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January 19, 2018

Sugar you don’t know you’re eating

(Marco Verch / Flickr)

The United States is ranked among the most overweight countries in the world, and that reputation does not come without a prolonged pattern of behavior. The average American eats poorly, not consuming enough vitamins and minerals, and consuming too much fat, carbs, protein and—most of all—sugar.

But for the average consumer trying to eat a little better, they may look toward labels that include key words or phrases like “organic,” “high protein,” “whole-grain,” “whole-wheat” and “no high-fructose corn syrup.” This is a good place to start, but many manufacturers of popular “healthy” snacks and foods have seedily sweet secrets they don’t want you to know.

Some obvious foods containing a lot of sugar include soft drinks and sports drinks, just about any dessert and some breakfast foods like kids’ cereals and pancakes and waffles. You may already be limiting your intake of these foods, but what about the foods that contain just as much sugar that you don’t know about?

The American Heart Association recommends a maximum intake of 36 grams of added sugar per day for men and 25 grams of added sugar per day for women. These recommendations are based on studies that found higher consumption levels of added sugar associated with increased risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes among numerous other chronic diseases.

Foods with hidden added sugar are everywhere. The companies that make these foods hide the fact that they are loading your snacks and meals with sugar behind labels associated with health by using earthy colors, graphics of nature and words like “whole.”  Their marketing teams focus on appealing to customers trying to eat better by making their product seem healthier than the alternative options, but without much substance.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to separate legitimately healthy foods from the fake ones. Most people are not taught what to look for in nutrition labels in order to make well-informed decisions about the foods they are buying. And I’ve come to the consensus that it’s not the consumer’s fault. Manufacturers have made it difficult on purpose. Only until recently have moves been made to simplify nutrition facts by the FDA, and still the process for change is slow and ongoing.

Popular foods with unknown added sugars include yogurt, oatmeal, granola, peanut butter and sliced breads.

Yogurt is considered to be a healthy breakfast, but what is actually inside your serving sized cup? Yogurt, being a dairy product, has natural sugar in it called lactose. In a regular serving of yogurt, this lactose should account for four to 12 grams of sugar depending on the strain. But many yogurt companies have several different flavors of yogurt to choose from, often sweetened with extra sugar under the name of cane sugar, fructose or glucose. This sometimes more than doubles the sugar content per serving.

It is not just the number of grams of sugar that makes a difference. Lactose, although a sugar, is more complex than fructose or glucose and so takes longer to digest. Fructose and glucose are both absorbed rapidly into your bloodstream and spike your blood-sugar levels, which is not good for your system.

This is a common trend concerning natural sugars versus added sugars. Natural sugars like maltose and lactose are absorbed more slowly, while added sugars are absorbed more quickly.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that foods with only natural sugars often come with other health benefits. For example, many fruits naturally contain high amounts of sugar. An apple may have 15 grams of sugar, but apples are also loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals that help to slow the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream. These bonuses also give you an extra boost of energy and help to maintain a healthy body.

The takeaway? Moderate the intake of desserts, soft drinks and other foods high in sugar, and try occasionally to opt for fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth while getting in a few nutrients. Watch for ingredients like cane sugar, corn syrup, fructose and glucose in your foods and try to find brands of bread, peanut butter and yogurt with no additional sugars in the ingredient list.

Save your added sugar for the desserts that matter: a cookie, a piece of chocolate, your favorite kid’s cereal. Don’t consume that unneeded sugar in foods that can do without.

Nicholas Remillard can be reached at nremillard@umass.edu.

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