These days it's not uncommon to taste a food and find it much sweeter than you expected. It's also not unusual to pick up a food product and find the food label shows an astonishingly high sugar content, even in foods you wouldn't expect to be that sweet.
According to the USDA, Americans eat 156 pounds of added sugar each year. That means we each eat more than 31 five pound bags of sugar - every year. Yes, many of us are guilty of spooning on too much sugar, but only 29 of those 156 pounds come from our sugar bowls. The other 127 pounds can be found in foods and beverages that contain added sugars, some that may surprise you.
Sugar is one of three types of carbohydrate. Those carbohydrate types are sugar, fiber and starch. Often you'll find both naturally occurring sugars and added sugar, or caloric sweeteners, in what you eat and drink and, as you may have guessed, caloric sweeteners contain calories.
Naturally occurring sugars include fructose, which is found in fruit and some vegetables, like sweet potatoes, corn, peas, and winter squashes. It's also found in honey; lactose, which is found in milk; and maltose, which is found in beer.
Added sugars are not only found in obvious places, like cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream, candy, and sugar sweetened cereals, but also in many beverages we regularly drink, like sodas, juice drinks, energy drinks and those fancy coffee drinks. The really scary part comes when you start to realize how many added sugars there are in foods that you wouldn't think contained sugar, foods like crackers, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, salad dressings, peanut butter, bread, ketchup, protein and energy bars. You'll even find added sugars in many canned soups. It's also often added to low fat and fat free food because when manufacturers lower the fat in processed foods, they often increase the sweetness of the food, either through added sugars or artificial sweeteners.
In terms of added sugars, there are many different kinds of sweeteners. This causes a lot of confusion for most people. Added sugars include any sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing by the food manufacturer or during preparation, like when you sprinkle extra sugar on your cereal or stir a little honey into your tea. The added sugars or caloric sweeteners you're eating may be natural, like white sugar, brown sugar and honey. They may also be manufactured sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup or fruit juice concentrates.
The Nutrition Facts label found on most foods you purchase tells how many grams of sugar are in a serving of a food or beverage, but it does not tell us if the sugar is added sugar or naturally occurring sugar. To figure that out, you need to look at the ingredient list. Added sugars to look for include beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates or purees, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sorghum, syrup, maple syrup, turbinado sugar and just plain old sugar. You should also be on the lookout for sugar molecules ending in "-ose" - things like dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose.
The ingredient list will not tell you how much added sugar is in the product, but if the added sugars are listed toward the beginning of the ingredient list, you can be sure the item contains a lot because each ingredient in the product is listed based on the amount of it in the product, in order from most to least. So if sugar is listed first, there is more sugar than any other ingredient in that product.
Artificial sweeteners are becoming more accessible and are commonly used in a lot of processed and prepared foods and beverages, so there are a wide variety of artificial and alternative sweeteners on the market today. Just as any substance can cause health problems when consumed in huge quantities, artificial sweeteners are no different. The Food and Drug Administration established Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels for some artificial sweeteners, indicating "the amount of substance that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to a person on the basis of all the known facts at the time of the evaluation". For instance, to exceed the ADI level, you would have to drink about 15 diet soft drinks sweetened with aspartame every single day. Some animal lab studies have also shown that excessive consumption of certain artificial sweeteners, like saccharin and aspartame, is associated with the development of cancer. Yet, it is virtually impossible for humans to consume an equivalent amount of artificial sweetener from food currently available in our markets. You would have to drink hundreds, even thousands, of diet sodas a day to ingest the same dosages used in those animal studies.
One sweetener you may have heard some controversy about lately is high fructose corn syrup. It is converted into two sugars, glucose and fructose. These sugars are found naturally in many unprocessed foods that are part of a healthy American diet. However, the quantity of high fructose corn syrup in Americans' diets has skyrocketed over the past few decades, increasing over 1000 percent between 1970 and 1990. It now represents over 40% of caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages in the United States. This increase is associated with our increased consumption of processed foods. The low cost and relative simplicity of adding high fructose corn syrup to processed foods means more manufacturers use it because it's a cheap way to make food taste appealing. Manufacturers add it to many products, even products that previously had few or no sweeteners. Sadly, many people, especially those eating a lot of processed food, have come to expect higher levels of sweetness in all their food. They often develop a taste for foods that are calorie-dense, due to the excess sugar, without being high in nutritional value.
Some manufacturers are now choosing to use sucrose, better known as table sugar, in their food instead of high fructose corn syrup. This is a reversal of a previous trend, when high fructose corn syrup was being substituted for sucrose. This switch doesn't make a food more nutrient-dense, and in some cases, the cost of the food may rise because it costs more to use sucrose instead of high fructose corn syrup.
There are other issues to consider before using artificial sweeteners. Many may not be easily substituted in recipes, especially in baked goods. Sugar and other natural sweeteners have certain properties, in addition to a sweet taste, that artificial sweeteners can't always match. And many artificial sweeteners are more expensive than natural sweeteners.
It's important to note that the amount of artificial sweetener consumed by Americans annually has doubled over the past 40 years. However, artificial sweeteners can help people enjoy what they eat while reducing their caloric and carbohydrate intake. This can be a concern for people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
So why should you pay attention to the amount of added sugar you're eating? First off, eating lots of added sugars can stimulate our taste buds, making us want to eat more and more of the sweet food or beverage. This overeating can lead to weight gain and ultimately to obesity, which is getting out of hand in this country. However, sugar itself does not cause weight gain. Eating too much does.
You also increase your risk of developing cavities when eating or drinking foods and beverages high in added sugars. This is especially true if the food sticks to your teeth for a period of time. Even something you think of as healthy can cause a problem for your teeth, like raisins or the newer gummy vitamins many people are trying. Dental cavities can lead to chewing problems. Chewing problems may lead to a diet restricted to soft foods, limiting the amount of healthier foods you can eat.
You should consider your heart health too. A study recently published in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people who ate the highest amounts of added sugars had the highest blood triglyceride levels and the lowest HDL (good) cholesterol. The study also showed that eating lots of added sugars more than tripled the odds of having low HDL cholesterol levels. Furthermore, the study found that people who ate the least amount of added sugars had the lowest triglyceride and highest HDL cholesterol levels.
Choosing foods and beverages with fewer added sugars is especially wise because these foods and beverages usually have less fat, calories, and carbohydrates. Plus, they are likely to be higher in fiber. Stop for a moment to consider how many nutrients you get for the amount of food you eat. Many foods lower in added sugars also have higher amounts of minerals and vitamins, which play an important role in keeping you healthy. When you choose foods and beverages high in added sugars, you often get extra calories and very few other nutrients.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans clearly recommends we reduce the amount of added sugar we consume. The easiest way to do that is to read labels when choosing foods, avoiding foods with added sugars or selecting products there the added sugars are listed nearer the end of the ingredient list. You don't have to totally forego the sweet foods you love, but if you can't find a less sugary version you'd be wise to, at the very least, decrease your serving size of the sugary food.
In the end, it is up to each of us to decide how artificial sweeteners fit into our lifestyle. For those of us who choose to use artificial sweeteners, it is still a good idea to cut back to reduce our craving for sweetness, especially if our doctor has told us we need to watch our carbohydrate intake and one of the best strategies for eliminating excess sugars from our diet is to eat fewer processed foods and to cook more using minimally processed ingredients.
Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County.