It seems that there should be some simple way to explain to you what exactly sugar is, but in fact it can get a little complicated. Sugar is a general name for carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrate containing foods, your body breaks it down into monosaccharides which means “single sugars”. These monosaccharides are glucose, fructose and galactose, which are then utilized for energy in our bodies. What the general population considers to be sugar or “table sugar” is a disaccharide, meaning “two sugars”, which is glucose and fructose linked together. In order to make table sugar, it is extracted and processed from the sugarcane or sugar beet plants.
In our food supply, sugar is found naturally and added in many different forms. As stated before, sugar is a general name for carbohydrates so any food containing carbohydrates will contain sugar.
Just with me saying the word sugar or carbohydrates, many people will shy away because these are taboo to consume according to many different fad diets. Carbohydrates have gotten the bad rap of making us gain weight. However, research comparing weight loss of subjects on ketogenic diets (those removing all carbohydrates) and a balanced diet including carbohydrates, proves weight loss over the length of a year to be the same (1,2,3,4,5,6,7). Carbohydrates do play a major role in the body and that is providing your body with energy, especially your brain, circulatory system, and nervous system. With that being said, consuming too many carbohydrates can be detrimental to maintaining a healthy body weight. What is most important to determine is weather the sugar contained in your food was present there naturally or added to the food. Natural sugars are sugars found naturally in our foods including the sugars in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. Added sugars are the sugars added during processing of our foods. Right now, it can be a bit difficult to determine if the food product you are buying has added sugars in it because when looking at a food label, where it says “sugars” actually is a combination of the added sugar and the natural sugars found in that food product. To figure out if a food item has any added sugars in it you will need to go to the ingredient list and see what exactly is in it. For example, if you are buying dried cranberries, in the ingredient list, you want the only ingredient to be “cranberries”. If in the ingredient list you find say fructose or sucrose then you know that they have added sugar to that product. This was a pretty simple explanation, but it can get much more complicated than that because sugar can be in the form of many different names.
Here are some of the names you may find that represent sugar in your ingredient lists:
Brown rice syrup
Evaporated cane juice
High Frutose Corn Syrup
In July of 2018, the new nutrition facts labels will be coming out and it will make it a lot easier to determine how many added sugars a food item contains as a new line reading “Added Sugar” will be added to the Nutrition Facts Panel (9).
Current Nutrition Facts Label New Nutrition Facts Label July 2018
So what is the big deal if they have added sugar to your foods? Well as I stated before, when sugar is found naturally in our food supply it isn’t a problem. We need carbohydrates in our diet to provide our body with energy. Without it, you will feel tired, sluggish and often cranky. Natural sugar comes along with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals in the food item you are consuming, whereas added sugar is considered an empty calorie food (provides calories but no nutrients). When you consume foods that have natural sugar in them, you are not only fueling your body to meet its energy needs of the day, but also providing it with a great deal of other nutrients as well. Something I always say to my clients in reference to carbohydrates is “If it doesn’t grow from the ground don’t eat it”. For example, whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all grow from the ground.
Why has added sugars in our food supply recently become the focus. Well according to a study published in JAMA most US adults consumed about 22 teaspoons of ADDED sugar a day (10)! Again, the problem with this is its displacing the healthy foods that provide us with nutrients in our diet with empty calories providing us with no nutrients. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, added sugar intake is especially high among children, adolescents and young adults with the major source of added sugars being from beverages including soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages and flavored waters. Other sources include snacks and sweets. Together, sugar sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets accounts for more than 75% of the added sugar consumption in the United States (11). More and more often now, research is finding that all of the added sugar in our food supply is contributing to the chronic diseases we are facing in the United States. Stay tuned for my blog post on the health effects of sugars to see why it’s so important to eliminate added sugars from your diet!
- Atkins RC. Dr. Atkins’ diet revolution: the high calorie way to stay thin forever. New York: David McKay; 1972
- Dansinger ML, Gleason JA, Griffith JL, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial. JAMA 2005;293(1):43–53.
- Gardner CD, Kiazand A, Alhassan S, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women. JAMA 2007;297:969–77.
- Nordmann AJ, Nordmann A, Briel M, et al. Effects of low-carbohydrate vs low-fat diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arch Intern Med 2006;166(3):285–93.
- Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey V, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, carbohydrate and protein. N Engl J Med 2009;360(9): 859–73.
- Shai I, Schwarzfuchs D, Henkin Y, et al, Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial (DIRECT) Group. Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or low-fat diet. N Engl J Med 2008;359(3):229–41
- Zhang X, Qi Q, Zhang C, et al. FTO g8notype and 2-year change in body composition and fat distribution in response to weight-loss diets: the POUNDS LOST Trial. Diabetes 2012;61(11):3005–11
- Learn to recognize the 56 different names for sugar. (n.d.). Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.responsiblefoods.org/sugar_names
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Labeling & Nutrition – Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm?utm_source=msn#highlights
- Yang, Q., Zhang, Z., Gregg, E. W., Flanders, W. D., Merritt, R., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults.JAMA Internal Medicine,174(4), 516. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines – health.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2017, from https://www.bing.com/cr?IG=62781C9DD31E4EF2B80EB6EAD95E179B&CID=19F44E5C990D6ADA3D924460983C6B7E&rd=1&h=PLhqTFFoD1j_GbFYwM7anPgNShrb765zoi_UWBoR7DE&v=1&r=https%3a%2f%2fhealth.gov %2fdietaryguidelines%2f2015%2fguidelines%2f&p=DevEx,5062.1