Consumer Reports Insights

Consumer Reports recommends cutting back on sugar added to foods and drinks

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coca-Cola, Gatorade and other drinks now come in versions made with "real" sugar as opposed to high-fructose corn syrup. That form of sugar is in the nutritional doghouse these days, as some people say it's linked to health problems including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Fear of high-fructose corn syrup has led some people not only to regular sugar but also to other options they think are more healthful. Given the likely connection between sugar and America's growing obesity epidemic, that seems like a good thing. But is turning to other forms of sugar or sweeteners really the solution? Here are answers to questions about sugar and its alternatives.

-- Is high-fructose corn syrup really worse for you than other forms of sugar? Probably not, but that doesn't mean it's healthful. Some researchers suspect that the sugar, which is made from cornstarch processed with certain enzymes and acids, is more fattening than other forms. But high-fructose corn syrup has just as many calories as table sugar and is nearly indistinguishable chemically, too: It's half glucose and half fructose. Instead, many experts say that the problem is simply that Americans today consume too much of it.

-- Is "natural" sugar somehow better? If you mean the sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, dairy products and other foods, then yes. That's not because it's inherently more healthful but simply because it comes with all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients those foods contain.

But brown or raw sugar is just as nutritionally bereft -- and has just as many calories -- as white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Honey and maple syrup may taste great, but they contain few if any nutrients.

-- How much added sugar is too much? A marketing campaign from the Corn Refiners Association, an industry group, suggests that you can get up to 25 percent of your daily calories from added sugars. For support, they point to a report from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine that sets that figure as the upper limit for sugar consumption. For the average 50-year-old woman and man -- who should consume 2,000 and 2,400 calories a day, respectively -- that would mean 500 and 600 calories a day from added sugar.

But that misrepresents the institute's report. It simply states that if you get more than 25 percent of your calories from the nutritionally empty ones in added sugar, it's virtually impossible to get all the nutrients you need from the rest of your diet. That's why the American Heart Association says that women should get no more than about 100 calories a day from added sugars and men no more than about 150.

-- Beyond obesity, what health problems are linked to sugar? Other than dental cavities, not as many as you might think. Some research suggests that high sugar consumption may be linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Another found that drinking two or more sugar-laden soft drinks a week almost doubled the risk of pancreatic cancer. But it's unclear whether those risks come from the sugar itself or the extra calories, or if people who consume lots of sugar have additional poor habits that increase those risks.

Other problems long associated with sugar have been largely overblown, research suggests. For example, Type 2 diabetes isn't caused by consuming lots of sugar, though excess calories from any source do increase the risk by causing weight gain. Finally, while many parents still think that sugar causes hyperactivity in children, studies going back at least 15 years have found that isn't the case.

-- How can I cut back on added sugar? Start with soda, since it's the leading source of added sugar in the typical American's diet. Watch out for other beverages, too, especially ready-to-drink teas, sweetened alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, and juice drinks. When you crave something sweet, opt for fresh fruit. Remember to read food labels, too, because added sugar often shows up in unexpected places and often with unfamiliar names.

Copyright 2010. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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