It’s no secret that foods such as soda and doughnuts are packed with added sweeteners. But would you think that the frozen stir-fry dinner you had last night would have the same amount of sugars as 16 gummi bears?
Food companies toss added sugars into almost three-quarters of all packaged products, including nutritious-sounding items such as instant oatmeal and peanut butter, and even into foods that aren’t supposed to be sweet, such as tomato sauce and crackers.
The trouble with sneaky sugars may go beyond excess calories. When 43 obese children ate the same amount of calories but decreased their added-sugars intake from 28 percent of their daily calories to 10 percent for nine days, their weight stayed steady but their cholesterol, triglyceride, blood pressure and fasting blood sugar and insulin levels dropped, according to a study in the journal Obesity. Previous research has linked an overload of added sugars with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
But how do foods that naturally contain sugars, such as fruit, milk and such veggies as beets and sweet potatoes, affect our health? “The sugars found in dairy and fruit come in smaller doses and are packaged with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, which means they don’t affect your blood sugar as drastically,” says Rachel K. Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. Added sugars are what some experts refer to as “empty calories” because they lack such nutrients.
Your mission, then, seems simple enough: Avoid those unnecessary added sugars. But it’s not easy. The current version of the Nutrition Facts label lumps added and naturally occurring sugars together under “total sugars.”
As a result, “consumers have no way of knowing how much added sugars are in a food,” Johnson says. “For other nutrients, the Nutrition Facts label lists the percentage of the daily intake a serving of a food supplies, but that’s not the case for sugars.” To make it easier for consumers to keep track, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed that added sugars have their own line on food labels, similar to the way total fat and saturated fat are listed separately. The agency says that the percent daily value— how much of your daily limit a serving of a food contains — should be given as well.
The FDA is also recommending that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugar. That’s 45 grams, or about 11 teaspoons for someone on an 1,800-calorie diet. About 70 percent of adults get that and more every day. The American Heart Association suggests an even lower limit: 24 grams for women (about six teaspoons) and 36 grams (about nine teaspoons) for men.
Until food labels change, use these tips for estimating the added sugars in your diet:
Consider the food. If a product doesn’t contain fruit, milk, sweet veggies or yogurt, and if more than three grams is listed in the total-sugars column, you can assume that most of the sugars are added.
Know the code words for sugar. Ingredients that end in “ose”— fructose, maltose, sucrose — are added sugars. (The main exception to this rule is the artificial sweetener sucralose.) And don’t be fooled: Healthier-sounding sugars such as brown rice syrup and honey aren’t any better for you than other types.
Scan the entire ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in order of weight; the higher up a substance is, the more of it the food contains. But many manufacturers use more than one type of sugar in a product. They are allowed to list them separately, which may give the impression that a food has less total sugar than it really does.
Compare nutrition labels. Find the “plain” version of foods such as yogurt or oatmeal and compare the Nutrition Facts label against the same brand’s sweetened versions. Cheerios, for example, has just one gram of sugars and 125 calories per serving. Cheerios Protein, by contrast, has 17 grams of sugars and 210 calories. And Mott’s Natural applesauce has just half the sugars of Mott’s Original.
Here’s another sweet tip: Buy plain or regular versions and add fresh fruit for sweetness instead of buying foods that are presweetened.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.