Your Complete Guide to Sugar
As a dietitian I can tell you that this teeny, tiny, little two-syllable word causes me headaches on at least a weekly basis.
Depending on who you’re talking to, everyone can have differing opinions on whether you should or shouldn’t consume this stuff, when you should consume it, what form you should consume it in…
Basically it can get very sticky very fast.
You see what I did there?
Anyway, let’s kick this party off with some definitions.
Natural vs. Added Sugars
These are two distinctions I really need people to understand before they start speaking on the subject of sugar, because there are people who’ve really think added and natural sugars behave the same in the body and the people who think that are creating a very dangerous community of people cutting out otherwise really healthful foods.
Sugar is naturally present in foods like fruits, grains and dairy. So, if you’ve ever looked at the nutrition facts label of a container of yogurt and gotten puzzled by the number of grams under the “sugar” section, natural sugar is what you’re looking at. The same goes for milk and cheese. Lactose is the sugar naturally present in milk and it does not behave in the body the same as sucrose (more on this later) which is the chemical name for white granulated sugar or table sugar.
Fructose is another form of sugar that is naturally present in fruits and, again, is metabolized differently than table sugar. Now, they delivery the same number of calories, but the grams of sugar you find in a pineapple are much different than the grams of sugar you find in a Butterfinger in terms of nutrition.
The main difference being that, when you eat a pineapple, you’re getting fructose along with healthy fiber, Vitamin C and antioxidants that help fight inflammation in the body. When you eat a Butterfinger...you’re just getting sugar and chocolate. One is full of vitamins and minerals, the other is empty calories (albeit super freaking delicious empty calories).
So we got lactose in milk and fructose in fruit; both of which are very different. Then there is sucrose which is a molecule made whenever you mush fructose and glucose together. You know it better as table sugar.
Labels and Recommendations
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to find a nutrition facts label that has an “added sugars” section (and boy howdy I can’t wait until they overhaul the labels to be less confusing and include this on everything) then what you were looking at is added sugar.
Unfortunately, as the labels stand now, most labels just list “sugars” under the Total Carbohydrates section and it includes both added and natural sugar. For example, if you’ve ever had fruity flavored yogurts, the sugar from the added flavors and the sugar from the dairy are all lumped into grams of total sugar, making it pretty impossible to know how much is coming from where.
What we do know for sure, though, is the average American consumes about 77 grams of sugar a day.
However, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 38 grams of added sugar for men per day and 25 grams for women. That’s less than you think, too. To put it in perspective, there’s 44 grams of added sugar in one can of coke.
Regular intake of added sugar from processed foods like Coke and candy can cause inflammation in the body and put you at risk for conditions such as heart disease, metabolism syndrome and obesity.
PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NOTE. EATING TOO MUCH SUGAR WILL NOT GIVE YOU DIABETES.
Sorry to derail, but I’m so sick of hearing this. It’s not true nor is it founded by science, but pushed by low-carb advocates with an agenda. Eating sugar in excess can cause you to gain excess fat, which promotes insulin resistance which THEN puts you at risk for developing diabetes. However, eating sugar alone is not the diabetic culprit. Just had to throw that in there.
Now, where were we?
Oh yeah, wrapping up natural versus added sugar. Basically, eating a diet full of carbs from healthy sources like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy does not have the same impact that eating regularly large amounts of added sugar has. All of the other nutrients you get from these foods like fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants actually help lower your risk for disease and promote health.
You heard it here.
Keep in mind, athletes and others who train heavily are an exception to the recommendations for sugar intake which were made with the normal population in mind.
But...that’s another article.
Decoding Your Labels
As mentioned, food labels can get confusing. Not only had food marketing made it very tricky in terms of making a food seem like it has less sugar in it than it really does or that it’s healthier for you than it really is, but sugar also has a way of “hiding” in the ingredient list. Basically, just because you scour the list of ingredients and don’t see “sugar” there are other code names it can go by and, given how confusing the “sugars” section is on the label, the ingredients list is our next best source to look for added sugar.
Luckily, I’m here to tell you what to look for:
The FDA has standards that foods have to meet in order to legally put labels on food. If you see “sugar-free”, it means the FDA says each serving can only have less than ½ gram of sugar per serving.
Most of the time, though, sugar-free products have artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols to give it sweetness without the extra calories.
Beware of this one. This is not an FDA-regulated term because there are no metrics to measure whether something is “low.”
The food must have 25% less sugar than the original item with its original serving size. For example, Reduced-Sugar Trix cereal has 25% less sugar than the original per serving.
Hidden Sugar Sources
Cakes, candies and Coke are obvious sources of added sugar. However, the following are some less-obvious foods that can also contribute to your added sugar intake:
Sauces such as BBQ sauce, ketchup and teriyaki
Jams and Jelly
Canned Fruit (in syrup)
Lattes and other fancy coffees
Some salad dressing
Here are some names you might see on your nutrition facts label that are just fancy names for sugar that might be used to hide just how much added sugar the food product is packed with. If you see multiple of these in a single ingredient list...watch out:
Anything ending in -ose (the chemical name for a sugar molecule): Glucose, lactose, maltose, fructose, sucrose
High-fructose corn syrup
Fruit juice concentrate
Dehydrated cane juice
So What About High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)?
I remember when I was a kid how evil this stuff was. Everyone wanted to burn it at the stake. But what is it exactly?
HFCS is made from breaking down corn into glucose and converting it to fructose. It’s super inexpensive to make since corn is grown abundantly in America and that’s why you see it added to cheap, processed food products because it’s an economical way to sweeten them.
Despite being made from corn, however, it has very little nutrition. More research needs to be done, but it appears to have the same effect on the body as added sugar with the same risks and warnings.
Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Alcohols
Sucralose, otherwise known as Splenda. Aspartame, also known as Equal. Saccharine, you may also know as Sweet N Low...these are all names I’m sure you’ve heard.
These are the mainstream artificial sweeteners and they don’t have calories. That’s why if you’ve ever had a Coke Zero and you’re super confused how anything so sweet can have no calories, it’s because diet products use these.
Some use Stevia, a form of artificial sweetener that is natural because it is derived from a plant (the rest are made in a lab), but still, no calories which means is has no effect on the blood sugar.
Xylitol, erythritol and sorbitol are another category of sweeteners called sugar alcohols. You may have noticed these on your gum package as a kid and snickered at the fact that you are consuming alcohol.
You little rebel, you know you did.
They aren’t quite the same as a Guinness beer, but they are different from artificial sweeteners because they contain calories, albeit fewer than normal sugar.
Sucrose (a fancy name for table or granulated sugar) has 4 calories per gram.
Sugar alcohols only have (depending on the type) 1.5 - 3 calories per gram.
Sounds like a sweet deal right? Well, a big setback of these is that they can cause major stomach issues if you eat too much. Don’t believe me? Check out the Amazon reviews for sugar-free gummy bears sweetened with sugar alcohols. Not only is it a hilarious way to spend your time, but gives you a good idea of what I mean.
This is why I discourage athletes from having sugar alcohols when they can avoid it. Nobody wants to be shitting their pants on the court or in the pool when you’re in the middle of a competition.
The bottom line?
There’s nothing wrong with having added sugar in its various forms in moderation. Sugar isn’t as evil as some people would like you to think. If you’re a young, active individual with an otherwise healthy diet, you’re totally cool to have some sugar every now and again.
It really only starts to be harmful when you’re eating copious amounts of it everyday, aren’t exercising or buffering all of that sweet stuff with healthier foods. That includes fruits, dairy and grains which have sugar in a different form and a more healthful package than your added sugar treats.
Just don’t go crazy, and you can make sugar your sweet little friend.