The average American consumes about 21 teaspoons of “added” sugar daily. That is almost one half cup per day!
Added sugars are those that are combined with our foods during processing, in preparation, or at the table. They don’t include sugars that occur naturally in foods such as milk (lactose) or fruit (fructose). Manufacturers add sugar to foods to improve flavor and texture and to increase the shelf life of certain products.
Most of us don’t start adding sugar to our diets as adults – eating habits often are formed in childhood. The way we’re feeding our kids now may have serious heart-health implications for them immediately and down the road.
How can sugar affect our hearts?
Recent research suggests that added sugar poses a significant risk to heart health. One observational study published in JAMA in April 2014 found that most adults consume more than the recommended limits of added sugar. The results indicated that adults who consume 25 percent of their daily calories from added sugar were twice as likely to die from heart disease. Though the study did not measure cause and effect, it suggested a significant relationship between added sugars in the diet and overall cardiovascular health.
An intervention study published in Obesity and publicized by the New York Times in October 2015 studied the effects of added sugars on the bodies and heart-health of children. The study involved kids ages 8 to 18 who were already obese and suffering from metabolic syndrome.
For the study, the kids were supplied with a “kid-friendly” diet of no- or low-sugar-added processed foods such as turkey hot dogs, baked potato chips, pizza, and popcorn. The goal was not to reduce weight but to reduce their sugar intake from 28 percent of total daily calories to 10 percent. The calories from added sugar were replaced with calories from other carbohydrates such as fruit, bagels, and pasta.
After just 10 days, researchers reported impressive improvements in the children’s health. Regardless of whether they lost weight, the kids experienced significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and glucose tolerance.
These children, who already were experiencing health challenges due to poor diet and low levels of exercise, benefited from simply reducing the amount of added sugar in their diets. More research is needed, but the results of the study suggest that reducing added sugar in our kids’ diets today could help prevent diabetes and heart issues in the next generation of adults.
How do we know if there’s added sugar in our food?
While the recommended target goal for sugar varies among different authorities, such as the National Academy of Medicine, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association, all agree that Americans need to cut back on the amount of sugar consumed.
Nutrition Facts; Serving Size: 2/3 cup (55g); Serving Per Container: About 8; Amount Per Serving: 230 Calories, Total Fat 8g, Cholesterol 0mg, Sodium 160mg, Total Carbohydrates 37g, Protein 3g; Vitamin A: 10%, Vitamin C: 8%, Calcium: 20%, Iron: 45%
It’s easy to spot added sugar when we’re physically adding it to a recipe or to our food at the table, but it’s not so simple to identify added sugar in processed foods. Current food labels don’t differentiate natural sugar from added sugar; both forms are simply lumped together.
Proposed revisions to the current food label standards include enlarging the calorie contents and serving-size information and listing natural and added sugars separately. Presently, the only way to identify added sugars is to find them in the list of ingredients.
These are some common terms for added sugars listed on food labels:
- Agave nectar
- Brown sugar, invert sugar, or raw sugar
- Malt sugar or syrup
- Honey, molasses, or sorghum
- Cane crystals, sugar, or syrup
- Corn sweetener or corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Fruit concentrates
- Sugar molecules ending in “-ose”: Dextrose, fructose, maltose, and sucrose
Reducing added sugar in our diets
It can be tricky at first to reduce added sugar in your family’s diet. It seems like added sugar is in everything, from obvious foods such as candy and soda to kitchen staples such as ketchup and pasta sauce.
Most of us don’t have hours to spend reading labels in the grocery store every time we shop. Here are a few tips to help you reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet without spending a lot of time deciphering food labels:
- Substitute calorie-containing beverages such as soda or lemonade with infused water (see Kiwi & Cucumber Infused Water recipe below).
- Purchase “unflavored” or “unsweetened” plant-based milks such as almond milk. If you choose flavored, make sure the first ingredient is not an added sugar. Many lower-calorie almond milks are available with 30, 60, or 80 calories per cup, indicating that they are low in added sugar because they are low in total calories. In addition, several low-sugar cow’s milks are now available in supermarkets.
- Purchase yogurts that are 100 calories or less per 6-ounce serving because these are generally low in added sugar. The sugars in these yogurts reflect the natural sugars found in the milk and fruit used to make them.
- If exercising vigorously for 90 minutes or more, drink lower-calorie sports drinks. Exercising at a light to moderate intensity for less than 90 minutes rarely requires a sports drink to replace lost electrolytes. Kids playing video games do not need to sip sports drinks – serve them water instead.
For many of us, the toughest part of reducing sugar in our diets is limiting treats. We recommend limiting treats to one per day at 100 to 150 calories. Decide if your treat will be after lunch or dinner. Look for no-sugar-added frozen desserts, such as fudgesicles or popsicles, desserts served in 100-calorie packs, or 1 ounce of dark chocolate. For a punch of protein, snack on cocoa-covered (not chocolate-covered) almonds (about 15 nuts is a serving).
Instilling healthy eating habits in our kids from a young age can encourage them to eat healthier throughout their lives. As we become more aware of the effects of added sugar in our diets, we can help our children reduce heart-health risks such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Kiwi and Cucumber Infused Water
Prep time: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 2-cup servings
2 sprigs of fresh mint (optional)
Wash well and slice kiwis and cucumber. Place sliced kiwi and cucumber into a ½ gallon pitcher or 4-cup Mason jar. Top with ice and fill with water. Add sprigs of fresh mint. Drink within 48 hours for best flavor.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories: 43, Total Fat: 0 g, Saturated Fat: 0 g, Sodium: 19 mg, Potassium: 24 1mg, Total Carbohydrate: 9 g, Sugars: 6 g (none added), Fiber: 2 g, Protein: 1 g.