What do agave nectar, barley malt, cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, honey, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, molasses and sucrose have in common?
They all translate to “sugar.”
Consumers who don’t recognize those words on processed food labels likely are eating much more added sugar than they realize, says Shelly Debnath, MS, RDN, a nutrition consultant and educator in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, region. People also may mistakenly believe that certain types of sweeteners contribute less to the health risks posed by too much sugar.
“Sugar contributors that are considered ‘healthy’ alternatives include honey and maple syrup, or concentrated sugars derived from fruit, such as fructose,” Debnath says. “Sugar is sugar.”
The problem is with packaged goods containing added sugars, not the natural, energy-boosting sugars in whole foods such as fruit or plain dairy. A diet heavy in added sugars can cause chronic inflammation and raise the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, especially in people with a genetic predisposition for a disease.
Since current food labels lump all sugars together, knowing how to decipher an ingredient list is important, says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, a Chicago-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Ingredients appear in order based on weight – so if, for example, “corn syrup” is anywhere near the top of a list, that’s a red flag.
Many popular foods have a surprising amount of added sugars, from coffee drinks to pasta sauces to “fruit-flavored” snacks. “All sugar has four calories per gram, regardless of the name it’s given,” Bruning notes. “Some sugar in your daily diet is OK for most people, but you don’t want it to become excessive.”
During digestion, the body converts carbohydrates into glucose, an energy source that is stored as fat if not burned off with activity. People who eat too many sugary and high-fat processed goods also tend to miss out on needed vitamins and minerals, Debnath says: “This is why an overweight or obese person can still be considered malnourished.”
The Food and Drug Administration recommends getting less than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars. To help consumers meet that goal, the FDA will require Nutrition Facts labels on most products to include a separate “added sugars” category by 2018.
“That will make it much easier to identify those sugars that have been added to foods for taste, texture or quality reasons,” Bruning says. “So where plain milk will only contain natural sugars, flavored milks like chocolate and strawberry will typically have added sugar.”
The best strategy is to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and foods without added sugars, such as unsweetened applesauce or fruit leather. Unlike orange juice, for example, an actual orange contains fiber that promotes slower digestion and decreased absorption of simple sugars. Plant foods also are dense in vitamins and antioxidants, generally low in calories and – if given a chance – really can make taste buds happy, dietitians say.