It’s been a rough decade for sugar. The sweet stuff has a dark side, as emerging research suggests it may play a role in weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.
While it’s not all bad, most people are eating waaaay too much. The typical American eats 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day. That adds up to… wait for it… 57 pounds of added sugar per year!
That’s about 1/3 cup per day, in case you’d prefer to just scoop it out of the bag and eat it by the spoonful, Mary Poppins-style.
And while research suggests that sugar consumption has been decreasing across the board, cutting added sugar can be really difficult because it has about a billion ingredient label aliases that allow it to slide by undetected.
Here’s a guide to what exactly added sugar is, the many names for added sugar, and some easy ways to cut your added sugar intake.
Let’s go to sugar school real quick. Carbohydrates are made of long chains of individual sugar molecules. (Yup, even the carbs in foods that don’t taste sweet, like potatoes, pasta, and rice.)
Here are the key players:
- Glucose. This is the sugar your body burns for energy. Your body can also convert the other types of sugar to glucose.
- Fructose. Fructose is found in fruits and vegetables (alongside glucose), and it’s actually metabolized in your liver, much like alcohol. Research suggests large amounts of fructose (like those found in processed foods and soda) may contribute to a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Yikes.
- Galactose. Galactose is the sugar molecule found in dairy products like milk and yogurt (along with some glucose).
For a fun science experiment, bite into a saltine and let it sit on your tongue without chewing or swallowing. After a minute or so, you’ll start to notice a sweet taste. This is because your saliva contains an enzyme that whacks individual sugars off each end of the carb chains that make up the cracker. The More You Know!
So, what’s added sugar?
Glucose, fructose, and galactose are all naturally occurring — mostly in grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and dairy products.
But added sugars are the ones that are added to foods or drinks during or after processing.
That would include the sugar that’s added to things like cake, candy, ice cream, soda, and so on. It would also include the sugar you put in your oatmeal, tea, or coffee; the syrup you drizzle on your pancakes; and the chocolate syrup you occasionally squeeze from the bottle directly into your mouth.
While naturally occurring sugars have been part of the human diet for… well, forever, really, added sugars are a fairly recent development — especially in the huge quantities we have access to today.
Research suggests there’s a connection between added sugars and obesity, and they’ve been linked to increasing rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and even depression.
IDing added sugar
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugar should make up less than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even more stringent recommendations, urging that it’s best to limit added sugars to less than 5 percent of your daily calorie intake.
Luckily, food manufacturers now are required to disclose the added sugar content of foods on the nutrition label, which makes it a bit easier to identify sources of added sugar in your diet.
This is a GREAT thing, because there are more than 50 names for sugar that can show up on ingredient labels, making it really difficult to ID added sugar without the assist from the nutrition label.
Most common added sugars
Here are some of the most common sugars you’ll run across:
- Sucrose. Sucrose, which may also be called table sugar or granulated sugar on food labels, is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. This is the stuff you buy at the grocery store.
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HCFS has taken a lot of heat lately, and many companies are moving away from using it. It used to be extremely common in processed foods and sodas, but its higher fructose content (hence the name) — about 55 percent — makes it potentially more taxing on the liver than plain ol’ sugar.
- Agave nectar. If you consider yourself remotely crunchy, then you’re probably familiar with agave nectar. Like honey, it wears a major health halo. But since it’s about 85 percent fructose, it’s probably not much healthier than other types of sugar — especially if you’re consuming it in large quantities.
- Fruit juice. Fruit juice is a natural sweetener, but it’s still considered an added sugar. It’s really common in “healthier” products for kids, like gummy fruit snacks.
- Honey. Honey is another natural sweetener that contains glucose and fructose. Although it definitely has some health benefits, it’s still considered an added sugar. Consuming large amounts of honey will have similar effects to table sugar on your body.
Other added sugars
But that’s not all, folks! There are more than 50 (no exaggeration) more words for sugar that you may find on ingredient labels. Here’s a whole mess of ’em:
- Barbados sugar
- barley malt
- barley malt syrup
- beet sugar
- brown sugar
- brown rice syrup
- buttered syrup
- cane crystals
- cane juice
- cane sugar
- carob syrup
- castor sugar
- coconut palm sugar
- coconut sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- crystalline fructose
- date sugar
- dehydrated cane juice
- demerara sugar
- evaporated cane juice
- free-flowing brown sugar
- fruit juice concentrate
- glucose solids
- golden sugar
- grape sugar
- icing sugar
- invert sugar
- malt sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- palm sugar
- powdered sugar
- raw sugar
- refiner’s syrup
- rice syrup
- sorghum syrup
- sweet sorghum
- turbinado sugar
- yellow sugar
- Limit the main culprits. The most common sources of added sugar for Americans are sugar-sweetened drinks, candy and pastries, and ice cream. You may also want to switch to unsweetened ketchup and sugar-free spaghetti sauce, as these products are often weirdly loaded with the sweet stuff.
- Use alternative sweeteners. There are plenty of great alternative sweeteners on the market. We’re fond of stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol. (It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though: Studies suggest some alternative sweeteners may negatively affect gut bacteria and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. But more research is needed.)
- Retrain your taste buds. If you’re used to having honey in your tea or sweetened cream in your coffee, there’s no need to ax it right off the bat. Just start using a little less and continue decreasing it over time. Within a few weeks, you’ll be used to a less sweet taste.
And remember, you don’t have to completely remove added sugar from your diet. That would be pretty tough, actually. Just make it a point to minimize your added sugar intake. ’Cause you know what? You’re sweet enough already.
- Many foods naturally contain sugar (think fruits and veggies, grains, and milk), but added sugars are those that are added to foods during or after processing (think cake, candy, soda, and the sugar in your coffee or tea).
- Added sugars have been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and a bunch of other health conditions.
- For optimal health, the WHO (not the classic rock band, the other one) recommends limiting added sugars to less than 5 percent of your daily calorie intake.
- Nutrition labels are now required to list added sugars, which is helpful because sugar has more than 50 different names that you might find on ingredient lists.
- To limit your added sugars, you can check those food labels; decrease your intake of soda, candy, and processed snacks; use alt sweeteners like stevia; and retrain your taste buds to prefer less-sweet foods.