The Program: How to Maximize Your Chances of Dieting Success
The Hunt for Added Suger
By Eric C. Westman, M.D., M.H.S.
Stand in almost any aisle in the center of the supermarket, close your eyes and reach out to touch any product on the shelf. Chances are it contains added sugar. This ingredient—or more accurately, a whole array of related ingredients—is a serious health hazard to everyone, particularly youngsters. Next time you’re in the supermarket with one of your older children, it could be fun to play this “game” with them. And once you know how to detect added sugars, you’ll be on your way to improving your family’s diet—and helping control your weight.
What Are Added Sugars?
Unlike naturally occurring sugars, which are an intrinsic part of fruit, vegetables, grains and dairy products, these sugars have been added to foods in the manufacturing process. Berries, green beans and cheese all contain natural sugars, but they are also full of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. But other than calories, most added sugars offer little or no nutritional benefits. Among the most obvious examples of added sugar are the candylike cereals marketed to children and most soft drinks. But these two so-called foods are only the tip of the sugar iceberg. One of the reasons many added sugars are hard to detect is that they go by not just names people recognize but also under a long list of misleading names.
Where Do You Find Added Sugars?
Soft drinks are the largest source of sugar in the American diet, delivering one-third of all added sugars. Another three-fifths come from baked goods, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy and cereals. The remainder is found in unexpected places such as barbecue sauce and other condiments, salad dressings and even baby foods and over-the-counter cold products. Purchase a salad plate at a deli and both the potato salad and coleslaw are likely to contain added sugar. Order a chicken entrée at fast food restaurant and the dipping sauce is almost sure to be packed with added sugar.
How Can You Distinguish Integral Sugars from Added Sugars?
An added sugar can be natural, such as maple syrup, or manufactured: high-fructose corn syrup, for example. When maple syrup winds up in a place it would never appear naturally, perhaps a container of yogurt or a breakfast cereal, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) deems it an added sugar. (The FDA regulates how the contents of foods are indicated on packaging.) The Nutrition Facts panel tells you the number of grams of sugars in a serving. However, it lumps together all sugars without distinguishing between integral and added sugars. To find out if even a natural sugar is integral, look at the ingredients list as well. If you see fructose listed instead of fruit, for example, even though that sugar has a natural source, you’ll know it’s an added ingredient.
What Are the Names to Look for?
The names of some added sugars will be familiar to you; others sound right out of the chemistry lab—and they probably are. To detect added sugars, scan the list of ingredients on any packaged food for these “aliases”: agave syrup; beet sugar or beet syrup; brown sugar; cane sugar, cane syrup or evaporated cane juice; corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids or high-fructose corn syrup; dextrose; fructose; fruit juice concentrate; galactose; glucose; golden syrup; honey; invert sugar, lactose; malt or malt syrup; maltose; maple syrup; molasses; rapadura; raw sugar; rice syrup; sucrose; treacle; turbinado. Many ingredients ending in “ose” are also sugars, although exceptions include sucralose (a noncaloric sweetener) and cellulose.
What’s Wrong with Consuming Sugar?
Any form of sugar, whether integral or added, natural or manufactured, becomes a problem in excess. Although sugar is quickly metabolized, creating energy to power your body, excess sugar is converted to body fat. According to the USDA, each person consumes an average of 154 pounds of added sugar a year, up from an average of 123 pounds in the early 1970s. This translates to an average of nearly 750 calories a day. We each consume an average of 53 gallons of sugar-laden soft drinks each year and get 16 percent of our daily caloric intake from added sugars. For kids aged 6 to 11, it’s 18 percent, and for teenagers, it’s 20 percent. For every daily soft drink, a child’s chance of becoming obese increases by 50 percent. The twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes have occurred concurrently with the enormous increase in sugar consumption over the last several decades.
How Can You Reduce Your Family’s Sugar Load?
The fastest way to cut down on sugar is to eliminate added sugars, which means eliminating most packaged foods, and eat a whole foods diet. Among the carbohydrate foods with the lowest glycemic load—meaning the least impact on blood sugar—are leafy salad greens and many other vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds. Have whole grains and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes in moderation and avoid products made with white flour and other refined grains. All these foods have a high glycemic load. Even eating too much fruit, particularly such tropical fruits as mangoes and bananas, dumps a lot of sugar into your system. Swap beverages laced with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup for those sweetened with noncaloric sweeteners, or better yet, sparkling water. A key principle of the Atkins Diet is eliminating added sugar and minimizing all sugar.
Dr. Eric C. Westman, a co-author of The New Atkins for a New You
, is an associate professor of medicine at the Duke University Health System and director of the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic, where he combines clinical research and clinical care in treatments for obesity and type 2 diabetes.