A spoonful of sugar may very well help the medicine go down, but too many spoonfuls of sugar could end up having a negative impact on your health. This is the message from the many leading health organizations, including the American Heart Association, that are concerned that the average American diet is too high in added sugar.
Distinct from naturally occurring sugars—like the fructose or lactose found, respectively, in fruit and milk—added sugars are any type of sugar or caloric sweetener that is added to foods during processing or preparation. The problem with added sugars is that they contribute additional calories to our diets without giving us any nutritional benefits; our bodies don’t actually need sugars to function properly. As a result, consuming too much added sugar has been associated with a host of health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
To combat these issues, the American Heart Association recommends limiting our daily intake of added sugars to around six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. However, sticking to these intake levels is not always easy because many food manufacturers use added sugars to make their products more appealing. At the same time, these manufacturers employ a variety of strategies to disguise the presence of added sugars. Consequently, it can be difficult for consumers to determine the true added sugar content of many packaged and prepared foods.
Some of the ways that food producers hide added sugar in their products include:
Using different names for sugar.
Spotting added sugar in foods involves more than simply looking to see if the ingredients list includes the word “sugar.” This is because added sugar can come in a wide range of forms, many of which are not called “sugar” at all. Barley malt, crystalline fructose, dextran, fruit juice concentrate, molasses, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, golden syrup, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup are just a few examples of added sugars that go by different names.
Using several different types of sugar.
On a food label, ingredients are listed by weight, starting with the main ingredients and ending with those that are only present in small amounts. It’s not uncommon for food manufacturers to take advantage of this practice by using smaller amounts of several different types of added sugars in their products, instead of a larger amount of just one type. This way, the sugars appear further down on the ingredients list, which can make the product seem like it contains less sugar than it does.
For example, if a manufacturer used only honey to sweeten a product, it might be one of the first items to appear on an ingredients list. However, if the manufacturer uses small amounts each of honey, golden syrup, rice syrup, and rice bran syrup, those ingredients would appear toward the end of the list. A consumer reading such a list might then conclude that, because sugar is not among the main ingredients listed, the product is low in added sugar, even though that isn’t the case.
Adding sugar to unexpected foods.
One particularly tricky thing about added sugars is that they are often found in foods you wouldn’t necessarily expect. For example, while it’s not surprising that products like soda, candy, and many baked goods are high in added sugars, many foods that we don’t typically consider “sweet” can still contain considerable amounts of added sugars. Spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, and processed bread are just a few examples of foods that may contribute to a high daily intake of added sugar precisely because it’s easy to overlook how much sugar they actually contain.
Using “healthy” sweeteners.
To disguise the amount of added sugars in their products, some food manufacturers will swap refined sugar for alternative, “healthier” sweeteners, such as honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. However, it’s important to understand that these sweeteners still count as added sugar and do not provide substantial health benefits over other forms of refined sugar.
Highlighting front-of-package health claims.
In the food industry, it’s common for manufacturers to make health claims on the front of their packages that don’t always match up with the reality of the product’s ingredients. For example, claims like “lightly sweetened” aren’t regulated by the FDA or other regulatory bodies, so foods bearing this label may still contain plenty of added sugars. Similarly, products that are advertised as “low in fat” or “low in sodium” may include even more added sugars to compensate for the ingredients that have been reduced, so they are not exactly a healthier choice.
Using small serving sizes.
The nutrition facts label on packaged foods lists nutritional information, including the amount of sugars, per serving size. However, in some cases, the serving size is much smaller than what the average person would actually consume. For example, a small bag of candy, which someone would typically eat in one sitting, might claim to have three servings per bag. This means that, if you eat the entire bag of candy, your added sugar intake is triple the amount you were expecting.