Understanding Added Sugar & Its Many Forms
Sugars come in a variety of different forms; some are naturally occurring in foods and others are processed and added to food products. It can get confusing when trying to decipher between the 2 types and how much is too much.
Naturally-occurring sugars are typically found in foods such as fruits, dairy, nuts and whole grains, which are also loaded with various beneficial nutrients. In tandem with these nutrients, natural sugars supply the body with energy and fiber, which provide benefits like helping you feel fuller longer.
Conversely, added sugars are unhealthy, artificial concoctions designed to sweeten a wide range of foods and drinks. They offer no nutritional value and can pose significant harm to your body when consumed in excess.
To help you better understand the risks of consuming added sugars in excess and how to best limit or avoid them, read on for our Living Proof Guide to Added Sugars:
How Added Sugars Can Affect Your Health
As you can imagine, an excess of added sugars in your diet can negatively influence many aspects of your health.
For more context, let’s break down some of the most severe conditions aggravated by excessive sugar consumption:
The United States has the world’s 13th-highest obesity rate (~37%). Every year, nearly 300,000 Americans die due to obesity-related illnesses, making it the country’s second leading cause of preventable death behind tobacco use.
Studies repeatedly prove the overabundance of added sugars in our national diet plays a prominent role in this obesity epidemic:
The average American consumes >150 cups of sugar a year, or three pounds per week, which far exceeds the recommended amount (as we will discuss later).
This enormous consumption, often fueled by added sugars, introduces health-depleting levels of calories and certain types of carbohydrates to one’s daily diet. High intakes of added sugars can also contribute to appetite stimulation, overeating and challenges with weight management.
The relationship between unhealthy added sugar consumption and diabetes is a famous one. And for good reason:
Excess consumption of manmade, highly processed forms of sugar can directly contribute to prolonged obesity, heart, kidney, liver and nerve damage, which are all conditions often associated with Type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, an outsized presence of added sugars can also interrupt healthy sleep, minimize the ability to exercise and aggravate other genetic factors that further increase the risk of diabetes.
The overconsumption of added sugar is associated with an increase in inflammation and can contribute to high blood pressure -- two major risk factors for heart disease.
On top of that, the circumstances that often lead to Type 2 diabetes, like obesity, liver damage and lack of exercise/sleep, can also dramatically increase one’s risk of future cardiovascular concerns.
Nearly 10 million people die from cancer every year, as the many forms of this insidious, wide-ranging disease account for 1 in every 6 deaths annually. In no uncertain terms, it is something we must proactively work to stave off.
Part of safeguarding ourselves against the risks of cancer includes reducing our added sugar consumption:
Though added sugars may not directly lead to cancer, consuming them excessively can lead to weight gain and inflammation, which are other risk factors that weaken your body’s ability to defend itself.
Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Like cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia both take a profound toll on the afflicted and those around them.
Research from the Alzheimer’s Society and Harvard Medical School indicates there could be a tangible link between high levels of blood sugar -- often brought on by excess consumption of added sweeteners -- and the incidence of these conditions.
Kidney and Liver Conditions
Your kidneys and liver are essential organs that can also be negatively impacted by excessive sugar consumption.
Certain sugars that contain fructose, like processed high fructose corn syrup is metabolized primarily by the liver. Regular consumption of sweetened beverages like sodas and sweetened sports drinks can contribute to fatty buildup in the liver, which can morph into chronic liver disease overtime.
Similarly, the kidneys can suffer a reduction in function when there are excessive levels of sugar in the blood.
One of the most visible adverse effects of sugar overconsumption is worsening of the skin.
Increased inflammation due to high blood sugar levels can worsen acne and aggravate other chronic skin conditions like eczema, rosacea and psoriasis.
To make matters worse, added sugars can also speed up the aging process, contributing to more visible wrinkles at a younger age.
The Many Names of Added Sugar
While most people understand the risks of added sugars, far fewer realize that these harmful substances go by various titles.
To help you better identify added sugars hiding in plain sight, let’s explore some alternative names for these dangerous sweeteners:
First, it’s essential to know that many basic names for sugars are words that end in “-ose.” This simple concept can quickly help you spot sugars, but there’s more you need to know:
Fructose, glucose and sucrose are naturally occurring sugars found in a wide variety of foods (like fruits, starchy vegetables and grains) and can play a pivotal role in your diet -- when consumed in proper quantities.
Unfortunately, however, many manufacturers of sugary products use these basic sugars to create hyperpalatable forms of sweeteners to add to numerous foods and drinks.
Next time you read a nutrition label, keep an eye out for:
The Granulated Forms
If you picture sugar in your head, the image you see is likely one of granulated sugar composed of dried sugar crystals.
This form of sugar is often white or off-gold in color and typically serves to sweeten beverages like coffee or baked goods ranging from cakes to cobblers, pies and shortbreads.
While these sweeteners may lack the more unique names of the “oses,” they are often far more visible due to their distinctive appearance.
Keep an eye out for foods/drinks with granular sugar dustings, powders and glazes and limit your consumption of these visibly sweet items.
The Liquid Forms
Liquid sugars derive from refined sugar mixed with water to create a sweetener often used in beverages.
There are many names for these kinds of added sugars. Popular examples include:
- Agave Nectar
- High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- Fruit Juice Concentrate
- Rice Syrup
- Brown Rice Syrup
Next time you purchase a drink with even a hint of sweetness, check the nutrition label and see if you can spot any of these pesky liquid sugars.
How Much is Too Much?
Now that you know the risks of added sugars and how to identify them in your foods and drinks, let’s investigate healthy quantities and sources of sugar for your daily diet:
American Heart Association Recommendations for Men and Women
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average man should consume 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar per day, and the average woman should consume 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of sugar per day.
Reading Food Labels to Understand Your Average Intake
As we detailed above, added sugars go by many names that can make them challenging to identify.
To minimize the presence of added sugars in your diet, keep an eye out for the alternate titles we discussed earlier and place a strong emphasis on natural sugars.
You can find natural sugars in a wide variety of delicious and healthy foods, such as:
- Dairy Products
- Whole Grains
As with any lifestyle changes, the move away from added sugars can be a difficult one. After all, sugary products are popular for a reason.
But, the more you practice identifying/avoiding added sugars and focus on natural ones, the easier it will become to craft daily meal plans that naturally give you healthy energy and support optimal health.