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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Jul 7, 2016 - 5:36:25 PM

What Do You Really Know About Sugar?

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN - Food and Nutrition Columnist -
Dec 2, 2012 - 10:59:04 AM

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( - When asked what they know about sugar, people usually say we eat too much of it and it is bad for you. Yet, most people actually know very little about the different types of sugar. Few understand natural sugars versus added sugars. And, if you ask,no one would say we are eating less sugar today than we ate a decade ago. But, we are.

For the average American, sugar makes up 14.6% of their daily calories, down from 18.1% a decade ago. That's an important downward trend, resulting mostly from a reduction in the amount of regular soda we drink. Soda is the number one source of added sugar in the American diet.

Here is the next distinction - added sugar versus natural sugar. Many foods - fruits, vegetables, milk and dairy foods contain natural sugars. Added sugars are those added in food production or at the table, like sugar in your coffee or presweetened cereal you buy for breakfast. Unfortunately, the nutrition label does not distinguish between added sugars and natural sugars. If you buy a container of fat free milk -- an excellent beverage loaded with calcium, potassium and vitamin D -- the side of the carton will tell you 1 cup of milk has 12 grams of sugar. All of this sugar is natural sugar - lactose - found in milk. If you buy a container of sweetened lemonade - a beverage with no redeeming value besides a pleasant, sweet taste - the label tells you there are 27 grams of sugar in 1 cup. Unless you look at the ingredient list, you have no way of knowing that the sugar in the lemonade is added.

When health experts suggest limiting your sugar intake, they are focused on added sugar not natural sugar. The American Heart Association has recommended women limit their added sugar intake to 100 calories or 6 teaspoons a day. Men should aim for no more than 9 teaspoons. That is easy to recommend but difficult to achieve. First, you need to know that 1 teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams because sugar on the nutrition label is listed in grams. Then you would need to add up your grams of sugar throughout the day - a maximum of 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men. The next obstacle, as I have already noted, is that the nutrition label does not distinguish between natural and added sugar, making it even harder to keep track of your daily added sugar intake.

You can figure out if a food has a good deal of added sugar by looking at the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed here by order of dominance. Ingredients at the beginning of the list are found in larger amounts in the food than those listed at the end of the list. When sugar ranks as the first or second ingredient, you can be confident the food has a lot of added sugar. Now we come to another problem - sugar is not always called sugar.

If you see any of the following terms in the ingredient listing, it simply means sugar by another name - high fructose corn syrup, HFCS, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, date syrup, evaporated cane juice, agave syrup, brown rice syrup, maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrate, honey, molasses and dextrose. Short of walking around with a magnifying glass and calculator every day, how does the average person reduce their sugar intake?

Regular soda makes up almost one-third of our daily added sugar intake. Sweetened fruit drinks account for another 10%. So, any steps you take to cut down on drinking soda and sweet fruit drinks will cut your sugar intake dramatically, Second, food companies are giving us a helping hand by slowly lowering the amount of sugar found in foods they produce. General Mills has committed to gradually reducing the sugar levels in their sweetened cereals from 13 grams (over 3 teaspoons) per serving in 2007, to 11 grams (slightly under 3 teaspoons) in 2009, to an ultimate goal of 9 grams (just over 2 teaspoons) in the future. Slow reformulation works best to allow consumers to gradually get accustomed to the less sweet taste and is far more effective in changing behavior than abrupt product changes.

Sweetened cereals make up about 12% of the added sugar we eat daily. Sugars and sweet treats make up close to 14%. Add that to the 30% of added sugar that comes from soda and the 10% from sweetened fruit drinks and this accounts for two-thirds of the added sugar you eat each day.

Drink water or diet drinks instead of soda and sweet drinks. Buy unsweetened cereal. If that is a hard sell at home, buy 1 unsweetened cereal and top it off with 1/3 cup of sweetened cereal. That is no different than adding a teaspoon of sugar. Go easy on sweets. Try 100-calorie packs of cookies instead of opening a box. Eat snack size candy bars. Small incremental steps, done consistently can result in big changes. You don't have to give up sugar just try to eat less of it.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.

Look for:

The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012

The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011

The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011

The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010

The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010

The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009

The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008

The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008

Your Complete Food Counter App:


For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:

For advertising and promotion on please contact Mike McCurdy: [email protected] or 877-634-9180 is syndicated worldwide, to thousands of journalists in all media,  and health-related websites.




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