Story by Sarah Weiss, TSET Healthy Living Program Prevention Specialist
On May 20, 2016, the FDA announced new nutrition labeling requirements for packaged foods. One of the most controversial additions regards added sugars, which will be displayed in grams and as a percent daily value. For some, this is a move toward more transparency and knowledge about what is in the foods that we eat each day. For others, like the maple syrup and honey industries, this new addition is confusing, because it could imply that their all natural products contain “added sugar.”
We receive a variety of messages about how sugar affects our bodies. We hear that sugar is addictive, causes cancer and diabetes, and leads to obesity. We are warned about the many forms and names that sugar can have when added to products. We are bombarded with products that are “sugar-free” and can choose from a variety of sugar-substitutes. However, it seems like sugar is unavoidable. It’s in our favorite drinks, desserts, and candies. It’s even found its way into staple items like bread and yogurt.
So how much sugar should we consume and is it really that bad for us? According to the FDA, 10% or less of your daily caloric intake should come from added sugar, but the average American’s is about 13%. The FDA recommends that the average consumer on a 2,000 calorie diet consume no more than 12.5 teaspoons per day; the average American consumes up to 22 teaspoons daily. The American Heart Association recommends even less, suggesting that women consume no more than six teaspoons per day and that men consume no more than nine.
According to the USDA, 36% of Americans’ added sugar comes from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages such as pop, coffee, tea, fruit, sports, energy, and alcoholic beverages. The rest mostly comes from consuming snacks and sweets such as grain-based desserts, dairy desserts, candy, jams, syrups, and sweet toppings. Sugar is also hidden in a wide-variety of everyday foods such as packaged bread, fruit-flavored yogurt, pasta sauces, ketchup, BBQ sauce, salad dressing, nut milk, and energy and granola bars.
Is sugar really that harmful for our bodies? It’s important to understand the chemical nature of sugar and how our bodies process sugar. In most fruits and vegetables, sugar exists as fructose and glucose, which are monosaccharides, the most basic types of sugar. Added sugars are usually disaccharides, and often exist in the form of sucrose, which has to be broken down to glucose and fructose by our bodies in order to be absorbed and used for various biological processes. No matter what type of sugar we ingest, they are all broken down into simple sugars to be absorbed.
The main difference is the speed in which your body breaks down foods with high amounts of added sugar and the caloric density of these foods. Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, so the body breaks down these foods and absorbs them much slower than a Twinkie, for example. When the body breaks down foods with high amounts of added sugar very rapidly, it triggers a spike in insulin. Therefore, monosaccharides like fructose will not cause an insulin response. Sucrose will. Also, foods high in added sugar tend to be have more calories and provide less nutritional content than fruits and vegetables. For example, a glass of fresh orange juice might have 8-10% naturally occurring sugars, and provides additional vitamins and minerals. But a can of coke will contain more sugar and has no nutritional benefit.
Long term, excess sugar consumption from added sugars can lead to obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. Perhaps the scariest part is that sugar is highly addictive. Consuming sugar triggers the same rewards center in our brain as drugs like cocaine and morphine. Scientists have also found that excess sugar consumption can be hard on the liver, much like alcohol, and can lead to health complications such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
New sugar labeling will be helpful to us by making us aware of how much “added sugar” is in our diets each day. Keep in mind, the FDA is defining added sugar as “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.” Whether you decide to count products such as honey, which in the purest form, is a 100% all natural product, is your choice. Keep in mind, this does not address sugar added to food, but extra sugar added to your diet over what’s considered “nutritionally appropriate” by the FDA.
Life is about balance. There’s always the freedom to eat cake at a birthday party or to have a glass of sweet tea after mowing the lawn. Food is social and brings people together. But hopefully, these new changes will give us the knowledge and power to make more informed choices about what is best for us and our families.