People are finally getting the message – sugar isn’t healthy. In fact, a recent study showed 60% of Americans are avoiding soft drinks due to their high sugar content. Interestingly, just as many Americans claim they’re staying away from diet soft drinks due to concerns about artificial sweeteners. It’s encouraging that people are weaning themselves off of the taste of sweet, or at least trying. Still, soft drinks aren’t the only source of added sugar.
The “sweet stuff” we’re all familiar with hides in many products you buy at the supermarket – condiments, yogurt, pasta sauce and bottled tea are all chock full of sugar. Did you know some salad dressings have up to 35 grams of sugar? That’s enough to turn any salad into a health liability!
To make matters confusing sugar assumes different names on product labels – dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, maltose, and malt syrup, to name a few. Almost anything that ends in -ose is a sugar until proven otherwise. Even determining the sugar content of a product is confusing, but new labeling regulations could make it easier to see how much sugar you’re consuming relative to what you should be.
Daily Value for Sugar
The new proposed label changes will include a percent daily value for sugar on nutritional labels. Rather than simply telling you the total number of sugar grams in one serving of a product, the percent daily value would tell you what percentage of the daily recommended intake of sugar that serving represents. For example, when you see a serving has 25 grams of sugar and the daily value is 50%, you know by eating one serving of that food you’ve consumed 50% of the maximum recommended amount of sugar for the day. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the guideline the FDA uses for maximum recommended amount of sugar per day is still high – 50 grams max per day. That corresponds to about 12 teaspoons of granular, white sugar. On the other hand, when you consider most single-serving candy bars have 25+ grams of sugar, it’s easy to see how people over-consume sugar without being conscious of it. One candy bar equals half a day’s allotment. Research shows the average American consumes almost double their recommended sugar allotment – around 22 teaspoons of sugar a day.
Distinguishing Between Natural and Added Sugars
Another change to the sugar part of the nutrition label is under consideration. This change will clarify whether the sugar in a product is added sugar or sugar naturally present in the product. For example, if you look at a yogurt container and see 10 grams of sugar, with current labeling you don’t know how much is added sugar and how much is lactose, natural milk sugar. The proposed change would list the quantity of natural and added sugars rather than lumping the two together. As of now, the only way to know whether a product like yogurt contains added sugar is to read the ingredient list since the total grams of sugar listed doesn’t distinguish between the two.
Should you worry about natural sugars? It’s true that even natural sugars have an effect on your blood sugar, but the natural sugars in, for example, a pack of frozen fruit, is loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all desirable ingredients. Fiber helps moderate the blood sugar and insulin response. You shouldn’t go overboard even with natural sugars, but the natural sugar in a package of frozen blueberries offers benefits you won’t get from added sugar in a highly refined food product.
One problem with the natural versus added sugar approach to food labeling is it may lead some people to think it’s okay to eat a food with 20 grams of sugar as long as it’s natural sugar. The goal is to get people to cut back on all forms of sugar. If you’re diabetic, pre-diabetic or trying to lose weight, scaling back on even natural forms of sugar offers benefits. Plus, food manufacturers may try to “whitewash” the nutritional label by sweetening a product with a lot of natural sugars.
Be Sugar Wise
Be informed – read labels. Don’t assume because something sounds healthy, like a container of yogurt, that it’s low in sugar. Flavored yogurts are often surprisingly high in sugar. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yogurt and the active cultures it offers. Choose Greek yogurt instead. Greek yogurt is available with as little as 5 grams of total sugar and it’s higher in protein.
The best approach is to eat as many whole foods as possible and limit foods with added sugar. In time, your body will adjust to the taste of food in its natural state and you’ll no longer crave sugar to the same degree. Eating more protein and fiber also helps with sugar cravings by helping to keep your blood sugar level stable.
Is it possible to be addicted to sugar? Some research shows sugar activates a portion of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which “lights up” when people take part in other addictive behaviors like smoking and gambling. If you eat foods high in sugar on a consistent basis, your body learns to expect the short-term energy rush that sugar offers. Plus, sugar tastes good when it’s going down. Unfortunately, that energy rush is short-lived and as your blood sugar falls a few hours later, you feel exhausted. So, what do you do? Eat more sugar. It turns into a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
If you’re having trouble breaking the sugar habit, gradually cut back on the amount of sugar in your diet so your body and your taste buds barely notice. As you do, increase your fiber and protein intake so you feel fuller and have fewer cravings. Cultivate a taste for whole foods without added sugar by experimenting with recipes. Something as simple as roasting vegetables, allowing the natural sugars to caramelize can make them more appealing.
The Bottom Line
Is the new nutritional labeling positive? Anything that makes you more aware of what you’re putting into your body is a positive – just be sure you’re reading what’s on it and choosing whole foods that don’t need a label.
Natural Products Insider. “60% of Americans Dodge Soft Drinks”
Dr. Mark Hyman. “5 Clues You Are Addicted To Sugar”
Prospect Times. “Los Angeles Times: Adding to the Sugar Problem”