Minimizing added sugar
What to Know
- Our consumption of added sugar far exceeds recommendations and is undermining our health
- Know the difference between naturally occurring and added sugars
- How to identify added sugar and minimize exposure
Added sugar is everywhere – from the more obvious like desserts and sodas to the sneakier such as pasta sauces, breads, and salad dressings – and the health consequences of consuming too much are concerning. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar (or 350 calories) a day, which over a year can mean a 36 pound weight gain.
In order to get a grip on our sugar intake, it’s important to understand the difference between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars. Added sugars are those put in foods during food manufacturing and preparation, even in your own kitchen. Added sugars can be more highly processed (maltose, lactose, evaporated cane juice) or much less processed (100% raw honey or maple syrup), but regardless, they did not exist in the original whole food.
The sugars that are naturally present in a whole food are referred to as ‘naturally occurring’ sugars. These include fructose in fruit, lactose in milk, and glucose found in many carbohydrate foods such as potatoes and other starchy vegetables, fruit, grains, and beans. Wholesome foods with naturally occurring sugars are not only naturally sweet, they are also typically high in fiber and many other healthy nutrients, making their inherent sugars a small part of their nutrient profile.
On the other hand, many foods high in added sugar but low in nutrients are called “empty calories”. Eating these types of foods can cause our blood sugar to spike and leave us feeling hungry. Eating these foods too often may ramp up our overall preference for sweets. Additionally, taking in too many calories from added sugars can displace the nutritive calories that nurture our bodies with the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients we need.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently finalized a new label law which will mandate that the Nutrition Facts Label on packaged foods distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugar sources. Right now, only the total grams of sugar needs to be listed.
In the meantime, read ingredient lists with care and use your judgment. If you see many sources of added sugars, it might be a good idea to choose a different product.
Here are different sugar-related claims you may find on food labels:
- “No added sugar” means the product contains only sugars that occur naturally (as in milk or yogurt)
- “Sugar-free”, “zero sugar”, “without sugar” or “dietarily insignificant source of sugar” means that a single serving of the product contains less than .5 grams of sugar. Be aware that “Sugar-free” products often contain sugar alcohol or other artificial sweeteners, which are best avoided while pregnant and breastfeeding.
- “Reduced sugar” means the product contains 25% less sugar than its original formulation. So a high sugar product originally contained 50 grams of sugar, its “reduced sugar” version could still contain 37.5 grams – still a lot of sugar!
- Tricky food labels can list added sugars using a laundry list of other names, including: Agave nectar, Anhydrous dextrose, Brown sugar, Brown rice syrup, Cane crystals, Cane sugar, Cane juice, Confectioner’s powdered sugar, Corn Sweetener, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Crystal dextrose, Crystalline fructose, Dextrose, Evaporated cane juice, Evaporated corn sweetener, Fructose, Fruit juice concentrates, Fruit nectar (for example, peach nectar), Glucose, High-fructose corn syrup, Honey, Invert sugar, Lactose, Liquid fructose, Malt syrup, Maltose, Maltodextrin, Maple syrup, Molasses, Raw sugar, Sucrose, Sugar cane juice, Syrup, White granulated sugar (note that ingredients ending in “ose” usually equate to a source of sugar)
* Ingredient names in italics are not recognized by the Food and Drug Administration
The FDA decided to include added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label because research shows that having more than 10% of your calories come from added sugar may make it difficult to meet your nutrient needs within your calorie requirement. While you do not have to calculate the exact amount you are eating, if you try to choose foods without too much added sugar, and indulge in sweets as a minimal part of your diet, then you will likely be close to the goal! Other public health organizations recommend the following:
- The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) from added sugar sources for most women; no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) from added sugar sources for most men; and that children limit their intake of added sugar to 3-4 teaspoons daily.
- The World Health Organization recommends that added sugars comprise less than 10% of your daily calories, and suggesting even as low as 5%
- The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the total intake of added sugars to no more than 10% per day.
What to Do
Don’t forget about healthy taste development!
Your food choices while pregnant and breastfeeding will impact your baby’s healthy eating habits and flavor preferences for years to come. Keep your sugar intake within (or below!) the recommended limits while pregnant and breastfeeding to help with this process. And when you start introducing solid foods to your baby, try to avoid processed foods or adding sugar to the food you make for your little one.
Feed your baby fresh whole foods and get him off to a healthy good start.
Save your added sugar intake for special indulgences
Save your sweets for special occasions and on those occasions, choose the sweets you really enjoy – you’ll value them all the more because of their rarity in your diet and you’ll crave them less for the same reason.
Check the labels of store-bought packaged foods and familiarize yourself with the many terms used for “sugar”
Always read food labels to keep an eye on the sugar content by serving size. Different brands of the same foods may have different sugar levels, so do a comparison to make the best decision for you.
Food labels list their ingredients in descending order, starting with the ingredient with the highest amount. This means you should minimize foods that list sugar (under any name!) near the top of the list of ingredients.
Limit processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages in your family’s diet
Prepare and pack healthy, whole food snacks for yourself and your children.
Try to minimize more highly processed foods and drinks like baked goods (cakes, cookies, pies), flavored dairy products (sweetened yogurts and milks), sweetened cereals, energy or sports drinks, soda and sweetened teas. Instead, pack nuts and/or seeds, nut or seed butters, fruits, veggies, unsweetened low-fat yogurts (add your own fruit!), hard boiled eggs, and 100% whole grain breads and crackers.
When you’re eating out or buying pre-packaged foods, choose items made with primarily whole foods. And note that simpler preparations and shorter ingredients lists tend to be better for your health.
Prepare more food at home
Focus on fresh whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, meats, chicken, fish and unflavored low-fat dairy. Frozen fruits and veggies are a great choice, too, just make sure the only ingredient is the fruits or veggies themselves.