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.
How Much Added Sugar is Okay?
Added sugar is an important concept to understand because it can impact your health. It is recommended by the American Heart Association that men consume no more than 36 grams or 150 calories worth of sugar per day (this also equates to 9 teaspoons) and women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar or 100 calories of sugar per day (this equates to 6 teaspoons.). For reference, as mentioned above, the average adult in American consumes 77 grams of sugar per day. To put that into perspective, one 12-ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories from sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories per day. The World Health Organization goes a step further, recommending less than 5% of calories from added sugar for optimal health.
Overall, a diet high in added sugar may be associated with weight gain, increased triglycerides, and poor nutrition due to a lack of whole foods containing nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Here's an example of the multiple types of sugar in one product:
Sugar and the Brain
Sugar in the form of glucose is brain fuel. For the brain to function well, such as thinking, memory, and learning, glucose is necessary. If there isn't enough glucose for the brain to use, the brain's chemical messengers, neurotransmitters, are not produced efficiently and communication between neurons may break down. Consuming natural sugar from a variety of whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can supply the brain with sufficient glucose (as well as other nutrients) to function optimally.
However, too much sugar can be detrimental. Consumption of sugary foods has been associated with anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep. Excess sugar can put the brain into overdrive, leading to hyperactivity and mood swings.
Sugar also has an addictive effect because it stimulates neurons in the brain’s reward system, known as the limbic system. When activated, the limbic system generates high emotions such as pleasure, which may reinforce further sugar consumption.
Also, within the limbic system there is a tiny structure called the amygdala, which processes emotional information. When the amygdala is over-activated, emotions such as fear and anxiety may arise. Although sugar intake may boost mood in the moment, chronic sugar consumption has been linked with increased risk of mental health problems.
How To Reduce Added Sugar Intake
1. Replace sweetened beverages with filtered tap water, sparkling water, herbal tea, or other unsweetened beverages. Don’t like plain water? Try adding fruit, vegetables, or herbs to your water, like lemon, cucumber, or mint for flavor.
2. Add more hydrating fruit and vegetables to your diet. Instead of adding table sugar or syrups to your meals add fruits for flavor and sweetness instead. For example, add berries to your oatmeal or peaches to your pancakes.
3. Look at the full list of ingredients and check the added sugar on Nutrition Facts Labels. Even foods marketed as healthy may contain a lot of added sugar.
4. Limit consumption of baked goods and sweets by reducing the portion size or replacing processed baked goods with natural alternatives. Snack on unsweetened plant-based yogurt with fruit. Make your own homemade granola. Enjoy chia pudding. Eat an apple with peanut butter (it never gets old!). Have a handful of almonds with an ounce of dark chocolate.
5. Try to avoid sauces, dressings, and condiments with added sugar. Ketchup, salad dressings, and pasta sauce may contain quite a bit of added sugar. Look for brands that are fruit-sweetened or unsweetened. For homemade dressings, check out my 5 Easy Dressing Recipes that take less than 5 minutes to prepare and are packed with nutrition and use sugar minimally.
6. Add spices like ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg for flavor (and nutrition!) without the sugar.
7. Remove or reduce the amount of sugar you add at home in things like coffee or oatmeal.
8. Consider using natural fruit to sweeten baked goods, such as using date paste to replace liquid sweeteners or adding unsweetened dried fruit to muffin recipes.
9. Eat more fiber-rich whole foods. Since fiber can help to balance blood sugar, it may help reduce sugar-related cravings.
10. Drink plenty of water. Sometimes thirst is disguised as a sugar-craving.
11. Get enough sleep. There has been research showing there is a connection between lack of sleep and the desire for high calorie, sweet, and salty foods.
What natural ways to you add a little sweetness to meals?
My name is Tori Simmons and I am a student at Georgia State University in the coordinated program. I was introduced to nutrition in high school after being diagnosed with a chronic illness and have wanted to become a registered dietitian ever since. My goal as a registered dietitian is to share my philosophy that you can eat an abundance of nourishing food while still enjoying it. Aside from nutrition, I love to travel, read, and spend time with my dog.