What You Need to Know About Sugar

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When people think of sugar, they usually envision table sugar, or sucrose, which is a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose. Glucose, one of the simple sugars or monosaccharides, is the essential source of fuel for our brain.

Sugars are categorized into two sources in our food supply; one is natural sugar and the other is refined sugar. Natural sugars are found in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grains, and are accompanied by vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Refined sugars, also called added sugars, originate from sugar cane and sugar beets, but they can also be derived from grains like corn (high fructose corn syrup, etc). This type of sugar is added to sweetened beverages, cakes, candy, breakfast cereal, bread, yogurt, etc.

Both natural and refined sugars are used in the body for energy, but when consumed in concentrated amounts in the diet — as refined sugars are often consumed — all of the sugar cannot be immediately used, and is thus stored as fat. Regular consumption of refined sugars can cause an imbalance in blood sugar, swings in energy levels, a decrease in immune function, and an increased risk of chronic disease. Conversely, regular consumption of fruit and vegetables have been shown to increase energy levels, increase immune function, and decrease the risk of chronic disease, even though they contain natural sugar. The bottom line is that it is important to be aware, and manage, the amount of refined sugar you consume. But how much is too much?

The American Heart Association has recommended guidelines specifically regarding added sugar. The recommendation is to limit intake to no more than six teaspoons a day for women, and nine teaspoons for men. You might be surprised to know that the average American eats 28 teaspoons of added sugars on a daily basis!

To determine how many teaspoons of added sugar are in your foods, you will need to read the Nutrition Facts label and find out the number of grams of sugar in the product you are about to consume. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of cola has 40 grams of sugar. To find out how many teaspoons are in that bottle, divide the number of grams by 4 (there are 4 grams of sugar in every teaspoon). That’s 9 teaspoons of sugar in just that one beverage!

Some foods that have a food label will contain natural sugars, for example, eight ounces of milk contains 12 grams of natural sugar (lactose). Unfortunately, natural and refined sugars are not currently separated on food labels. If your milk or yogurt has more than 12 grams of sugar listed, the additional grams are from refined, or added sugar.

There is a difference between natural and refined sugar.  To maintain health and manage most chronic diseases, consume between 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and reduce your intake of added sugars to the recommended amount.  Reducing your consumption of added sugar can be done by making small changes; choosing unsweetened beverages like water and teas in place of sweetened beverages, and reading food labels in order to determine the amount of added sugars in your foods is a good start.

By Beth Rosen, MS, RD, CDN

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