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Published on June 15, 2020

Become a Sugar Detective

girl with magnifying glass

If you’re like most people, you have a sweet tooth, and while an occasional treat is okay, Americans get far more sugar in our diets than we should. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes 74 pounds of sugar a year! 

That’s 23 teaspoons of added sugar a day, an extra 460 calories. 

No wonder excess sugar is a major factor in our country’s obesity epidemic, which is creating an increase in major health issues such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

How to identify added sugar

To keep track of how much sugar – especially added sugar – you consume, EvergreenHealth’s Marcy Dorsey, MS, RD, CD, says you need to become a “sugar detective.”

“Look for ‘clues’ to all the sugars in processed foods,” says Marcy. “Sugars appear on food labels under a variety of different names, so you need to learn what to look for.”

Nutrition labels list the total sugar in a food, but not how much is added sugar versus naturally occurring sugar. 

Naturally occurring sugars are found in whole foods like fruit (fructose), milk (lactose), and some grains. 

Unlike sugar added to foods during processing, these foods also contain nutrients and fiber. 

You need to use your sugar detecting skills to identify added sources of sugar in a food’s ingredient list, such as the types below. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends avoiding products that have one of these added sugars near the top of the ingredient list or contain several of them in smaller amounts. 

  • Agave nectar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextrose, dextrin
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sorghum
  • Sucrose
  • Syrup – including brown rice syrup
  • Sugar – including granulated sugar, confectioners’ sugar, turbinado sugar
  • Sugar alcohols -- including sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol – often found in mints and gum

How much sugar should we consume?

Marcy also recommends that people follow AHA guidelines for limits on how much added sugar they consume:  

  • Women should consume 24 grams or less (about 6 teaspoons or 100 calories) a day
  • Men should consume 36 grams or less (about 9 teaspoons) a day

That may sound like a lot, but a 12-ounce can of most soft drinks contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar – more than a day’s allotment!

Sugar is a carbohydrate, and while your body needs carbs for energy, they need to come from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, rather than from refined sugars. 

Healthy carbs provide your body with the fuel it needs for an active day of exercise, while sugar provides only a quick burst of energy and then a “sugar crash.”

Excess sugar in the diet disrupts your metabolism, leaving you vulnerable to obesity, high triglycerides, and inflammation, in turn putting you at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes.

And if you are filling up on sugary foods, you’re probably eating less of the nutritious foods your body needs.

Watch out for soda

Soda is one of the biggest sources of sugar in our diets with 40 grams per 12-ounce can. 

Many other drinks are high in sugar as well, including lemonade, fruit punch, sweetened tea and coffee drinks, and energy drinks. Even 100% fruit juice is high in natural sugars.  

The best choice for staying hydrated is water. If you don’t like plain water, try adding a squeeze of lemon, lime, or orange juice.

Or pretend you’re at the spa and make a pitcher of water with sliced cucumber and a handful of fresh mint.

Other alternatives to soda are sparkling water or herbal iced tea.

Healthy foods...that aren't

Other foods that seem healthy actually contain added sugars.

  • Many packaged foods contain sugar to help them rise, extend their shelf life, balance acidity, or improve flavor or texture.
  • Watch for added sugars in things like spaghetti sauce, canned fruits and vegetables, and bread. 
  • Sweetened foods such as yogurt and cereal contain high amounts of sugar. 
  • Condiments are another hidden source – barbecue sauce, ketchup, salad dressing (especially low-fat varieties), and other sauces often contain lots of honey or sugar.

Other ways to cut back on sugar

You can reduce the amount of sugar in recipes, using natural sources like fruit purees that contain vitamins, not just calories, or use a sugar substitute. 

Baking desserts with less sugar is a little tricky, but it can be done. 

You can reduce the sugar in recipes by up to one third, which you can do without noticing much difference in taste, and add spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, or flavorings such as vanilla extract to boost sweetness without sugar. 

Easy Home Cooking magazine suggests using two egg whites in place of each egg in a recipe to make up for the volume lost by using less sugar.  It also suggests using pureed dried fruit or bananas, or a fruit juice reduction, to add sweetness and moisture to baked goods. 

Take the time to be a sugar detective and find the sugar sources in your foods.  Once you know what to look for, you can make better choices to limit your sugar intake and still eat well.


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