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 sweet foods.
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.