Ferreting Out the Hidden Sugar in Your Diet

by | March 14, 2014 at 11:06 AM | Food, Health

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Sometimes, you can’t even taste sugar, and perfectly acceptable alternatives are available.

By , USNews.com

Added sugars have been in the news a lot recently. Last month, a large, prospective study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that adults with diets highest in added sugar as a percentage of calories had substantially higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to people with the lowest amounts, which was defined as less than 10 percent of calories. Soon after, the World Health Organization released a draft of guidelines recommending that “free sugars” (another way of saying “added sugar”) should comprise no more than 5 percent of total calories. Simultaneously, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unveiled proposed changes to the current Nutrition Facts label that would require food marketers to specify how much of the total sugar in a product comes from added sugar.

Underlying this spate of press is growing recognition of the particularly harmful effect of high intake of added sugars on health, both in terms of obvious conditions like obesity and diabetes, but also for risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia and liver disease. Unlike the sugars naturally present in whole foods – like lactose (milk sugar) in dairy products or fructose in whole fresh fruit – added sugars lack the same dietary buffers that slow their absorption and mitigate the insulin response. Foods and drinks high in added sugars, moreover, contribute substantially to total energy intake without a commensurate contribution to nutrient needs or satiety. In other words, foods and drinks high in added sugar provide lots of calories without making us feel full or delivering essential vitamins, minerals, fiber or protein.

Current guidelines for added sugar intake suggest a limit of 25 grams daily (6 teaspoons) for women and 36 grams daily (9 teaspoons) daily for men. The WHO’s proposed 5 percent limit translates into about 19 grams (5 teaspoons) for people on 1,500-calorie per day diets, and 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for those on 2,000 calorie per day diets. By way of context, average intake is about 22 teaspoons daily for all Americans, and is substantially higher for certain demographic groups, like teenage boys.

Clearly, the gap between how much added sugar we’re consuming and how much sugar we should be consuming is tremendous. But how do we narrow it? While we’re all aware that soft drinks and candy are concentrated sources of added sugar, there’s a lot less transparency around the added sugar in other foods we eat. You’d be amazed at how much added sugar sneaks into your diet under the guise of healthy – and not even sweet-tasting – pantry staples. These hidden sugar bombs are particularly insidious, since they gobble up your meager sugar budget without you knowing it – or frankly, needing it – leaving little room for the sweet indulgences you most enjoy.

Once the obvious sources of hidden sugar – such as soda, soft drinks and candy – have been disposed of, I advise people to ruthlessly ferret out the sneaky sugar where it can’t even be tasted or where perfectly acceptable alternatives are available. That way, they can make an informed decision to spend their modest sugar budget on things they derive the most pleasure from – a piece of chocolate, a few cookies, a small dish of ice cream. Here’s where to start looking:

  • Replace marinara sauce with canned, crushed tomatoes. Most people don’t think of a plate of spaghetti and meatballs as a sugary meal, but half a cup of your typical jarred marinara sauce can contain up to 10 to 11 grams (~2.5 to 3 teaspoons) of sugar. Look for products with no more than 6 to 7 grams of sugar per serving (about 5 grams of which will be natural from the tomatoes). If you can’t find one to your liking, I recommend buying plain, crushed tomatoes in a can, then doctoring them up with sautéed onions, garlic and oregano to make a “semi-homemade” tomato sauce.
  • Replace packaged whole wheat bread with whole grain crispbreads. If you’re looking for a delivery vehicle for sliced turkey, tuna salad, avocado, peanut butter or even veggie burgers, consider crunchy, crackery European crispbreads like those marketed by Wasa or Ryvita. Generally made of whole grains, yeast, salt and little else, these crispbreads typically contain zero grams of sugar. By comparison, the most popular brands of 100 percent whole wheat bread typically contain 3 to 4 grams of sugar (~1 teaspoon) per slice. Making the switch, therefore, can easily save you two teaspoons of sugar per sandwich. If you normally pack a sandwich lunch to work or school, try buying a bento-style lunch box instead to pack the toppings and condiments separately so you can assemble your open-faced creations a la minute. Alternatively, seek out a brand of bread with no added sugar, like Food for Life’s Ezekiel 4:9 bread.
  • Replace energy and granola bars with DIY trail mix. Most bars are some combo of whole grains, nuts and/or seeds before being subjected to a slathering of sugary syrup. So why not just toss these same raw ingredients together in a Ziploc and make your own portable energy snack, minus the cloying coating? I buy bulk foods like roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, pistachios, cashews and roasted chickpeas. (Other creative options: plain Cheerios, freeze dried peas or corn, and Triscuit minis). Then I toss in a pinch each of dried fruit and dark chocolate chips for a hint of sweetness at a fraction of the sugar. Doing so saves anywhere from 11 to 22 grams (3 to 5.5 teaspoons) of added sugar found in the typical energy bar, plus 6 to 12 grams (1.5 to 3 teaspoons) from the average granola bar.
  • Replace most breakfast cereals with plain oatmeal. If you eat cereal for breakfast, odds are that you’re getting far more added sugar than you bargained for. In fact, unless you eat plain Shredded Wheat, original Cheerios, Uncle Sam’s Original or a puffed whole grain cereal, you most definitely are. Even seemingly healthy cereals contain several teaspoons worth of sugar per serving, such as: Raisin Bran (20 grams, or 5 teaspoons), Kellogg’s Smart Start (14 grams, or 3.5 teaspoons) and Kashi GoLean Crunch (13 grams, or 3-plus teaspoons). Plain oatmeal, adorned with cinnamon, has none. Add fresh berries or banana for sweetness.

If you simply can’t bring yourself around to the no-added sugar versions of certain staples, try  dilution. In other words, if you love your Honey Nut Cheerios too much to part with them, try replacing half the bowl with plain Cheerios. If plain yogurt is just too tart, then replace just half your container of fruit-flavored yogurt with plain. Can’t go the gym without a sports drink? Dilute the drink so it’s half water. This trick will cut your sugar intake by half when consuming these items. And in many cases, diluting favorite sweet foods helps adjust your palate’s sweet threshold; after time, you may be surprised to discover that an entire serving of the full-strength version tastes unpleasantly cloying!

And lastly: Always read labels and compare sugar content among various products you’re considering. Sugar content can vary widely even among foods that appear interchangeable, such as different brands of vanilla yogurt, condiments or peanut butter. This simple step may save you a few teaspoons per day just for the cost of a few extra seconds in the grocery aisle.

The author has no material affiliations with any of the companies whose products are mentioned in this article.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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