The Case Against Sugar in Three Parts — Part III– Hidden Sugars

vegs-fruit-1The best ways to keep you and your family healthy is to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can, in as close to their natural state as possible.

This advice came to me many years ago, when I was raising a houseful of children. It was in the La Leche League Breastfeeding manual, which, in those days, I spent lots of time with.  Aside from having plenty of support and advice for moms new to nursing their babies, that book also contained chapters on providing good nutrition for the entire family.  There were many recipes, as well, and I used many of them. But, what has stuck with me to this day from that book, is not any particular trick or method with food. Rather, this undergirding philosophy of the wise women who wrote the book.

Why does that line come to me now as I write about hidden sugars in foods? There are many people who say quickly, “Oh we hardly eat any sugar. We don’t eat desserts often. We don’t drink sodas.” And I know that most people aren’t pouring tons of sugar on their food. Still, even though we know that sugar is linked to diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, for starters, research shows that the average American may be eating around 15 teaspoons (60) grams of added sugar per day. That is a load of non-nutritive food.

The problem is that a large part of the sugar that people eat is “hidden” inside various packaged and processed foods, many of which are then labeled as “healthy.” Here are 7 ways that food companies hide the sugar content in their food.

1. Calling Sugar by a Different Name. Sugar is the general name given to the short-chain carbs that give a sweet taste food. It comes in many different forms and names. Some of the more recognizable ones are glucose, fructose, and sucrose.   There is a host of ingredients listed on containers that contain the word sugar, such as beet sugar, buttered sugar, date sugar, etc. They are all just sugar, make no mistake.  Other words are more vague and just as dangerous. Some of them are corn sweetener, ethyl maltol, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, (or anything containing “malt”), molasses, and panela. This is not an all-inclusive list.  There are other names for what is really just sugar. Beware of anything that is any sort of “syrup,” such as carob syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, etc.

2. Using Many Different Types of Sugar. Ingredients are listed by weight, with the main ingredients listed first. The more of something there is in a food, the higher up on the list it appears. Manufacturers take advantage of this, and often include several different types of sugar in one product.  Even though some of them may be low on the list of ingredients, adding them together can make sugar the main ingredient. For example, some “healthy” protein bars are actually very high in added sugars. A bar may contain as much as 7.5 teaspoons (30 grams).

3. Adding Sugar to Foods You’d Least Expect. We expect big amounts of sugar in candies and cakes and such. However, some food manufacturers add large amounts of sugar to foods that we don’t think of as “sweet.” Examples include breakfast cereals, spaghetti sauce, and yogurt. (Some yogurts contain as much as 6 teaspoons (29 grams) in a single container). Be sure to check the label on ANY packaged or processed foods.

4. Using “Healthy” Sugars Instead of Sucrose. Food companies also make some of their products appear healthier by swapping sugar for and alternative “healthier” sweetener. These unrefined sweeteners are usually made from the sap, fruit, flowers, or seeds of plants, or even made by animals – like honey, for example. Labels on such products may read “contains no refined sugar” or “refined sugar-free.” What they mean is that they don’t contain white sugar, which has been processed to remove the molasses. These sugars sometimes have a slightly lower glycemic index and may contain a few , though minimal amount, of nutrients.  A few examples of common sweeteners that are high in sugar, yet often labeled as healthy are agave syrup, birch syrup raw sugar, and sugar beet syrup.  It’s all sugar.  Use sparingly. Along the same line, be wary of a packaged food labelled “healthy” or “natural” or “low-fat.” It may be sugar-dense, as well.

5. Combining Added Sugars with Natural Sugars on the Ingredients List. Certain foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, contain naturally occurring sugars. These, unlike added sugar, are not a big health concern. Naturally occurring sugar are difficult to eat in large amounts, and eating whole foods that contain them provides other beneficial nutrients. Dates and apricots are a good example…just don’t eat them like candy. One of the problems with food labels is that they don’t list how much of the sugar in a product is added sugar and how much is natural sugar. There is no foolproof way to identify how much sugar in food comes from added sugar.

6. Having a High Number of Servings per Pack. Food packaging often comes with nutrition information prominently displayed per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and also per portion.  A common trick in the food industry is to make the listed portion size very small, so that there are actually several servings in the bag or box .  (I’m thinking about chips and crackers here).  The amount of sugar in each of these small servings might appear low when, in fact, most people would eat two or three times that amount in one serving.

7. Making Sweet Versions of a Low-Sugar Brand. Some of your favorite brands of processed foods are quite low in sugar.  However, food manufacturers sometimes piggyback on an established brand and release a new version that contains lots more sugar.  This is quite common with breakfast cereals, where a whole-grain cereal that’s low in sugar may appear with added flavors or different ingredients. It’s a mistake to assume that the new version is as healthy as their usual choice.

The Bottom Line?

Go back to where we began.  Eat as wide a variety of whole foods, in as close to a natural state as possible.  Added sugar is ubiquitous and can be very hard to spot. The easiest way to avoid added sugar is to prepare most of your food at home, where you know exactly how much of what sweetener you choose to use, and avoid as many packaged foods as possible.  Make sure to learn how to spot added sugar on labels.

As a reminder, I am “ranting” about sugar and its many evils to prepare myself and you for the onslaught of all the high-calorie, super-sweet, devoid-of-nutrition snacks and desserts that will bombard us from now through the first of the year. Now is a good time to prepare and  strategize about how to make healthy choices for yourself and the people you love in the midst of this onslaught.  Here are a few nice dishes suitable for holiday dining to try through the holidays.  They are not “added-sugar-free”.  In their defense, they are made with fresh whole foods with amounts of sugar, not white refined,  in amounts that you can omit or adjust.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

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