The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

| Posted On Jul 06, 2015 | By:

sugar formsThere are a lot of sugar-containing foods in this world, and chances are you enjoy eating at least one of them. Candy, soda, and fruit are just a few examples of foods that contain sugar. When we eat sugar, it lights up our brains and makes us feel happy. But having too much sugar in our diets can make our bodies unhappy. The other big question to answer is whether the sugar in the foods we eat is naturally occurring or added to the food. This question is so important that the FDA decided to include added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label.

To shed some light on this, below we’ve answered some common questions about sugar in our diets.

What’s the difference between natural sugar and added sugar?

Naturally occurring sugar is found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Foods that contain naturally occurring sugar also tend to contain vitamins, minerals, and/or antioxidants, so they nourish the body. Fruit contains vitamin C, which can help the body fight colds and improve cardiovascular health. Milk contains calcium and vitamin D, which can help prevent osteoporosis.

Added sugar is found in prepared foods and is included during processing. Added sugars include white sugar, brown sugar, and honey, and can be found in ice cream, cakes, and chocolate. High fructose corn syrup is another type of sugar often used in soda, ketchup, and some barbecue sauces. Foods that contain added sugar tend to have fewer nutrients and are considered to have “empty calories.”

Why is added sugar so bad for me?

Sugar itself is not harmful to the body, but it’s the consumption of too much sugar that may lead to obesity, and subsequently type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Here’s how:

Foods high in added sugar can increase triglyceride levels. High triglyceride levels may have a negative impact on heart health. It is through excess calories that high sugar foods contribute to weight gain. It is well documented that obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Experts are even finding that a high sugar diet can accelerate cognitive decline. Sugar is studied in many forms but there is great interest in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), such as soda and flavored juice drinks. These ubiquitous beverages are really turning out to be major players in weight control, diabetes and heart health and even cancer. Yes, researchers found an association between SSBs and cancer recurrence in people who have already had colon cancer.

But it’s hard to give up sugar!

Emotional eating is common and many people reach for sugary foods in times of elevated stress. According to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, eating sugar may actually help reduce stress levels. The consumption of sugar can activate a pathway in the brain that turns off the stress response, which makes the habit of stress eating even more difficult to break. People who exhibit addictive-like eating behaviors, tend to develop these behaviors from eating highly processed foods, most of which contain added sugar, and not from foods that contain naturally occurring sugar.

How much is too much?

The World Health Organization suggests that adults and children limit added sugar to less than 5% of their total daily calorie intake. For someone on a 2000 calorie diet, that is 25 grams of sugar per day. According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their sugar intake to 6 teaspoons (or 24 grams) per day and men should limit their sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (or 36 grams) per day. To put this in perspective, one 12-oz can of Coke contains 40 grams of sugar (or 10 teaspoons). This recommendation is strictly for added sugar, since there has been no evidence that naturally occurring sugar causes adverse effects.

What can I eat instead?

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that add sweetness to food without adding sugar or calories to food. These include saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). The FDA has examined studies on the possible association between artificial sweeteners and cancer risk, and there is no sufficient evidence that links artificial sweeteners to cancer. Preliminary studies show that artificial sweeteners are less “addictive” than sugar.

Stevia is a good alternative for those who don’t want to use artificial sweeteners or sugar. It is extracted from the Stevia plant and was approved by the FDA as a food additive in 2008. You can find Stevia in most supermarkets and many restaurants and fast-food chains.

Struggling with sugar cravings?

Try these tips to help you eat less sugar:

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  1. Very nicely written and informative post, Frances! I cannot wait for added sugars to be mandatory on Nutrition Facts labels!

    Comment by Julie Seed, MEd, RD, LDN, HVMA Nutritionist Watertown and Copley on July 8, 2015 at 9:01 am
  2. Hi. Great article and explanation of why added sugars are not good for you. However, can you expand on the positive and/or negative qualities of natural sugars? It’s hard to find information about that.

    Comment by Josh Ehrenfried on July 15, 2015 at 1:51 pm
  3. Thank you for this clear and informative discussion of sugars, and the differences between “natural” and “added” sugar. I found most helpful your noting the specific AHA recommendations as to how many grams of added sugar should be eaten daily by women and by men.
    I would comment that artificial sweeteners are not for everyone–many people, including me, are sensitive to them–they can precipitate headaches–and I don’t think they are intrinsically safe for anyone, and are best avoided.
    Finally, I’d comment that the info re: fruits and dairy products, which contain “natural” sugars and many complex and beneficial nutrients can also have negative effects in certain medical conditions. And I’m not sure that obesity is the only cause of diabetes. I know a number of people who were not and are not overweight who have developed Type II adult onset diabetes, and there are many non-obese children who have childhood diabetes. Its cause is more complex than obesity, although obese people are at high risk for diabetes.

    Comment by Carol Halberstadt on July 15, 2015 at 7:05 pm

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