Sugar: What’s the Big Deal?
Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July… What do these special occasions all have in common? Sugary, sweet treats, that’s what! If we limited our indulgence of sugar to these few days of the year, I honestly don’t think our sugar intake would be a big deal, yet…
The reality is sugar consumption on a daily basis has dramatically increased over the years and continues to do so, making it a big deal.
In fact, there’s so much information to cover about this topic that I’m going to have to break it up into two posts. Today’s post will explain just how much we’ve increased our intake of sugar, unlikely sources that contain high amounts of sugar, alternative names of sugar and how to read labels to decipher just how much sugar you’re really eating.
Next week I’ll cover the difference between natural and chemical sugars and their impact on your immune system, as well as the difference between glycemic index and glycemic load (very important, especially for individuals with diabetes). Plus, I’ll give my recommendations for which sugars are the best to use on a regular basis.
Mind you, I wasn’t always this conscious of my sugar intake. Believe it or not, I have very fond memories of those beautiful white crystals…
When I was a young child my family lived in a small town called Blue Island. Like many small towns in the early seventies they had quite a few “mom and pop” stores. The uptown area, as we called it, had a different store for everything you could imagine: clothing, shoes, bikes, hairdresser, salon and my favorite, the bakery.
During that time my grandparents lived right up the street from us. I have wonderful memories of my grandfather, who was an early riser, coming to our house with fresh-baked white bread from the bakery. One of my favorite ways to eat a slice was to slather it with a bunch of butter and sprinkle sugar all over it… Absolute heaven!
But my sweet tooth didn’t stop there. I loved chocolate bars, cookies, cupcakes and who could resist thick buttercream frosting? Not me, that’s who!
No one worried or fretted that I was eating too much sugar partly because no one knew any better and partly because I didn’t eat that way all the time. Most of the time I indulged when it was a special occasion like a birthday or holiday. Sure, we had sweets in our house, just not on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, that’s not true today.
To make positive changes for today and our future we need to understand the past and how we got where we are today.
How much has our consumption of sugar really increased?
According to researchers Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen, who wrote an extensive report about sugar in 2012, our consumption of added sugars has skyrocketed over the past two centuries. They found credible data going back to 1822 and what they uncovered was astounding:
In 1822 people ate an average of 6.3 pounds of sugar per person per year. By the year 2000 the average person was consuming 107.7 pounds of sugar in one year! To put this in perspective: on labels sugar is listed by grams, and one pound of sugar is equal to 454 grams (rounded), so in one year the average person now consumes 48,895.8 grams of sugar- the equivalent of drinking 1,222 cans of Coca Cola!
Based on the numbers above, the average person is consuming 134 grams per day of sugar and that’s way above the recommended daily allowance.
So, what’s the recommended daily allowance for sugar?
I found the answer to this question rather confusing, mostly because the USDA doesn’t offer any clear-cut guidelines with respect to sugar consumption. This federal agency is supposed to evaluate nutrients and provides recommended daily allowance guidelines based on the nutrient value, but since there really aren’t any nutrients in plain table sugar, the USDA doesn’t provide any guidelines for it. I did, however, find two reputable sources that were consistent.
In March 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) released the following parameters for sugar consumption: “For an adult of a normal body mass index (BMI), the WHO recommends no more than 25 grams– or about 6 teaspoons– of sugar on a daily basis.”
Since the average person doesn’t know what their BMI is, I found this guideline to be ambiguous, which led me to the next reputable organization that offered guidelines for sugar consumption.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar intake to no more than 100 calories per day for women (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) and no more than 150 calories per day for men (9 teaspoons or 36 grams).
So basically, if you’re a man you get to consume more sugar… NOT FAIR!
All kidding aside, there’s no doubt the consumption of sugar by the average person has increased a great deal and it’s wreaking havoc on our physical and mental health.
My intention, as always, is to arm you with information so you can make the best decisions for your overall health.
Right about now you might be wondering: how did we, as a society, go from consuming 6.3 to 107.7 pounds of sugar?
Well, the answer to that one is simple. Do you remember the low-fat craze in the eighties? At the time, manufacturers felt the pressure to reduce the fat content in their products, however, by taking out the fat they also took out the flavor. So, they added sugar. And not just pure cane sugar, oh no. These folks got creative and found ways to process sugar in the least expensive manner possible and proceeded to add it to most foods you eat every day, thereby increasing everyone’s sugar consumption by default.
Unfortunately, you may think you have your sugar consumption under control, but if you eat any of the foods listed below, you may want to check the labels and recalculate your sugars.
Below is a list of common foods we eat on a daily basis that contain a high amount of sugar:
- Salad dressings
- Soups and sauces
- Cereal and cereal bars
- Bottled smoothies
- Some yogurts
- Nut butters (especially peanut butter)
- Bread and bread products
- Let’s not forget the specialty coffee drinks that many teenagers (and adults) are drinking today. One Grande Frappuccino from Starbucks is a whopping 56 grams of sugar!
Some of these you may already be aware of and others you may not.
And not only did manufacturers add sugar to a number of foods, they also have quite the list of alternative sugars used in their products to camouflage what they do. So, while you might not see sugar as an ingredient, if a food item contains any of the alternative names listed below, basically it means it contains sugar.
Below is a picture listing some common and obvious forms of sugar along with a few alternative names:
Now that you know a variety of ways sugar is added to food, your next step is to read the labels. However, reading labels can be very misleading and I’m convinced the manufacturers do this on purpose.
For example, if you’re eating a bowl of cereal, a common serving size is typically ¾ cup. I don’t know about you, but if my kids are pouring their cereal, we’re talking closer to two cups- almost three times the listed serving size, which also means three times the amount of sugar listed in the ingredients!
Below I’ve listed some common cereals, the serving size listed on the box and the grams of sugar per serving. Then I doubled the serving to reflect the amount most kids (and adults) are really eating.
Honey Nut Cheerios: ¾ cup = 9 grams of sugar or 18 grams for 1½ cups.
Lucky Charms: ¾ cup = 11 grams of sugar or 22 grams for 1½ cups.
Cocoa Pebbles: ¾ cup = 10 grams of sugar or 20 grams for 1½ cups.
Don’t forget if you’re a woman your recommended daily intake of sugar is only 24 grams. Meaning, if you choose to eat one of the cereals listed above with a realistic serving size, you’ll be consuming most of your daily sugar in one meal.
And that’s just cereal! I encourage you to grab some food from your refrigerator or pantry and see if any of the names listed above appear on the label, then check the serving size to see what you would really be consuming!
Here’s another fact about ingredients: manufacturers list them in order of largest to smallest amounts. For instance, if sugar is listed in first or second place ingredient, then sugar is one of the main ingredients added to the product.
Once again, my boys have been a wonderful resource for me to bounce all my nutrition facts off of and reading labels and spotting alternative names have been at the top of the list these past few years.
It’s funny to see them police each other when we’re out and they want to buy a drink from a convenience store. They know by now that any products with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are off the table and I’ve seen them put back drinks that contained it.
Thankfully more manufacturers are listening to consumers who are voting with their dollars every day and they’re offering more products without HFCS.
But as I reiterate to my kids, it’s all about balance. Having treats at a party or on the holidays is usually fine, within reason. But eating that way every day can really affect your immune system and your overall health.
I really encourage you to read labels on all your products so you can make the best decision for your health.
By the way, I’m not totally against sugar: I’m happy to share that a little piece of dark chocolate can have some added health benefits… More on that in my next post!
I pray you have a fantastic week!