Cutting Back on Added Sugar
Where are added sugars hiding?
Most of us know the primary sources of added sugar, like sugary beverages (sodas, energy drinks, fruit punch, and sports drinks), sugary cereals, candy, cookies, ice cream, and flavored yogurts. Over 75% of the sugar in a typical American diet comes from these easily identified (and easily avoided) sources. However, added sugars are also hidden in some surprising foods, like whole-grain cereals, granola bars, bread, pasta sauces, and condiments like barbecue sauce, ketchup, and salad dressings.
What counts as “added sugar”?
Any sugar that you use in cooking, plus any sugar in processed foods and beverages counts as added sugar. Keep in mind, you’ll find sugar listed under many different names on nutrition labels (for example, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, and brown rice syrup). What doesn’t count? Naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in dairy products (lactose) and fruit. Fruit is relatively high in sugar, but it also contains beneficial nutrients (like fiber and vitamins), and while it is possible to eat too much sugar by eating a lot of fruit, that is not the real problem for most of us.
How to cut back?
Once you know how to look for hidden sugars, you can start to make small changes. Try to buy foods labeled "no added sugar" or "unsweetened." For example, it’s easy to find unsweetened versions of common foods like almond milk, nut butters, applesauce, and oatmeal. Practice reading labels; ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight, so if sugar is near the top of the list, that is a red flag. Aim for gradual changes rather than a drastic overhaul. For example, if you usually put two teaspoons of sugar in your coffee, try adding just one for a week, then just half a teaspoon, and finally try adding only a splash of milk. If you like yogurt, try mixing half a serving of sweetened yogurt with half a serving of plain, and eventually move on to adding natural sweetness to plain yogurt with fresh fruit (as this author is currently working to do!). As your family's taste buds adjust, you can gradually use less and less of your usual sweetened varieties. When preparing food at home, try using vanilla, baking spices, and citrus zest to add sweetness to foods without having to use sugar. For example, rather than buying flavored oatmeal, add a “sweet” kick to unsweetened oats with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
Focus on creating a healthy balance rather than on maintaining a completely sugar-free diet, and try to save the sweet stuff for special occasions. Over time, cutting back on foods with added sugars can reduce your risk of chronic diseases and make it easier to get the nutrients your body needs without exceeding your calorie goals.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
Photo credit: American Heart Association Web Site. Sugar 101. Updated Nov 19, 2014. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Sugar-101_UCM_306024_Article.jsp#.VuW1tFJOLFI.