans, the sugar in these foods come with benefits: essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. And any fat, protein or fiber in them help to slow sugar absorption. That’s why the limits on sugar focus on added ones.
While it’s easy to differentiate between a fresh fruit and candy, it gets more complicated when you look at combo foods, such as fruit-flavored yogurt. “In some, the sugar comes from milk’s lactose and the naturally sweet fruit, while others are literally candy,” Taub-Dix says — a big reason why that “added sugars” line on labels would be so helpful.
The many names for sugar
What makes it even stickier is the fact that added sugar in ingredients lists often isn’t called sugar. Look for terms that end in “ose,” such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltose, as well as anything listed as a syrup: corn syrup, malt syrup, rice syrup.
What’s more, natural-sounding sweeteners are no better than refined sugar. Honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, agave, maple syrup, raw sugar, coconut sugar — at the end of the day, they’re all added sugar, says Taub-Dix. “Natural doesn’t mean better,” she adds.
The AHA recommends limiting kids’ intake of fruit juice, even 100 percent-juice varieties, because of its sugar content. Even though the sugar in fruit juice is natural, because it lacks the fiber of whole fruit it hits the bloodstream quickly.
Bottom line: Read everything. Just a couple of grams here and there quickly add up.
A few sweet tricks to not feel deprived
There’s no need to totally give up a favorite food if you discover it contains more sugar than you thought. Taub-Dix is a big fan of mixing a sugar-added cereal with one that isn’t sweetened. She uses the same logic with yogurt by stirring together a fruit-flavored variety with plain.
Beyond that, learn to save sugar-packed treats for special occasions or at least create an occasion around enjoying them. “If candy is something that you love, make it more special, not something you eat without thinking about it,” suggests Taub-Dix.