Chocolate. Birthday cake. Your favorite blended coffee drink. Sometimes it feels like all the good things have sugar in them.
Even as a nutrition consultant, I love to indulge in sweet treats every now and then – who doesn’t?
But if you’re not careful, sugar intake can add up quickly. And this can have potentially detrimental health consequences, as can believing some of the many myths surrounding sweetener consumption that are discussed below.
Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate found in plants such as sugarcane. An ancient preservative and sweetener, various types have been used for thousands of years, but only in the last century has it become consumed in such enormous quantities.
It may help to add amazing flavor to otherwise bland food and drinks, but the bitter truth about this ingredient is that it can be stored as fat in the body, which may lead to a host of health conditions including metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, and obesity.
Did you know?
- The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends men should limit added sugars to 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams) daily, and women to 6 teaspoons (25 grams). The average intake in the US is around 19 teaspoons daily.
- According to the American Heart Association, consumption has dramatically risen in the last two decades, making up over 16 percent of daily caloric intake.
- The World Health Organization‘s (WHO) stance is that less than 10 percent of your calories should come from sweeteners that are added during food processing, and that a diet where intake is kept to less than 5 percent would have even greater health benefits.
- The white refined variety has about 90 percent of its vitamins and minerals removed during processing, and therefore it does not offer any nutritional benefits. But the fact is, though natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses are not entirely devoid of nutrients, their nutritional impact on the positive side is negligible.
- By adding just one soda daily without any other dietary changes, an individual may gain about 15 pounds per year, due to the additional 10 teaspoons of added sugar per 12-ounce can. As the Wellness Mama states, there are many more reasons to ditch drinking soda, including a lack of nutritional value.
Myth #1: All Sweeteners Are Created Equal
Though all from are carbohydrates, there are two sources of sweeteners in the foods we eat: natural and added.
Sweeteners added to foods to sweeten processed goods may be natural, artificial, or a combination of both.
Natural sweeteners found in foods include glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose.
- Glucose is found in the blood and it fuels life, as your cells burn it to create energy.
- Fructose is the natural type found in produce.
- Sucrose, or table sugar, is a combination of glucose and fructose.
- Lactose, or or the kind found in milk, is composed of glucose and galactose, and it is fructose free. Lactose is broken back down into glucose the body.
Adults do not need galactose to survive, and excess amounts can be stored in the body.
A study to determine the physiological differences between glucose and fructose found that the test subjects who consumed more fructose accumulated twice as much visceral fat, insulin sensitivity dropped about 17 percent, and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels rose about 14 percent.
The reason for the detrimental effects on the participants with twice the amount of fructose consumption is that natural sweeteners that you consume are converted into glucose in the stomach. Fructose, however, is metabolized by the liver, and when excessive amounts are consumed, the liver stores fructose as fat.
This increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, and may lead to insulin resistance.
When sucrose is metabolized, it is broken down into glucose and fructose. And this can take a toll on your liver, if the fructose concentration is higher.
Though you aren’t able to actually taste a difference in the types you consume, all sugar is not created equal, because your body utilizes various types differently.
When it comes to naturally occurring sweeteners, choose foods that are metabolized easily (i.e. foods with lower fructose levels) to reduce the burden on the liver and reduce or eliminate excess fat storage.
Most vegetables have a favorable fructose to glucose ratio, as do mandarins, plums, and cherries. Dairy products are free from fructose, however, people with lactose intolerance should not consume milk products.
In addition to the different types having different metabolic effects on your body, packaged varieties have undergone some degree of processing designed to chemically and mechanically refine it.
During processing, naturally occurring nutrients – including vitamins, minerals, and fiber – that would assist metabolization to slow absorption into the blood are destroyed, leaving it devoid of nutritional value.
The refined variety also depletes nutrients stored in the body. To absorb and metabolize natural sweeteners, vitamins – including B1, B3, and C, as well as trace amounts of minerals including sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium (electrolytes) – are required.
Therefore, when a sweetener is consumed, it should be as minimally processed as possible. Though the actual nutritional benefits of natural sweeteners do not outweigh the fact that they are still sugars, there are some potentially health benefits to including naturally sweetened items in one’s diet versus empty calorie foods with a high sugar content.
Processed Varieties: Which Should You Choose?
In The Great American Detox Diet, author and certified health and nutrition counselor Alex Jamieson says minimally processed sugar has a less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels. And it retains key nutrients to assist the body in metabolizing it, while still satisfying your sweet tooth.
Check out The Great American Detox Diet for yourself, available on Amazon.
To transition away from more processed versions, Jamieson recommends the following natural varieties for cooking and baking:
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Florida crystals
- Maple crystals
- Agave nectar or syrup
- Barley malt syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Maple syrup
- Date sugar
- Honey (raw)
But again, keep in mind that this recommendation encourages a transition away from empty calorie foods made with corn syrup and refined sugar towards healthier whole food options that are packed with nutritional value. Adding a few naturally sweetened but highly processed items on top of one’s regular consumption of soda and sweets does not equal a healthy choice.
Sugar by Any Other Name
Did you know that sugar goes by over 60 different names on food labels?
In addition to the various types of simple carbohydrates that we know as sugars, you’ll find many different ingredients on food labels that qualify, some familiar like many of those listed above, and others relatively unknown.
When you’re reading those Nutrition Facts labels and you see the grams of sugar but don’t recognize it in the ingredients, you may not realize just how much is added to your food.
Though many foods naturally contain sweetening agents, it is also added during processing to improve the taste of processed foods and increase shelf life. Thus, there is a difference between an ingredient that is added (hence the name “added sugar”) and naturally occurring sweetener (which should be limited, nonetheless).
Recent updates to food labels have been made to help consumers make more informed decisions concerning sugar intake. Take a look at added sugar content and recommended serving sizes to get a better idea of the impact that certain processed foods may have on your diet, and your health.
From Lisa D’Agrosa, M.S., R.D. at EatingWell, some other names for natural sweeteners include:
- Cane crystals
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Evaporated cane juice
- Evaporated sugar cane
- Granulated sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Crystal dextrose
Yes, food manufacturers cleverly disguise sweeteners to the point where you practically need a nutrition degree to know exactly what you’re getting.
Cut Added Consumption
Reduce the amount you consume by increasing your intake of foods that don’t need a label, like fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with healthy carbs, to fuel your body without any added ingredients.
When you do consume sugar, choose a minimally processed version like those found on the list above to the exclusion of refined versions that have been stripped of nutrients during processing, but (and this is a big BUT) still be sure to limit intake.
Just because one variety may be a better choice, this doesn’t mean you can eat as much of it as you want. Your body may suffer future health consequences from excess honey or agave syrup intake just as it might from high fructose corn syrup.
Myth #2: The Real Thing Is Worse for You than Artificial Sweeteners
Several decades ago, there was a big shift to artificial sweeteners, based on the belief that they were healthier than the processed white stuff. But the obesity epidemic has continued to worsen.
This prompted a review of research regarding low-calorie artificial sweeteners, which was used by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to recommend in 2015 that they are not “for use as a primary replacement/substitute for added sugars in foods and beverages.”
“When artificial sweeteners started gaining popularity, it seemed like they were a godsend for people who were watching their weight, or who had chronic health problems. Little did we know, these little packs of sweetness came along with huge baggage,” said Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse and founder of RemediesForMe.com.
Added Lee, “Artificial sweeteners can cause weight gain, metabolic syndrome… diabetes… urinary problems, bloating, and irritability — just to name a few! Artificial sweeteners were first linked to cancer back in the 1970s; lab rats were developing bladder cancer.”
Though non-human studies aren’t always an accurate indicator of similar health outcomes in humans, other recent studies such as these have found that saccharine (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), and other artificial substitutes may indeed be just as bad, or worse, than the real thing, altering glucose and insulin levels, and increasing rates of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and excessive weight gain in cases where they were consumed frequently.
Low-calorie artificial sweeteners have also been found to destroy beneficial microorganisms in the gut, contributing to a variety of negative potential outcomes that include reducing vitamin absorption, obesity, high blood sugar levels, and even mental health issues like anxiety.
It’s Time to Rethink Your Drink
Still think your diet soda is a healthier option?
This study suggests that diet soda is not an ideal substitute for sweetened beverages, and may be associated with a greater risk of stroke, myocardial infarction, or vascular death than regular soda.
And not just by a little bit – by an astonishing 61 percent among those who drank diet soda daily, as compared to those who drank no soda!
Evidence has shown that consuming artificial sweeteners in diet soda may be dangerous, but added sugar is as well. If you’re drinking any beverages that contain sweeteners (such as regular soda, energy and sports drinks, or sweet tea), now is a great time to cut down on the empty calories, and switch to water or herbal teas to quench your thirst.
Myth #3: Too Much Causes Diabetes
Contrary to popular belief, consuming the sweet stuff does not directly cause diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is typically an inherited condition, passed down genetically from one’s parents.
But, wait a minute – it’s not that simple. Natural sweeteners can alter gene expression.
Excessive intake can cause an increase in adipose tissue (a.k.a. fat), which in turn may cause metabolic and physiologic changes that can lead to insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes, which develops during adulthood, occurs as a result of insulin resistance that leads to hyperglycemia.
While people with diabetes do typically have a genetic predisposition towards it, lifestyle factors such as obesity related to the over-consumption of sweeteners and a sedentary lifestyle play a major role in the development of the disease.
“Genes that are involved in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of cancer respond to diet, and are up-regulated, or activated, by a carbohydrate-rich diet,” biology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Berit Johansen has said, based on her extensive research.
Myth #4: Fruit Is Bad Because It Contains Fructose
Decades ago, sugar producers tried to convince the US population, with some success, that fruit is bad for you because of its fructose content. As mentioned above, fructose can negatively impact your health.
However, fruit has relatively low levels of fructose in comparison to processed foods. And it also contains vitamins, nutrients, and fiber to slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
Compare a cup of fresh apricot slices (which contains about one-third of a teaspoon or 1.46 grams of fructose) to a cup of dried apricots like those found in a trail mix (with over three teaspoons, or 16.21 grams of fructose). That’s about 11 times as much!
In terms of the total amount, there’s about 69 grams (over 17 teaspoons!) in a cup of dried apricots, versus 15 grams in a cup of the fresh fruit.
Because many more apricots fit into a cup serving when they’re dried, the fructose content is more concentrated. Deciding which one to choose to decrease your consumption is a no-brainer.
Though fructose enters the bloodstream quickly, it has to be converted into glucose by the liver first, which slows down metabolic effects that would otherwise cause a spike in blood sugar levels.
To help determine how quickly it raises blood glucose levels, the glycemic index (GI) was established, and each food was measured to see where it falls on the scale. The lower the GI value, the more slowly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream a food is.
Fruits with lower GI values, such as apples with the skin on and other fruits that have edible skins, should be chosen over high GI foods like bananas, though healthy people who eat a balanced diet can typically consume fruit without worry.
Got the Sweet Tooth Blues?
When you’re craving a treat, eat some fresh fruit to curb the desire while satisfying your sweet tooth. It contains many nutrients that promote satiety, including dietary fiber, so you won’t overeat.
If you’re worried about the effects of fructose, limit your servings of fruit to two daily.
Myth #5: It’s not Addictive, It’s Mind over Matter
In animal studies, sugar has been shown to be addictive, causing the common symptoms of an addictive substance including craving, bingeing, and withdrawal.
The Struggle Is Real!
We know that in humans, the addictive properties in natural sweeteners can have a similar effect on the brain as alcohol and cocaine. Lighting up the same pleasure centers as these drugs do, a sugar habit can seem like it’s impossible to kick.
Over time, your body also needs increased amounts to give you the same feel-goods.
“When we eat something sweet, our brain’s reward center, or “nucleus accumbens,” is triggered, causing a release of dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter.
“Over time we develop a tolerance… the body seeks more in order to reinforce this feeling. Thus a vicious cycle kicks in, and we will inevitably experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to reduce sugar consumption, like with any other addiction,” Dr. Nguyen stated.
For further reading, check out Dr. Nyguen’s The Thinsulin Program: The Breakthrough Solution to Help You Lose Weight and Stay Thin.
Cutting Back: The Good News!
To eliminate excess consumption and avoid withdrawal symptoms, reduce intake slowly. Add more whole foods to your diet while reducing and then remove the sweetened goods.
An easy way to reduce your dependence on sweeteners is to replace one beverage per week with water, until you’ve eliminated all sweetened drinks.
One small study of 20 participants found that after just two weeks of eliminating added sugar and artificial sweeteners, 95 percent said their sweet goods tasted too sweet, or sweeter than they had before.
Not only that, but at the end of the study, 95 percent of participants said they would use less or even no sugar going forward. The majority of those studied stopped craving sweetness in less than one week.
Shocking! Did You Know These 7 Foods Have So Much Sugar?
Before you head to the grocery store, do a little research on your favorite foods to find out how much added sugar they contain. You might be surprised to discover just how much sweetener is packed into tiny serving sizes, even more if you dish out a “serving” that’s larger than what the label describes.
According to SugarStacks.com, a site that uses cubes of sugar to illustrate the sweetener content of foods, some that have (unnecessarily) high amounts include:
- Flavored yogurt– 27 grams per 6 oz. container of strawberry Yoplait
- Protein/breakfast/granola bars– up to 23 grams per bar
- Frosted Cherry Pop Tarts– 17 grams per pastry, or 34 grams per package
- Flavored water– about 33 grams per 20 ounces, depending on the flavor
- Jamba Juice smoothies– up to 59 grams per 16 ounces
- Prego marinara sauce– 7 grams per 1/2 cup serving
- Kraft honey barbecue sauce– 13 grams per 2 tablespoon serving
I have spent so many hours walking up and down grocery aisles reading labels, I could probably have made a few trips to the moon and back by now. It’s completely worth it, though. When it comes to my family’s health, nothing is more important than purchasing high-quality, healthy foods.
Take your time on the next few trips to the store, and you’ll be a label pro in no time! And of course, the more you shop in the produce section and buy whole foods, the less labels you’ll need to read.
Quick Tips to Demystify Food Labels:
- Watch out for “healthy” options. If you see “low ____” (i.e. low fat, low salt, etc.) on the label, avoid it. Sugar is usually added to improve taste after removing other ingredients.
- Go Natural. Choose foods without added or artificial sweeteners. And cut down overall sugar intake to reduce your risk of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
- Less is more. Stick to foods with short ingredient lists and/or packaged foods that have ingredients you recognize (not scientific names for artificial additives or hidden sweeteners). The more ingredients there are, the greater the likelihood of consuming nutritionally devoid artificial preservatives and added sugars. Generally, if I can’t pronounce an ingredient or don’t recognize something named on the label, I put it right back on the shelf.
- Don’t eat the whole thing! Check serving sizes to make sure you’re not unintentionally consuming more sugar than you bargained for. Some manufacturers reduce serving sizes, which misrepresents the amount of sweetener or calories you are actually eating.
Bottom Line: Do You Really Need to Drop the Doughnut?
Sweet treats are nearly impossible to avoid in social situations, and deprivation can lead to binge eating.
If you want to enjoy a sweet treat occasionally, do so guilt free. But avoid artificial sweeteners and keep consumption well under the limits recommended by the AHA and WHO, as well as the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
This report, developed jointly by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture to promote public health, recommends that less than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugars.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, only 200 calories should come from natural sweeteners, or about 50 grams. This handy calculator can help you to determine your maximum daily recommended amount.
Based on a review of scientific literature, the Dietary Guidelines were established because “Strong evidence shows that higher consumption of added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes among adults,” and “that intake of added sugars from food and/or [sweetened] beverages are associated with excess body weight in children and adults.”
So What Should You Eat?
Some of the key recommendations for a healthy eating pattern in the Dietary Guidelines include:
- An assortment of vegetables from each subgroup, including starchy, beans, peas, dark green, red, and orange
- Grains, with a minimum of 50 percent whole grains
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Protein foods, including lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy, seeds, and nuts
- Limit saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sweeteners
A great way to enjoy the foods you love with less worry about high sugar content is to make your own at home. Try our recipes for homemade barbecue sauce, ketchup, marinara sauce, and granola bars to get started.
Have you cut added sugar out of your diet on your quest for better health, or conquered the challenge of deciphering food labels? We’d love to hear about it! Share your stories in the comments below.
The health information in this article is not intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease. Please consult with your health care professional before making any dietary changes.
Photo credit: Shutterstock. Last updated: May 2, 2023 at 12:26 pm. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.
About Tiffany Boutwell
Tiffany Boutwell is a Certified Nutritional Consultant, Holistic Health Practitioner, and owner of Natural Apple Holistic Health. Tiffany believes chronic illness stems from improper nutrition, and that a diet rich in whole foods can help people to be free from the undesirable effects of the Standard American Diet. She resides on a farm in Kentucky with her family where she enjoys reading, yoga, and writing. Tiffany has authored an e-cookbook and health articles in various publications.