Understanding Sugar and It’s Substitutes

America has a very large sweet tooth. The average American consumes about 23 teaspoons of added sugar daily. That adds up to more than three cups of added sugar a week!

Using the definition of the FDS Nutrition Facts labeling laws, added sugars are sugars or syrups that are added during food processing, preparation or before consumption. For example, milk has a natural sugar called lactose. When you drink 2% milk, you are drinking a combination of naturally occurring fat, protein and carbohydrates in the form of lactose.Thus, 2% white milk hs no added sugar because the sugar occurs naturally in the milk. Chocolate milk however, is considered milk with added sugar.

Sugar Recommendations

The current FDA recommendation is to keep added sugars to less than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, a day. To put this in perspective, a 12-ounce can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. The recommendation does not refer to naturally occurring sugar from the recommended food groups; dairy, fruit and whole grains. It is referring to sugar that is added during processing or preparation.

Added Sugar

Added sugar can come in many forms. Most commonly used by food manufacturers is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but it can also come from natural sugars such as fruit juices. Some companies will add items from natural sources such as maple syrup. A popular way of marketing sugar is labeling the package as using “real sugar” in the form of sugar cane, turbinado sugar or white sugar. We purchase the product with the belief that if it is natural, it’s ok. This is not the case. Your goal should be to steer clear of added sugars altogether. Although sugar does make the taste of some foods more pleasurable, it does not add any nutritional benefit to our bodies. It simply adds unwanted calories.

If you are trying to decrease your added sugar, I recommend caution when substituting with sugar-free items. These products have been labeled ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ (GRAS) under the Drug and Supplements Educational Act. While recognized as safe, there is new research that has shown that these products may interfere with your ability to lose weight. In fact, they may be one of the culprits that lead to weight gain.

Sugar-Free Sweeteners

Most adults consume sugar-free sweeteners (non-nutritive sweeteners also known as NNS) from beverages. This comes from either bottled beverages or from the rainbow of colored packet on your restaurant table. The increase in the frequency of consumption of these sweeteners has been connected to the increase in weight gain. There are several proposed reasons for this. One reason is that when we consume a food with a sugar free sweetener, we think it frees us to eat calorie-laden food in its place. Another possible way that NNS affects weight gain is through the bacteria in our gut that direct our metabolism. Research shows that these sweeteners encourage the growth of the types of gut bacteria that turn the energy supplied by those sugar calories into fat storage. Thus, the bacteria that want us to be fat are thriving! The imbalance of bacteria may also be impacting the hormones that shape of eating behaviors.

Reading Labels

The following grid shows you how to read the label of a sweetener in order to find non-nutritive and nutritive sugar substitutes. Do not let the word nutritive fool you. Sugar substitutes have no nutritional value. Nutritive sugar means it contains calories whereas non-nutritive sugar does not contain calories. For example, one of the main classes of nutritive sweeteners is sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols come from plant products such as fruits and berries. The carbohydrate in these plant products is altered through a chemical process. The labeling and marketing of these products states that they are sugar free. This is tricky because they do not have real sugar in the form of sucrose, but they have sugar alcohols. For people with diabetes, sugar alcohols do affect your blood sugar.

As a registered dietician, my counsel would be that if you want something sweet, have a piece of fruit. If you enjoy an occasional treat with added sugar, do it right and eat real sugar. Just try over time to eat less and less of it.


Understanding Labels

Sugar – Free:

Less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving

Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar:

At least 25 percent less sugars, per serving compared to a standard serving size of the traditional variety.

No added sugars or without added sugars:

No sugars or sugar-containing ingredient such as juice or dry fruit is added during processing.


Note about high fructose corn syrup

Sucrose, also known as pure sugar, is a combination of glucose and fructose. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a comparable chemical make up to sucrose, is also made up of glucose and fructose. Sucrose is from sugar cane or, most commonly in the United States, sugar beets. Note that HFCS is cheaper to create from corn than to extract the sugar from beets.

Read Time: 4 minutes

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