Updated: Sep 23
Sugar is often the top response when consumers are asked which ingredients they avoid for health reasons. That said, adult Americans consume, on average, over 77 grams of sugar a day, which is more than three times the recommended intake (for women).
When I used to sample dark chocolate snacks with my former chocolate company, nicobella organics, I would always emphasize that the chocolates were high in fiber and protein due to the dark chocolate and nuts. But shoppers would always ask (while anxiously grabbing the bag of chocolate and flipping it over to the see the Nutrition Facts label), "yes, but how much sugar does it have?"
While the chocolate didn't have much sugar compared to most snacks on the market, I didn't blame them for having concern. After all, studies have repeatedly demonstrated the harmful effects of high sugar consumption. Excess sugar can lead to insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, and obesity. Too much sugar has also been show to negatively affect cognition, mood, skin health, sleep, and satiety (i.e. making you feel like you're hungry and like you need more when you probably don't).
Not All Sugar is is Detrimental to Health
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate naturally found in many whole foods. Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugar. Starch-based foods, like beans and potatoes, are broken down into simple sugars in our body. Whole grains are a carbohydrate-rich foods that also break down into sugar that enters our bloodstream. Does this mean we should avoid these nutrient-dense foods? Negative. These foods also come with an abundant amount of other essential nutrients for optimal health like vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Fruits, vegetables, starchy veggies, and whole grains also contain fiber, another type of carbohydrate that is one of the foundations for health. Fiber moves through the body in whole form, sweeping out toxins and feeding healthy bacteria in our gut along the way. It also holds onto sugar in the gut, delaying the release of the naturally occurring sugar from that food into the bloodstream. This process leads to balanced blood sugar. And balanced blood sugar helps to control food cravings, mood, sleep, energy levels, and so much more.
When Sugar Becomes a Concern
Sugar becomes a concern when the foods you consume contain too much added sugar, which is sugar added to food during processing to enhance flavor, texture, shelf life, or other properties. It's usually a mix of a variety of simple sugars with two of the most common being table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup. Unlike whole foods that naturally contain sugar in addition to an abundance of many other nutrients, added sugar is just that—sugar. Take beet sugar as an example. The natural sugar is extracted from the beets leaving all of the other nutrients, including the fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients behind.
Added sugar absorbs more quickly into the bloodstream than natural sugar because it lacks the fiber, protein, and fat that may be found in the whole food product. These nutrients help to slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream. For example, if you drink a soda it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing a spike in blood glucose levels. In comparison, if you eat an apple, which contains natural sugar in the form of fructose, the fiber in it decreases absorption time of the sugar and blood glucose rises slowly and steadily. Eating the apple with peanut butter (or other nut or seed butter) is even better because the plant protein and healthy fats in the nut or seed butter help to delay sugar releasing into the bloodstream even further. (Bonus that apples are a great source of soluble fiber, the type of fiber that helps to manage blood sugar!)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the amount of added sugar a food or beverage contains be listed on the Nutrition Facts Label. You may have noticed that the nutrition label differentiates between total sugar and added sugar. Total sugar will include the naturally occurring sugars in food plus any sugar added on top of the naturally occurring sugar. Added sugar includes the sugars added to foods during processing, cooking, or before eating. An example of this would be the addition of syrup to pancakes or sugar added to dressings in the making of the product.
Other names for sugar on ingredient lists include:
sugars that end in “-ose,” like fructose and dextrose
syrups, like high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, malt syrup, agave syrup, or maple syrup
cane juice or fruit juice concentrate (because it is condensed and not in the form of a whole fruit, it is considered added sugar)
Other sweeteners like palm sugar, cane sugar, raw sugar, and more.