If you're like many people, you may be eating and drinking more sugar than ever because it's added to so many foods and beverages. It's thought that added sugar may be one of the factors in the rise in obesity and other health problems.
Does that mean you can or should avoid all sugar? Not necessarily. Sugar occurs naturally in some healthy foods. But it's added to other foods and beverages. Desserts and sodas and energy and sports drinks are the top sources of added sugar in most American diets. Foods high in added sugar do little more than contribute extra calories to your diet — and often are low in nutritional value. They can set the stage for potential health problems.
Learn more about added sugar, including the types of added sugar, where it's most commonly found and how you can cut back on added sugar in your diet. When you know more about added sugar, you can be a savvy consumer — and maybe a healthier one, too.
Why added sugar is in so many foods
All sugar, whether natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. Sugar occurs naturally in some unprocessed foods that are staples of a healthy diet — fruits, vegetables, milk and some grains. Sugar in various forms that is added to foods and beverages is known as added sugar. Sugar is added to processed foods because it:
- Boosts flavor
- Gives baked goods texture and color
- Helps preserve foods such as jams and jellies
- Fuels fermentation, which enables bread to rise
- Serves as a bulking agent in baked goods and ice cream
- Balances the acidity of foods containing vinegar and tomatoes
Why added sugar can be a problem
Added sugar is often found in foods that also contain solid fats. Together solid fats and added sugars — called SoFAS — make up a whopping 35 percent of total calories in a typical American diet. When you get so many calories from foods containing SoFAS, it's a sign that you aren't eating healthy foods that contain dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Chances are that you're also getting too many calories, contributing to excess weight and obesity
And too much added sugar can lead to such health problems as:
- Tooth decay. All forms of sugar promote tooth decay by allowing bacteria to grow. The more often and longer you snack on foods and beverages with either natural sugar or added sugar, the more likely you are to develop cavities, especially if you don't practice good oral hygiene.
- Poor nutrition. If you fill up on foods laden with added sugar, you may skimp on nutritious foods, which means you could miss out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Regular soda plays an especially big role. It's easy to fill up on sweetened soft drinks and skip low-fat milk and even water — giving you lots of extra sugar and calories and no nutritional value.
- Weight gain. There's usually no single cause for being overweight or obese. But added sugar likely contributes to the problem. Sugar adds calories to food and beverages making them more calorie-dense. When you eat foods that are sugar sweetened, it is easier to consume more calories than if the foods are unsweetened.
- Increased triglycerides. Eating an excessive amount of added sugar can increase triglyceride levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
Recommendations regarding added sugar
In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cutting back on calories from SoFAS. For most people, that means no more than about 5 to 15 percent of total daily calories should come from SoFAS.
The American Heart Association has specific guidelines for added sugar — no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories a day for most men. That's about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 for men.
Most Americans get more than 22 teaspoons — or 355 calories — of added sugar a day, which far exceeds USDA guidelines and American Heart Association recommendations.
How to reduce added sugar in your diet
If you want to reduce the added sugar in your diet, follow these tips:
- Cut out sugary, nondiet sodas.
- Limit candy, gum and other sweets that are high in added sugar.
- Choose breakfast cereals carefully. Although healthy breakfast cereals can contain added sugar to make them more appealing to children, skip the non-nutritious, sugary and frosted cereals.
- Have fresh fruit for dessert instead of cakes, cookies, pies and other sweets.
- If you choose canned fruit, make sure it's packed in water or juice, not syrup.
- Have your children drink more milk or water and less fruit juice and fruit drinks — and yourself, too. Even though 100 percent fruit juice has a high concentration of natural sugar, drinking too much juice can add unwanted calories.
- Eat fewer added-sugar processed foods, such as sweetened grains like honey-nut waffles and some microwaveable meals.
- Go easy on the condiments — sugar is added to salad dressings and ketchup.
- Opt for reduced-sugar varieties of syrups, jams, jellies and preserves.
- Be aware that dairy-based desserts and processed milk products, such as ice cream and sweetened yogurt, can contain lots of added sugar.
- Avoid sugar-sweetened tea and blended coffee drinks with flavored syrup, sugar and sweet toppings.
- Snack on vegetables, fruit, low-fat cheese, whole-grain crackers, and low-fat, low-calorie yogurt instead of candy, pastries and cookies.
Recognizing added sugar
If you're not sure which foods and beverages contain added sugar, don't despair. First, know that among the biggest culprits behind excessive amounts of added sugar are soft drinks and sugary fruit drinks. Ways to spot added sugar:
- Check the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So if you see sugar listed among the first few ingredients, the product might be high in added sugar. Know that sugar goes by many different names, though — it may not be easy to spot added sugar even in the ingredient list. And natural sugars generally aren't included in the ingredient list.
- Read the label. The Nutrition Facts label is required to list an item's total amount of sugar per serving. However, it doesn't distinguish between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. Some, but not all, packages also state whether an item is sugar-free or contains no added sugar. But be aware that some sugar-free products may contain sugar substitutes, and some of these substitutes can cause stomach or digestive upset.
Different names for added sugar
Sugar goes by many different names, depending on its source and how it was made. This can make it confusing to identify added sugar, even when you read ingredient lists and food labels. One easy way: Check for ingredients ending in "ose" — that's the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose. There's no nutritional advantage for honey, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate, or other type of sugar over white sugar.
Here's a look at common types of sugar and added sugar:
- Brown sugar. Granulated white sugar with added molasses for flavor and color, commonly used in baking.
- Cane juice and cane syrup. Sugar from processed sugar cane. Further processing produces brown or white solid cane sugar.
- Confectioners' sugar. Granulated white sugar that has been ground into a fine powder, sometimes with a small amount of cornstarch. Commonly used in icings and whipped toppings.
- Corn sweeteners and corn syrup. Corn sugars and corn syrups made from corn and processed cornstarch.
- Dextrose. Another name for glucose.
- Fructose. Sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and honey.
- Fruit juice concentrate. A form of sugar made when water is removed from whole juice to make it more concentrated.
- Glucose. A simple sugar that provides your body's main source of energy. Also called blood sugar because it circulates in your blood.
- Granulated white sugar. This is table sugar, or pure crystallized sucrose, made by processing raw sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets. It's commonly used in baking or to sweeten tea or coffee.
- High fructose corn syrup. The most common sweetener in processed foods and beverages, this is a combination of fructose and glucose made by processing corn syrup.
- Honey. A mix of glucose, fructose and sucrose created from nectar made by bees.
- Invert sugar. Used as a food additive to preserve freshness and prevent shrinkage, this is a mix of fructose and glucose made by processing sucrose.
- Lactose. Sugar that occurs naturally in milk.
- Maltose. Starch and malt broken down into simple sugars and used commonly in beer, bread and baby food.
- Malt syrup. A grain syrup made from evaporated corn mash and sprouted barley.
- Molasses. The thick, dark syrup that's left after sugar beets or sugar cane is processed for table sugar.
- Sucrose. The chemical name for granulated white sugar (table sugar).
- Syrup. Sugar comes in many forms of syrup, a thick, sweet liquid that can be made from the processing of sugar or from sugar cane, grains such as corn or rice, maple sap, and other sources.
- White sugar. Same as granulated white sugar (table sugar).
The final analysis
By limiting the amount of added sugar in your diet, you can cut calories without compromising on nutrition. In fact, cutting back on foods with added sugar and solid fats may make it easier to get the nutrients you need without exceeding your calorie goal. So the next time you're tempted to reach for a sugary drink, grab a glass of water instead.
Last Updated: 2011-04-05