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We Spanish speakers have a saying: “A nadie le amarga un dulce” It’s a common phrase that in a literal sense means “Nobody’s bitter with a sweet”. Metaphorically speaking, it refers to taking advantage of good things or opportunities that are freely given. Or something along those lines…But in the case of eating and nutrition, an excess of sweet things can literally embitter your health. And that leads us to the topic of how to cut back on added sugars.
What are added sugars?
Before I teach you how to cut back on added sugars, let’s discuss what they are and where they’re found. Added sugars are those that are incorporated into certain foods and drinks for the following reasons:
- Improving flavor
- Improving texture
- As part of the fermentation process
- As a preservative, such as in jams and marmalades
Currently, the main source of added sugars in our diets don’t come from the sugar bowl, but rather from processed foods such as:
- Sodas, sports and energy drinks
- Fruit beverages
- Cakes, cookies, doughnuts and other bakery products
- Ready to eat sugary cereals and cereal bars
- Candies and other sweets
- Ice cream
- Convenience and ultra processed, packaged food
Are added sugars bad for you?
On a public health level, current sugar intake is alarming. Especially in children. An excess of sugar is associated with an increase in unhealthy weight gain and obesity. It’s also worth mentioning that calories coming from sugar are “empty”, in other words, they don’t provide nutrients or any benefits to your health.
A high intake of sugar also contributes to heart disease, since it tends to raise blood triglyceride levels. It also makes blood glucose control difficult for people with diabetes.
Therefore, health professionals are urging everyone to try to limit their daily sugar intake, especially with respect to added sugars.
How to check for added sugar in the nutrition label
Nutrition labels are our best friends when trying to determine how much added sugar a food has. When we check out food labels, though, it’s not enough to see how much total sugar is in a particular food. Why? Because naturally occurring sugars, such as in foods like dairy and fruit, are also listed on there. That’s why we need the information on the amounts of added sugars in a product.
In 2016, the FDA published the final rules on the new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods, including the disclosure of added sugars, separate from the total sugars, that a packaged food contains. Therefore, it’s now easier for us consumers to identify and keep track of the added sugar we’re taking in regularly.
It’s also important to check the ingredients list on food labels. Ingredients appear on the label in descending order from the most amount in a food to the least. If one of the first three ingredients is a sugar then that particular food is high in exactly that: sugar! A quick tip is to check for those ingredients whose names end in “-ose”, since those are sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose, etc).
What sugars should I avoid?
These are some of the ingredients you may find in food and beverage labels that indicate a type of sugar. It’s important to avoid or limit added sugars as much as possible:
- Agave, agave nectar
- Brown sugar
- Cane sugar
- Beet sugar
- Cane crystals
- Evaporated cane juice
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Inverted sugar
What can I use instead of sugar?
I have to clear up the fact that “natural” sweeteners such as: honey, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, coconut sugar, etc, are still considered sugars. I’ve had many people tell me that they’re using these types of “natural sugars”, thinking that they’re healthier options. And although some of them do have trace amounts of minerals, they still have the same net effect on the body as regular sugar. They raise blood glucose levels in the same way, and contain calories. So be wary of marketing tactics that make these products seem like a sugar free option-they’re not.
I personally use and recommend stevia as a sweetener option, since it’s not a sugar and is not metabolized in the body as such.
For those who are worried about the use of non-nutritive sweeteners, such as Splenda (sucralose), the National Cancer Institute has stated that scientific studies have not associated them with cancer and, at the moment, are considered safe to use in moderation.
Daily added sugar recommendations
It’s not necessary to cut out sugar completely. Foods like fruit and dairy, which form part of a healthy diet, contain natural amounts of sugar. What we want to cut back on as much as possible are added sugars.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend that no more than 10% of your daily calories come from added sugar. For example, for someone who needs 1800 calories a day, the limits for added sugars would be no more than 180 calories, equivalent to 45 grams daily. For reference, a 12 oz can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of added sugar…!
The American Heart Association is a little bit more conservative with respect to this issue. They recommend that the daily added sugar limit for women be no more than 100 calories (equivalent to 25 grams/day), and no more than 150 calories for men (or 36 grams/day).
How to cut back on added sugars: 6 simple tips
Try the following suggestions to reduce the amount of added sugars you consume in your diet:
- Drink water, unsweetened tea or other sugar free beverages instead of soda, juice drinks, sugary drinks, sports and energy drinks and coffee based beverages.
- If you choose to drink fruit juice, make sure it’s 100% juice, and drink only moderate amounts. Remember, it’s healthier to eat a fruit whole than in juice form.
- Instead of sugary, ready to eat cereals, choose lower sugar options like rolled oats topped with chopped fruit and nuts.
- Use reduced sugar or sugar free options of foods like jams, jellies and pancake syrups, in moderate amounts.
- Choose fresh fruit for dessert more often, instead of high sugar desserts like cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream and other sweets.
- When buying canned fruit, choose water or 100% juice packed, instead of syrup packed.
It can be a bit of a challenge to cut down on the amounts of sugar that we’re used to, and more so to reduce it to the amounts that are recommended by health organizations. But, what I always recommend is to take small but deliberate steps when making changes in eating habits. In the long run, you’ll have gained lasting, positive changes to your health.
And now on to you: what steps do you think you can take today to reduce your amount of added sugar intake? Do any of the tips on how to cut back on added sugars seem realistic for you? Let me know in the comments section!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…