There’s a war raging against sugar in the American diet and for good reason: The sweet compound that our culture loves has been tied to the overweight and obesity epidemic, the increase in type 2 diabetes and countless other diseases and health problems.
While the awareness of acceptable levels of sugar consumption has made headway in urging consumers to limit sugar in their diets, confusion still abounds. And with many food manufacturers and marketers turning to sugar pseudonyms, or code names, to mask the added sugar in their products, even health-conscious consumers may not know where sugar is hiding.
We called upon Baptist Health registered dietitians Marie Almon and Natalie Castro to help draw the real enemies from their camouflaged bunkers.
“Sugar consumption can be difficult to explain,” said Ms. Almon of Baptist Health Primary Care . “There are foods that naturally contain sugar, and then there are foods that contain added sugar.”
Examples of natural sugars include:
• Lactose – found in milk and milk products.
• Fructose – found in fruits.
• Maltose – found in grain.
Added Sugar, Added Confusion
“What confuses a lot of people, though, is many of the items we use to make foods and beverages sweeter also occur naturally,” she said. “Sucrose, or table sugar, comes naturally from sugar cane or sugar beets. If you eat sugar cane, the sucrose you would be consuming wouldn’t be considered an added sugar because it’s part of that plant, but when you take that same sucrose and add it to coffee, it’s considered added sugar. Many of our health problems today can be traced back to our overconsumption of that added sugar.”
Similarly, manufactured sweeteners, like high-fructose corn syrup, are considered added sugar.
Ms. Almon warns that these products have the same effect on our bodies. They are converted by enzymes and bacteria into glucose, which we need to live. However, when there’s too much glucose in our bodies, our blood sugar increases, higher amounts of insulin must be produced to get rid of it and any excess is stored as fat in our bodies. For diabetics, that excess glucose can be life-threatening.
Artificial Sweeteners, Real Debate
Some diabetics rely on artificial sweeteners to reduce their sugar intake, but the American Dietetic Association  warns they must also limit their overall carbohydrate intake, too, to prevent glucose from adding up in their blood.
Ms. Castro, Baptist Health’s chief wellness dietitian, advises people to opt for natural sugar sources and avoid added sugar.
“If you want to reduce sugar from your diet, eliminate processed or ‘convenient’ foods,” she said. “You can’t get rid of sugar altogether, because fruits and vegetables that are also rich in the nutrients that our bodies need, contain naturally occurring sugar. But you can eliminate added sugar by paying attention to nutrition labels and the list of ingredients on products.”
Nutrition Facts Labels
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering updating required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods to include the amount of added sugars contained in each serving. This revision, the FDA says, will minimize the confusion that consumers face when trying to limit their sugar intake.
While that debate plays out in Washington, dietitians like Ms. Castro and Ms. Almon advise people to pay attention to the current Nutrition Facts labels on foods and to the list of ingredients contained in them.
“Currently the total sugar grams listing on the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t give you the whole picture,” Ms. Castro said. “You need to read the ingredients to find out what is being added to your food. Reading the ingredients will tell you if you are eating naturally occurring sugars from fruits, milk and grains, added sugars, or a combination.”
A 6-inch banana, for example, has about 12 grams of sugar in it, according to data by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) . That amount is similar to the amount of sugar in a 6 oz. container of low-fat fruit yogurt. The difference, Ms. Castro says, is that the sugar in the banana is natural sugar, plus there are nutrients such as potassium, vitamins and fiber. The yogurt has natural sugar from the milk in it, but it may have added sugar, too. In this example, the banana is a better option. If you wanted to eat a healthier version of fruit yogurt, Ms. Castro would suggest eating plain yogurt and adding fruit like bananas or strawberries to it. That way, you benefit from the nutritional properties of the yogurt and the fruit, without the added sugar.
Here are some common names for natural ingredients that sweeten foods and act as sugar in the body:
• Cane juice
• Turbinado sugar
Additionally, the following common ingredients have been processed to artificially sweeten foods:
• Sorbitol, Mannitol, Xylitol, Mannitol (sugar alcohols commonly found in sugar-free foods)
In addition to choosing foods that have a small amount of sugar, measured in grams, and that contain sugar in its most natural form – like fruits and vegetables – Ms. Almon says pay attention to where sugar, or sugar code names, are listed in the ingredients. She explains that a good rule of thumb to follow is that these names be no higher than the fifth item in the list of ingredients, since the amount of an ingredient in a food corresponds to its position on the list. “By knowing what these ingredients are and understanding that too much sugar in our diets is contributing to a number of health risks, we can begin to make better decisions when it comes to our food choices,” she said.
“While names and labels can be confusing, it’s important to be clear about one thing: The more natural your food is, the less you’ll have to decipher code names and search for hidden enemies,” Ms. Castro said.
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