by Anna Marie Trotman, Nutrition Consultant 

Are you confused about sugar?

Sugar has gotten a bad rap and well it should.  The average consumption of sugar in the US is 154  pounds per person per year. To break that down, you would have to consume 6 cups of sugar in one week! You might think you don’t consume that much sugar, but think about holidays, birthdays or special occasions, where some sweet and gooey thing is calling your name. 

What Exactly Is Sugar?

Nerd alert! 

Before we talk about sugar, we need to discuss carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are molecules consisting of atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.  In biochemistry, they are synonymous to saccharides (Greek, sákkharon means sugar). Carbohydrates (or saccharides) are classified into four chemical groups and sugar is an umbrella name used to describe both monosaccharides and disaccharides (sweet, short-chain, and water-soluble carbohydrates).  A monosaccharide consists of a single sugar unit while a disaccharide is formed when two monosaccharides are joined.

  • Glucose occurs naturally in plants and is a product of photosynthesis. Most ingested carbohydrates are converted into glucose during digestion.
  • Fructose, or fruit sugar, is found naturally in fruits. It is also the sweetest of sugars. While many argue that you should limit your sugar intake from fruit there is evidence to indicate the opposite. 

However, it is essential to distinguish between the natural fructose found in fruits and the highly processed, stripped down variety of fructose that you find in so many packaged foods. The latter has zero nutritional value and is known to contribute to many serious health issues.

Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame do have a sweet taste but are NOT considered sugars.

From Lollipops to Lentils

The terms ‘sugar’ and ‘carbohydrate’ are often used interchangeably, which can be quite confusing. So let’s talk about our old friend Poly-Saccharide. 

Polysaccharides are long-chained carbohydrates consisting of at least 10 sugar units.  Starch is a polysaccharide that stores ‘energy’ in plants.  In the human diet, large amounts of starches can be found in staple foods like wheat, corn, potatoes, and rice.

The problem with the term ‘carbohydrate’ is it stretches across a gamut of foods–from lollipops to lentils. To take this example, a lollipop is made of refined sugar stripped of fiber and nutrients, while a lentil is a starch, left intact with all of its healthful nutrients and fiber. Carbs aren’t really the bad girls here and are an important part of a healthy diet. 

How Bad Is Sugar? 

The short answer is, “It depends.”

Sugar that is naturally sourced in fruits is full of nutritional goodness; your health will benefit greatly from integrating fruits into your daily diet. On the other hand, white table sugar has zero nutritional value.

It is important to stress that we cannot lay 100% of the blame for our health woes on sugar’s doorstep. It’s the entire fabric of our diet that is making us overweight and sick with metabolic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.  Registered Dietitian Jeff Novick states; “The primary cause of the obesity epidemic is energy imbalance, and many things have contributed to this including behavioral and environmental components. The typical American diet is the main contributor to the energy imbalance. It is very high in calorie density, low in satiety, readily available and inexpensive.” Novick acknowledges the role sugar plays but also points out that it is not entirely sugar’s fault. When you add in all the refined and stripped foods in the American diet, 75% is “nothing but highly processed junk foods.”  

The Dose Makes the Poison

In toxicology, there is a guiding principle that says, “the dose makes the poison.” Even sugar is unlikely to be toxic in small and occasional doses.

So what is a safe sugar dose?

The general rule of thumb is that 5% of your daily calories should come from added sugars.

Unfortunately, for most Americans, that number is 3-4 times higher-hovering around 16-20%.

Rule of thumb is that sugar is…

  1. Not particularly harmful in small amounts for people with healthful diets and lifestyles.
  2. More harmful in large amounts for people who have healthful diets and lifestyles.
  3. Harmful, but not the biggest concern in small amounts for people who have unhealthy diets and lifestyles. In other words, they have bigger things to worry about — their overall lifestyle.
  4. Very harmful in large amounts for people who have unhealthy diets and lifestyles. But again, their overall concern should be changing the whole diet and lifestyle. 

Hide and Seek

Added sugars are hiding everywhere: in ketchup and other condiments; flour-based mixes; and salad dressings. It is important to read the labels to spot the hidden sugars. I’ll do a follow up on food labels later. Here is an excellent list to help you identify hidden sugars on food labels: agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, brown sugar, brown rice sugar, buttered syrup, cane (juice) crystals, cane juice, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, castor sugar, coconut water (50% sugar), coconut sugar, confectioners powdered sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, date paste, date sugar, date syrup, demerara sugar, dextran, dextrose, diastase, diastatic malt, dried cane syrup, ethyl maltol, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate(s), galactose, glucose, glucose solids, golden sugar, golden syrup, grape sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, icing sugar, invert sugar (syrup), lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, panocha, raw sugar, refiner’s syrup, rice syrup, sorghum syrup, sucanat, sugar alcohols (erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol), sucrose, sugar, syrup, treacle, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar.

As you can see, that’s a pretty hefty list (and it is not even complete)!

To sum up, when eating packaged foods, make sure that your intake of added sugars is less than 5% of your daily calories.  And, whenever possible, eat whole foods to help ensure you are eating the right kind of sugars and starches.