What you should know about added sugar in your food

If you read the nutrition facts label when grocery shopping you’ve probably noticed one thing many packaged foods have in common – lots of added sugar! Desserts and treats aside, common, seemingly healthful household staples like bread, cereal, sauces and oatmeal are loaded with surprising amounts of sugar. What should the average consumer know about sugar and how do we arm ourselves to cut back on this ingredient often consumed in excess?

Added sugars are those added during food processing and may include table sugar, sugar from syrups and honey and sugars from concentrated fruit and vegetable juices. Foods with added sugars are not to be mistaken with foods with naturally occurring sugars such as regular milk, fresh fruit and root vegetables like sweet potato and beets. These foods that naturally contain sugar are okay and many have inherent health benefits. However, consuming a diet high in excess added sugar can contribute to health concerns such as heart disease, inflammation, unintentional weight gain, diabetes and fatty liver disease.

So what does moderate added sugar intake look like? It’s recommended that women keep added sugar to no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) daily and men, who typically have higher average daily calorie needs, limit added sugar to 36 grams (9 teaspoons) daily. Foods and beverages with added sugar should not be served to children under two years old.

Unless you are eating primarily whole foods and homemade foods without added sugars you are most likely consuming a fair amount of sugar. Common sources of added sugar include sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, sports drinks and teas as well as ready-to-eat cereals, yogurts, dried fruit, baked goods and condiments like barbeque sauce, teriyaki sauce and salad dressing.

One of the best tools to help reduce added sugar intake is the nutrition facts food label, which can help in deciphering a product’s sugar content per serving. Keep in mind that every 4 grams of added sugar is equal to one teaspoon of sugar. So a children’s breakfast cereal with 12 grams of added sugar has the equivalent of three teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Foods with sugar listed as one of the first three ingredients are typically high in sugar. However, sugar can have numerous names including corn syrup, invert sugar, malt sugar, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, sucrose, and molasses to name a few.

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Food manufacturers have gotten creative, often using more than one type of sugar source in products. Therefore, a granola bar, for example, may list sugar as the third ingredient, but may also list fruit juice concentrate and brown rice syrup farther down the ingredient list. When all the sources of sugar are added up, sugar may be the predominant ingredient, which can be misleading for consumers.

Here are some tips for cutting back on added sugar:

Swap out sugar-sweetened drinks for no-sugar and low-sugar alternatives like flavored water, unsweetened tea, fruit and herb-infused water, low-sugar prebiotic sodas and coconut water.
Look for products with no-added-sugar. For jarred and canned fruits, choose those in water or natural juice instead of syrups.
For oatmeal, go with plain unsweetened oats and then flavor it with no-added-sugar ingredients like cinnamon, vanilla extract, pumpkin spice, and fresh fruit.
Make your own condiments and sauces without the added sugar.
Limit highly processed packaged snack foods and desserts that are likely among the highest in added sugar.
Use the nutrition facts food label and ingredient list to make informed choices when shopping for packaged products.
Snack on whole foods like hard-boiled eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, popcorn, nuts and seeds.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite desserts and treats, you may be consuming more sugar than you know from hidden sources. By taking control and making informed food choices, you can significantly cut your added sugar intake for better health.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.

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