The Deal with Sugar


Sugar is one of the hottest topics in the field of nutrition. Some say it’s fine, some say it’s awful, and some consider it literally the devil. One thing for certain is that sugar intake is an important issue that often poses many questions to the health-conscious. While the verdict has not been reached on all of these, here are some evidence-based approaches to these questions.

Is sugar “bad” for you?

The answer might be an easy “yes” but the truth is that it depends. Just like with other calorie sources, like other carbohydrates as well as fats and proteins, sugar itself is not bad but becomes a problem if you eat too much of it. Sugar is a large component of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and is the primary source of energy for your brain. Unfortunately, sugar is very easy to overdo and has become almost ubiquitous in our food supply, appearing not just in desserts and soft drinks but also breads, cereals, and even sauces. Research links the overconsumption of sugar (more than 10% of calories per day) to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Is added sugar more harmful than natural sugar?

You’ve probably heard the claim that your body processes “natural” sugar differently than it does refined sugar. Sugars do exist chemically in different forms, as the monosaccharides glucose, fructose, and galactose, or as disaccharides that are a combination of the monosaccharides (sucrose, or table sugar, is a combo of glucose and fructose, for example).  But in truth, your body can’t tell the difference between the fructose from an apple and the fructose from table sugar once it reaches the liver and is metabolized. What does make the difference, however, is that foods with natural sugars are often rich in vitamins, minerals, and importantly fiber, which functions to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Added sugars, on the other hand, are “empty” calories, meaning they provide energy  but little to none of the nutritional value that the apple would provide. In this sense, natural sugars are definitely better than added sugars.


How much sugar should we consume?

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 36 grams of added sugar, and women no more than 25 grams of added sugar. One of the objectives of Healthy People 2020 is to limit the population’s consumption of added sugar to less than 10% of total calories; according to their data, however, in 2003-08 Americans consumed an average of 15% their daily calorie intake as added sugar (so someone consuming 2,000 calories a day took in about 75 grams of added sugar every day). It’s very clear that overall, people are far exceeding recommendations for sugar intake.

How can I limit my sugar intake?

First off, remember that if you’re eating the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you don’t have to worry about the sugar found in those because you’re getting so many nutrients! What is important to limit is added sugar, since it provides no nutritional benefits. One of the largest contributors to added sugar intake is soft drinks, which can contain as much as 40 grams of sugar per serving.  Swapping out soda with water is a great way to eliminate unnecessary calories; if you aren’t a fan of plain water, try flavoring it with lemon or low-calorie water flavors. You can also enjoy unsweetened iced tea or coffee, but keep in mind the caffeine content. Another source of added sugar to watch out for is “health” foods like fruit juices and granola bars. Often, sugar is even “hidden” in foods that we wouldn’t expect to have sugar at all, like bread and pasta sauce. So how can we pinpoint these hidden sugars? How can you tell if a food naturally contains sugar or has some added? The first place to check is the food label: sometimes, the label will state that the product “contains no added sugar”. Otherwise, your best bet is the ingredients list. Ingredients that indicate added sugar include corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, brown sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrate (note that even though some of these are natural, they are still types of added sugar). Also, an ingredient’s placement in the list indicates how much of the product it makes up, so if sugar is the first or second ingredient then you can expect a very sugary food item. Luckily, the FDA will be rolling out a brand new food label next year that indicates added sugars, making this process a lot easier for consumers!

What about zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, or stevia?

Noncaloric sweeteners can be a helpful alternative to sweeten up foods without adding extra calories. So far, studies have not found artificial sweeteners to be harmful to health or linked to diseases in humans. There are some drawbacks, such as potential headaches, increased appetite, and an unpleasant aftertaste. Most importantly, artificial sweeteners may not be safe for people with certain health conditions, for example people with the condition phenylketonuria cannot tolerate aspartame due to it containing the amino acid phenyalanine. But overall, noncaloric sweeteners can be a useful replacement for sugar in many recipes. The artificial sweeteners, like sucralose, are fine to use, but if you prefer a “natural” alternative you can try monk fruit or stevia extract.

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