Sugar plays an important role in the body as the basic fuel
for our cells. Sugars are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy
products. However, our bodies are not designed to consume the large quantities
of refined sugars that are part of our modern diet.
Human beings evolved to appreciate and seek out sweet foods
because they were scarce. Technology for refining sugar did not develop until
300 A.D., and even in the early 19th century, wealthy families kept sugar locked
up in special wooden sugar chests. Over the last three centuries, sugar has
become cheaply and easily available. In 1700, the average American consumed 4
pounds of sugar per year; in 2010 it was 210 pounds.
Sugar does have a place in our lives. It is used to preserve
foods, give texture and flavor to baked goods, help yeast to rise, and balance
the acidity of vinegar and tomatoes. The problem is that we are consuming much
more sugar than our bodies need. Overconsumption of sugar is implicated in many
health problems, including diabetes, mood disorders, obesity, cardiovascular
disease, and tooth decay.
During the normal process of digestion, our body slowly
breaks down starches, proteins, and fats into the sugars that it needs. When we
eat refined sugars, this process is bypassed and the sugar is absorbed almost
immediately into the bloodstream. We experience a burst of energy, and then a
let-down as our body produces insulin to try to regulate the levels of sugar in
our blood. As insulin lowers our blood sugar levels, we begin to crave more
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we
limit our daily added sugar consumption to 7 percent or less of our daily
calorie intake, about 6 teaspoons (100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons (150
calories) for men. A single 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 8 to 10
teaspoons of sugar, and a glazed doughnut contains 6 teaspoons. The average
American now eats about 19 teaspoons of added sugar every day; that is equivalent
to 304 calories, about 16 percent of a woman's daily caloric intake, and 16
percent of a man's.
Sugar is added to many of the items on grocery store
shelves. At least half of the added sugar in our diets comes from soft drinks,
juices, fruit drinks, and sports drinks. Sugar is an obvious ingredient in
cakes, cookies, candy, and ice cream. You might be less aware of the sugar
added to ketchup, sauces, breads, breakfast cereals, luncheon meats, dried
fruits, low-fat salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, canned and pre-cooked foods,
and salty snacks. Even processed foods we think of as healthy contain added
sugar. A single serving of yogurt or an envelope of instant flavored oatmeal
can contain 5 to 7 teaspoons of sugar. Sugar is added to many dishes served in
restaurants because it makes the food taste good.
Look at food labels to identify added sugar. The grams of
sugar listed in the Nutrition Facts part of a food label include natural sugars
found in ingredients such as grain, fruit and milk. To identify added sugar,
look at the list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by
weight. If sugar is listed among the first four ingredients, the product is
high in added sugar. Added sugar goes by many names, including high-fructose
corn syrup, cane juice, cane syrup, malt syrup, molasses, honey, fruit juice
concentrate, and words ending in “-ose” like glucose, dextrose, maltose, and
fructose. “Natural” sweeteners like brown sugar, agave nectar, honey, and
molasses have no nutritional advantage over white sugar.
The best way to avoid added sugar is to eat fresh fruit,
vegetables, dairy products, and proteins instead of packaged and processed
foods. When you buy a packaged food, be aware of its sugar content. This is
especially true of many health foods and foods marketed for children, such as
fruit drinks and snacks.