The average American eats about 5,000 tablespoons of sugar per year, amounting to roughly 152 pounds (or the weight of one person)[i]. That’s three pounds or six cups of sugar per week! Many of today’s health disparities are related to the increased consumption of added sugar and refined fats, including the rise of diabetes, hypertension and childhood obesity[ii].
Unlike naturally occurring sugar – such as the sugar found in milk or fresh fruit – added sugars are those that do not naturally occur in the food themselves. Rather, these sugars are added to a food or beverage during processing or preparation before packaging. Added sugars appear in many forms and often crop up unexpectedly, along with added fats and other harmful ingredients. We consume them so frequently that our bodies begin to crave them, deteriorating our health while boosting the packaged and fast food industry’s profit margins.
You may have experienced the power of a sugar craving and chalked the urge up to your “sweet tooth.” But you may not be aware of how addictive these sugars actually are. Studies have shown that Oreo cookies are more addictive than heroin[iii]. The brain views sugar as a reward, so the more we eat it, the more we want. Since the 1970s, added sugar intake in the United States has risen dramatically. The increased consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – the prevailing sweetener used to flavor popular beverages in the United States – has been found to mirror the growth of the obesity epidemic.
Finding ways to cut down or eliminate added sugar from your diet can be tricky if you don’t know what to look for (not all sources are as obvious as Oreos). Here are a few facts and FAQs to help you uncover hidden sugars and make more informed decisions.
Added sugars hiding out on your food labels go by different names. Here are just a few to look out for (there are more!):
||Nectars (e.g., Peach Nectar, Pear Nectar)
|Confectioner’s Powdered Sugar
|Corn Syrup Solids
||White Granulated Sugar
|High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
||Evaporated Corn Sweetener
||Sugar Cane Juice
Know the foods that often have sugars added to them. Again, there are more! Be sure to read the labels to look for the aliases above.
||BBQ, Sauces and Marinades
||Canned Fruit and Vegetables
|Protein Drinks (including Ensure or Boost)
|Breads & Crackers
|Pastries (Cake, Pies, Cookies, Muffins)
||Energy Drinks (Monster, Red Bull)
|Candy and Ice Cream
||Electrolyte Drinks (Gatorade, Powerade)
|Beverages (Soda/Coffee/Vitamin Water)
||Flavored Potato Chips
Know how much sugar is recommended and safe to consume.
Dietitians and other health experts recommend getting ten percent or less of your daily calories from sugar. This equals 13.3 teaspoons of sugar per day if you’re consuming 2,000 calories. Beware, the average 12-ounce soda contains 16 teaspoons of sugar! Just one soda per day could lead to a weight gain of 15 pounds in a year.
Sugar does not provide any additional vitamins or minerals that assist the body in its daily functions to promote energy and a healthy lifestyle. For example, a two-ounce chocolate bar has 30 grams of sugar and the same calories as three medium bananas. Bananas are low in fat and high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Despite containing natural sugar, bananas will satisfy your sweet craving while helping you feel fuller longer. Natural sugars found in whole fruit don’t affect the body the same way due to their naturally occurring fiber.
So, are artificial sweeteners a better swap?
Artificial sweeteners may seem like an appealing substitute for the taste of sugar without the calories, but they come with some not-so-sweet trade-offs. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), artificial sweeteners that have been approved for use and are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) include sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame and neotame. However, studies have shown that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may lead to increased weight gain and overall increase in body mass index (BMI)[iv] . The perception of saving calories from artificially sweetened snacks or sodas may lead to replacing those calories through other sources. In other words, you may give a slice of cake the greenlight because you feel like you’ve made a healthy choice by drinking a diet soda with your lunch. Additionally, artificial sweeteners may alter the way we taste food due to their intensity, which can make less sweet foods – such as fruits and vegetables – undesirable[v].
Are fat-free snacks better?
No. Typically foods are flavored three ways: with fat, sugar and sodium. So, if one of the item is removed then other two are likely increased. Fat-free cakes, cookies and ice cream can have up to twice as much sugar than the regular serving. Looking at the food label ingredient can help determine if that food item is a smart choice.
How to read the ingredients list.
Names of ingredients are listed in the order of the amount that the food contains, from the most to the least. For example, the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran Crunch ingredients list begins with whole grain wheat, sugar, raisins, and rice. The most abundant item found is whole grain wheat, the second most abundant is sugar, then raisins and so forth. Brown sugar syrup, glycerin, corn syrup, molasses and honey are also on the list (sources of added sugar). This one cereal contains five different types of sugar or sugar-like substance. Not quite as healthy as you may have thought.
So, what can I eat?
Practice small swaps to help you see progress, such as exchanging your lunchtime soda for twelve ounces of water (sparkling water is a healthy bubbly alternative), or packing fresh fruit and nuts rather than heading to the vending machine during your mid-day slump. Weaning yourself off of sugar isn’t easy, but you can find balance by integrating more complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) into your diet and allowing yourself a small portion of a sweet treat every once in a while rather than quitting “cold turkey.”
Sugar takes a toll on the body and mind, with the slump following a sugar rush possibly accelerating mood disorder symptoms. It’s also been shown to negatively impact memory. With excess sugar leading to short-term impacts, such as weight gain, and long-term impacts that can shorten your lifespan, such as diabetes, it’s increasingly important to pay closer attention to what you eat. For more information, check out the healthy eating resources at Navy & Marine Corps Public Health Center, NOFFS Fueling Series and eatright.org.
LT Pamela Gregory, OPNAV N17 Nutrition Program Manager, is a Registered Dietitian with nine years’ experience in counseling a wide variety of clientele on nutrition and health-related diseases/ topics. LT Gregory uses a functional nutrition approach to assist clients in their treatment phase.