Babies are born with a sweet tooth, which makes perfect sense since their mom’s milk is high in the sugar lactose. From a biological point of view, a preference for sweets helped early humans survive. Bitter compounds found in some berries, greens and vegetables are toxic whereas most edible fruits and milk contain natural sugars. So way back when, sweetness meant a food was safe to eat.
But modern man hasn’t fared so well with this natural sweet tooth. Particularly in America, the use of refined sweeteners has soared over the past 40 years. It is estimated that over 16% of the calories in children’s diets now come from added sugars. Refined sugars are considered “empty calories” because they provide little in the way of nutrition. When kids fill up on sugary foods, there is little room left for nutritious choices such as whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein foods. Exposing teeth to sugary foods and drinks over the course of the day also leads to tooth decay.
Because calories from sugary beverages don’t fill us up or satisfy us like solid foods do, they are often just “add-on” calories that contribute to excess calories and weight gain.
Below is a primer designed to help your family develop some sugar sense and still enjoy sweets in moderation.
How much is too much?
The American Heart Association advises a daily limit of 6-9 teaspoons (24-36 grams) of added sugar. That adds up quickly! For reference, one 12 ounce can of a sweetened soft drink has around 40 grams of added sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 advise limiting sugars to no more than 10% of total calories. For a typical 2000 calorie diet, that adds up to 12.5 teaspoons (50 grams) of sugar. Even though that sounds like a lot, most Americans of all ages are still exceeding this more generous limit.
Natural vs. Added Sugars
While whole, unprocessed foods such as fruit, some vegetables and milk contain natural sugars, most of the sugar in our food supply comes from added sugars. Added sugars include the various sweeteners added to beverages, processed and prepared foods.
A look at the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t help much when you are trying to distinguish between natural and added sugars. For instance, there are 12 grams of lactose in one cup of milk so if you are looking at a container of chocolate milk with 23 grams of sugar per cup, that means 11 grams are from added sugars. A cup of fat-free Greek yogurt has 9 grams of natural sugars so anything above that in a flavored yogurt is considered added sugar. If a product is 100% fruit, vegetable or juice, all of the sugar on the label is naturally occurring. (With fruit juice, even though the sugars are natural, they are highly concentrated so it’s important to limit to 4-8 ounces daily and choose whole fruit most of the time.)
The FDA is proposing the addition of “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label which would be a big win for health conscious consumers.. Let’s hope this proposal actually comes to no-sugar-added fruition!
The food supply is filled with processed foods that are a source of hidden sugar, yet aren’t considered a sweet or a treat. While recently perusing products in the grocery store, I found barbecue sauce with 14 grams of sugar in a 2 tablespoon serving, canned baked beans with 10 grams of sugar per 1/2 cup, spaghetti sauce with 10 grams of sugar per 1/2 cup serving and salad dressing with 8 grams of sugar in a 2 tablespoon serving. Ketchup contributes a lot of added sugar because we eat so much of it. One tablespoon of ketchup has about 4 grams of sugar (roughly 2 grams are added sugars). With careful label reading, you can drastically cut back on hidden sugars and it’s likely that you and your family won’t notice much difference.
Be a Sugar Sleuth
There are many ways to say “sugar” on food labels. All of the following are forms of sugar: high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, cane sugar, cane juice, molasses, honey, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fructose, invert sugar, brown rice syrup and fruit juice concentrates. Also, when looking at a label, look for the position of sugar in the ingredient list. The closer to the top of the list, the more added sugar is contained in the food.
The best way to enjoy your “added sugar budget” is to use small amounts to enhance healthy foods. For instance, your child may eat more whole grains if you add 1 teaspoon of grape jelly (4 grams of sugar) or 1 teaspoon of honey (5 grams of sugar) to a slice of whole wheat toast or a whole grain mini-bagel. Adding 1 teaspoon of molasses or maple syrup to home-cooked oatmeal adds 5 grams of sugar and contains far less than a typical bowl of presweetened cereal. A dessert of 1/2 cup vanilla ice cream topped with fresh sliced strawberries has just 10 grams of added sugar. And my personal favorite, one ounce of dark chocolate after a meal contains 10-12 grams of added sugar. Most importantly, watch portion sizes when enjoying occasional sweets and treats.