All research indicates that excess sugar in the diet is unhealthy, increasing one’s risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. For instance, a recent study disclosed that people who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugars had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who kept their intake of sugar at or below 8%. Results of this type have prompted the American Heart Association to recommend that sugar intake be kept in this latter range, amounting to a daily intake in women of to more than 6 teaspoons (24 gms) daily, and in men, 9 teaspoons (36 gms).
But at this time, achieving these targets is challenging. For example a frozen stir-fry dinner can contain the same amount of sugar as 16 gummi bears (5 teaspoons). Or even whole-wheat bread can have almost a teaspoon of sugar per slice. As a matter of fact, food companies add sugar to almost three-quarters of all packaged products, including nutritious-sounding items such as instant oatmeal and peanut butter, or even into apparently “unsweetened” items such as tomato sauce and crackers.
In general, the sugars found in dairy products and fruits such as sweet potatoes and beets come in small doses and are packaged with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals and they don’t affect one’s blood sugar greatly, and, when consumed in moderation, they are not of great concern.
The main challenge, however, is to try to avoid those unnecessary added sugars. Usually nutrition facts on labels designate added and naturally occurring sugars together under “total sugars.” But, unfortunately, the amount of undesirable added sugar is usually not clearly indicated. In the effort to ease this burden, the FDA has proposed that added sugars have their own line on food label, similar to the way total fat and saturated fat are listed separately. This should also include the percent contributing to the total daily limit. But until food labels change, we can make some suggestions: 1) Know the code words for sugar. Ingredients on the list that end in “ose”, i.e., fructose, maltose, and sucrose, are added sugars that should be minimized or avoided. Even healthier-sounding sugars such as brown rice syrup or honey aren’t any better than other types. 2) Scan the entire ingredients list. Since ingredients are usually listed in order of weight, the higher up a substance is, the more sugar it is likely to contain. But many manufacturers use more than one type of sugar in a product, allowing them to list them separately, leading to the false impression that a food possesses less sugar than it actually contains. 3) Compare nutrition labels. Find the “plain” version of foods such as yogurt or oatmeal and compare the nutrition facts label against the same brand’s sweetened versions. The difference in the amount of sugar between the two products is almost always added sugar. So, instead of purchasing the “sweetened” version, opt for the plain version and, for sweetness, add fresh fruit.
For more information and a general lowdown on the best and worst natural sugars, the reader should consult the Consumer Reports website: ConsumerReports.org/naturalsugar2015.