Added sugar in our food – a hidden health risk?

By Karen Harrison, Sports Nutritionist, Exercise Scientist and Podiatrist

How much sugar should we consume on a daily basis?  Is there a healthy amount?  Is too much sugar bad for my health?

It has been said that the average American is consuming approximately 20 teaspoons of “added” sugar per day.  That is the equivalent of about 80 g every day (1 teaspoon = 4 g).  Is that too much?  YES!

To better understanding the sugar story, let’s firstly make the distinction between the sugar that is naturally found in dairy foods, fruit and vegetables, and the “added” or extra sugar in our diet.  Natural sugars, consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet are perfectly acceptable.  Sugars such as sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup that are “added” during the preparation or processing of our foods are a different matter.

For those of you interested in the biochemistry and the way these extra sugars are dealt with by the body try watching Sugar: The Bitter Truth by Pediatric Endocrinologist Dr. Peter Lustig  It can get a little complex at times, but it is an insightful 90 minutes and well worth the effort.

Of course, the problem of excess sugar consumption isn’t isolated to America; it is a world-wide phenomenon.  As a result, WHO (World Health Organization) addressed the associated health issues in their document – Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children:

There is an increasing concern that free sugars – particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages – increases overall energy intake and may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of [chronic] diseases.”

WHO actually recommends only 5% of daily calories come from added sugars (about 6 teaspoons per day).  The American Heart Association has similar, recommendations, suggesting that the maximum amount of added sugars consumed in a day should not exceed 9 teaspoons (35g) for men and 6 teaspoons (25 g) for women (or 10% of daily calories).

To put those figures in perspective, consider that one can of coke (12fl oz. or 355 ml) contains 140 calories and 39 g of sugar (about 10 teaspoons).  That’s your daily allowance of extra sugar in just one small can!  Now, consider a hefty 20 oz. (591 ml) Mountain Dew that contains a whopping 74 g serving of sugar, combined with a generous dose of caffeine at 91 mg (a regular cup of coffee contains about 95 mg caffeine).   You can see how easy it is to exceed the recommended intake of added sugars.

While this finding regarding sodas might not surprise you, often the added sugars in our diet are “hidden”.  For example, yogurt is usually considered a healthy food, however some of the low-fat varieties or those with “fruit”, being promoted as a good option are often loaded with extra sugar.  Were you aware that when fat is removed from a food it is often replaced with added sugars to improve the palatability of the food?

So how do we recognize foods that contain these added sugars in order to reduce them from our diet and instead choose foods that are more nutritious?  The answer is to become a more educated consumer.   Simply, eat more REAL food.  Reduce the processed or packaged food that finds its way into your grocery cart each week and read the nutrition labels.

A few suggestions to cut down on sugar consumption:

  1. Reduce the amount of processed or packaged foods in your grocery cart. That is, shop the perimeter of the store where the fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and dairy foods are found.
  2. READ Nutrition Labels. Take notice of the serving size and number of calories to see how much you are actually consuming. Another way to reduce sugars is to avoid products that list “sugar” as the first ingredient on the nutrition label (reflecting the predominance of that ingredient by weight).  And the fewer the ingredients usually the better.
  3. Avoid fruit juices and soda (e.g. Coca Cola, Mountain Dew etc.) and other sweetened drinks such as Iced Teas. In addition, avoid Energy Drinks that along with the sugars also contain high amounts of caffeine.
  4. Be aware that many low-fat/low fiber foods contain additional sugars to improve palatability.
  5. And remember that sauces, dressings and condiments often contain high amounts of sugar – use them sparingly.

In general, eat a diet rich in whole foods, with high quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates and steer clear of the “added” sugars.   For more advice consult your local dietitian or nutritionist.

Buyer Beware. Here is how added sugar can be listed on the ingredient label:

Brown sugar
Corn sweetener
Corn syrup
High-fructose corn syrup
Invert sugar
Malt syrup
Raw sugar
Turbinado sugar

WHO: Sugars Guidelines for adults and children
Looking to Reduce Your Family’s Intake of Added Sugars? Here’s How; Jessica Cording (RD)
Sugars; American Heart Association
The Bitter Truth – – Dr. Peter Lustig.
That Sugar Film – – available on Amazon Prime.

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