Ever wonder why they put those racks of candy bars right next to the checkout counters in grocery stores? It’s not much of a mystery really — few of us can resist the siren song of a sweet treat to eat on the way home. We succumb fairly often, and it shows: our nation is getting progressively fatter. The effect has been most devastating on kids — the prevalence of childhood obesity increased 100 percent between 1980 and 1994.
It’s not just candy bars, either. Thanks in part to increasing production of cheap high fructose corn syrup, food producers tempt our taste buds by adding sugars to just about everything. The result is that each American consumes more than 152 pounds of added sugar each year — in addition to the natural sugars we ingest from foods such as fruit. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that’s about 40 pounds more per person than we ate just 50 years ago! Though we should limit added sugar intake to 10 teaspoons (160 calories) or less per day, the average American eats at least twice that. Many teenagers eat up to 35 teaspoons of sugar per day!
“Sugar contributes empty carbohydrate calories, which Americans certainly don’t need,” says Walter Willett, M.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We are ingesting too many calories in general.” Excessive weight gain can lead to obesity, which is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease because it adversely affects cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as blood pressure and blood glucose levels, according to the American Heart Association.
“Our high intake of sugars and refined starches increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease, even after accounting for their effects on weight,” Willett says.
It’s also important to consider what you could be eating instead of high-sugar foods. Added sugars have virtually no nutritional value. They’re no substitute for whole foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients.
Sugar consumption also increases your risk for tooth decay in the form of dental caries — the erosion of tooth enamel caused by bacteria that morph sugars into acids. Sticky, high-sugar foods, such as caramel, are some of the worst offenders for dental caries, because they stick to teeth and feed bacteria. Bacteria also use sugars to make plaque, which adheres the bacteria to teeth and reduces saliva’s acid-neutralizing effects.
“Sugar” is actually a general term used to describe a number of carbohydrate compounds that occur naturally in plants as well as mammals’ milk. The most common naturally occurring sugar is fructose, found in fruits and vegetables. Fructose and glucose are both components of sucrose, the type of sugar in sugar cane, sugar beets, honey and corn syrup. Lactose is present in milk products; maltose in malts.
But in addition to naturally occurring sugars, Americans consume high amounts of refined sugar — often without realizing it — since sugar is added to a surprising number of foods and beverages. Nutrition labels show how many total grams of sugar products contain, but those numbers include both natural sugar and added sugar. The best way to determine how much added sugar is in a particular product is to read the ingredients list. All of the following terms can constitute added sugars: sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose and maltose. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so if the list has sugar at the beginning, or includes several forms of sugar, you know it’s a major ingredient.
By far, the largest source of added sugars in American diets is soft drinks. Thanks to the advent of cheap corn syrup, savvy marketing campaigns and larger serving sizes, soft drink consumption has risen nearly 500 percent over the past 50 years. While experts continue to debate whether high fructose corn syrup is any worse for us than regular table sugar, we can’t deny that Americans consume too many sugars and calories.
So, is it possible to have your cake and good health too? Yes, just choose more nutritious ways to satisfy your sweet tooth. Select foods that contain essential nutrients along with natural sugars. Eat an orange, for example, and you’ll not only enjoy the natural fructose that makes it sweet, but also vitamin C, folate and some fiber.
Natural sugars, such as molasses and barley malt syrup, often contain traces of vitamins and minerals that are stripped away from highly processed table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
You also can replace sugar with stevia, a natural, no-calorie sweetener. Stevia is a remarkable, plant-based sweetener that’s 300 times sweeter than sugar. Native to Paraguay, it’s been used widely in Japan since the 1970s to sweeten soft drinks, candy and other foods. Stevia can be used for cooking and baking since it’s heat stable, plus it blends well with other sweeteners such as honey. (For more on stevia, including recipes, read The Stevia Cookbook by Ray Sahelian, M.D., and Donna Gates.)
Petitions were filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1990s to recognize stevia as a food additive, but American companies weren’t willing to pay for the testing required to prove its safety, since the herb’s use as a sweetener couldn’t be patented, meaning they couldn’t recoup the research money. While the FDA has not yet approved stevia as a food additive, it’s offered as a supplement in health food stores.
Stevia plants are also widely available at garden centers. Stevia is easy to grow in containers, as well as in the garden. Simply harvest and dry the leaves, then crumble them into a powder. Stevia plants are not winter hardy in cold northern zones, so you’ll need to bring your plants indoors or start with new ones each spring.
Health food stores offer many alternatives to refined sugar. Although these sugars are natural, that doesn’t mean you should consume more. But many do offer a few health advantages, as well as more interesting flavors than refined table sugar.
Amasake: A delicate liquid sweetener made by inoculating cooked sweet rice with another fermented rice called koji. It can be used as a base for custards, puddings and drinks or to lend a mild sweetness and moist texture to baked goods.
Barley malt syrup: Whole grain barley is soaked and sprouted, activating enzymes that convert carbohydrates into sugars. The sprouted grain is then cured and processed into syrup, which contains some potassium. About the consistency of molasses, but much lighter in flavor, this rich brown sweetener works well in breads, cakes, muffins and barbecue sauces.
Brown rice syrup: Similar to barley malt syrup, but milder in flavor, rice syrup is made by fermenting cooked brown rice with sprouted barley grain. The enzymes in the sprouted barley convert rice starches into sugar. Rice syrup can be used interchangeably with honey.
Date sugar: A true fruit sugar, date sugar is nothing more than ground dried dates. The resulting powder contains small amounts of several vitamins and minerals.
Fruit juice concentrate: When it comes down to it, fruit juice concentrate is very similar in chemical composition to regular sugar — it’s mostly sucrose along with some fructose. Even though they’re just fruit, concentrates aren’t as good for you as fresh fruit because the sugars are intensified while the fiber is left behind.
Honey: By far the best known of the alternative sweeteners. Honey has antibacterial properties — in fact, it outperforms conventional antibiotics when used as a dressing to treat burns, and actually promotes healing. Versatile honey can be used in just about anything. Use one-half as much honey as you would sugar in a recipe.
Maple syrup: Made by boiling down the sap of maple trees, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Maple syrup contains several trace minerals and some calcium and iron. A longtime favorite for dressing waffles and pancakes, it’s also wonderful in baked goods.
Molasses: A byproduct of making sugar, molasses contains most of the nutrients that are spun out of cane juice as it’s refined into crystals. Rich in potassium, molasses also contains calcium, as well as some iron, magnesium and trace amounts of several other minerals.
Naturally milled sugar: Unlike white sugar which is refined several times and whitened, naturally milled sugars go through a single crystallization process that leaves some of the trace nutrients of the cane juice behind. Available organically, these full-flavored sugars, such as turbinado, are cream-colored to light brown in color, depending upon the amounts of molasses present.
Saccharin, which is sold as Sweet’N Low, was developed in 1879. While it’s widely used in consumer products, high doses of saccharin were found to cause bladder cancer in lab animals, so the FDA requires all products containing saccharin to carry a warning label.
In 1981 aspartame became available, and is labeled as NutraSweet when added to foods, or Equal when it’s sold as a powder. While it doesn’t promote tooth decay, aspartame can’t be used for cooking since its sweetness is decreased by heat. High levels of the amino acid phenylalanine found in aspartame can cause brain damage in people with a genetic disease called phenylketonuria (PKU) and pregnant women with high levels of phenylalanine in the blood, so all products containing aspartame must include a warning label.
Sucralose, sold as Splenda, was approved for use by the FDA in 1998. While sucralose is a heat-tolerant option for baking, it’s made through a chemical process that adds chlorine atoms to sucrose.
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