In an era of “I Quit Sugar,” anything with a drop of sweetness has been quickly demonized. But this villainous reputation is well deserved: Excess sugar consumption has been linked to a host of illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver cirrhosis and dementia. Studies show that sugar can be as addictive as cocaine, and its sneaky forms can derail even the most well-intentioned diets without many of us realizing it.
But thanks to the FDA’s recently approved revisions to Nutrition Facts labels, you’ll have a better idea of exactly how much sugar is in your food. And the new labels (which are set to be introduced in 2018) will require food manufacturers to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars in their foods.
Label Me This: Added Sugars
According to the FDA, the term “added sugars” will include sugars that are added during the manufacturing process (i.e., any sugars that aren’t naturally present in the food itself). The new category will be listed right under the “Total sugars” line that’s already on today’s food labels. The goal is to help people know where the sugars they’re consuming come from and become aware of just how many sugars are added to foods during the manufacturing process.
Currently, added sugars make up around 13 percent of the average American’s diet, with the biggest sugary culprits being soft drinks, fruit drinks, sport and energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea, candies and desserts. And research shows that it’s hard to meet calorie and nutrient goals when more than 10 percent of a person’s daily calories come from added sugar. In other words, all this added sugar consumption makes it harder for Americans to get and stay healthy.
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A Sugar by Any Other Name…
While the new FDA labels will help people better understand the sugar content of their food (i.e. how much of the sugar in their food is naturally occurring and how much is added in), it’s still up to consumers to learn how to recognize sugar on food labels in the first place.
“Sugar is the master of disguise,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, founder of BetterthanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It. “It can appear on a label under so many aliases, from organic cane juice to high fructose corn syrup.”
And it can get even trickier than that. “A lot of foods have sugar listed so many different times in different positions on the label. If you’re just looking for sugar, you might think a product is healthier than it actually is because “sugar” only appears once,” says Taub-Dix. If you see any of the following words before the word “sugar” or “syrup,” that means you’re looking at another name for sugar:
So what’s a person who’s trying to limit their sugar intake to do? A good rule of thumb is to look for words ending in “-ose,” says McKel Hill, MS, RD, and creator of Nutrition Stripped. (Think glucose, sucrose, fructose, and so on.)
Straight A students might even want to bring a list to the grocery store. Enter Hill’s printable guide to hidden sugars (also listed below), which handily breaks them down. Even though all of these words represent essentially the same thing — sugar — these ingredients aren’t necessarily created equal.
Don’t Sweat the Sweet Stuff
More research is needed to determine whether natural sugars are a healthier choice than other sugars, says Hill. But it’s possible that natural sugars — including agave nectar, coconut sugar, honey and maple syrup — may be more healthful than other varieties because they tend to be “packaged in their natural form, which contains fibers, vitamins and minerals,” she says.
Case in point? Fresh fruit contains a fair amount of sugar, but it also includes nutrients and fiber that make it a healthier choice than eating a spoonful of sugar straight from the bowl. Still, Hill points out, “[All types of] sugar will affect blood sugars and insulin.”
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Lori Zanini, RDN, CDE, adds, “Natural sugars are still sugar. All sugars contain the same amount of calories, and all sugars will cause an increase in blood sugar levels.”
What seems to matter more than the type of sugar a person consumes is the quantity they consume. “When it comes to any sugar, portion sizes are the most important consideration,” Zanini advises.
That doesn’t mean that you’re wrong to ever satisfy a sweet tooth. “There are people who act like if you eat any sugar then you’ve had poison,” Taub-Dix says. “But people should be able to enjoy dessert and baked goods at home with their families. I don’t think any food should be demonized.”
Rather than avoiding all traces of sugar, the best approach may simply be moderation. “If you’re going to sweeten a recipe or anything you eat, go for the real thing — like coconut sugar, honey or maple syrup — and use just a small amount to taste,” recommends Hill. She also suggests pairing sweet foods with a protein or healthy fat in order to help stabilize blood sugar.
It’s also important not to get so obsessed with limiting sugar intake that you forget to look at the total profile of the foods you’re eating, says Taub-Dix. Be sure to look at the rest of the food label to determine whether a food has the right quantity of protein, fats, and so on to meet your dietary needs.
Our final word of warning: Once your sugar intake and overall awareness is in check, just don’t let the fear of sugar sour your day.