Jan 18 2011

the myth that keeps you eating too much sugar

Agave nectar, sugar in the raw, organic sugar and even non caloric sweeteners are put on a higher pedestal than plain old sugar and high fructose corn syrup. I often hear parents say that they stay clear of what they believe are “bad” sugars in favor of more natural sources of the sweet stuff.

Now I don’t have a problem with choosing unadulterated forms of sugar but it’s the myth behind it that bothers me: the type of sugar matters more than how much someone eats.

I’m winding down my managing sweet series (still one more post). So far we’ve talked about how to feed sweets but I wanted to discuss what’s actually in the sweet foods your family eats. By answering these 5 myth-busting questions, I hope to reveal the real problem we all face.

1. What’s in Sugar Anyway?
Having a basic understanding of what’s in sweeteners is important (we are talking about “added sugars” here not the sugars naturally found in food). For example, the most common added sugars are sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup. They both are made up of the smaller sugar molecules, fructose and glucose. Sucrose contains about half glucose and half fructose (50/50) while high fructose corn syrup has a ratio of 55/45.

The reasons these two sugars are used most often is they contain fructose which does a good job of sweetening. For example, lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy products, contains glucose and galactose (no fructose). And while milk is sweet, it’s not half as sweet as sugar-sweetened beverages.

Take agave nectar, the latest and greatest sweetener, it can contain as much 90% fructose and 10% glucose which means less can be used to sweeten. And artificial, non caloric sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame (NutraSweet) and sucrolose (Splenda) are all much sweeter (200X or more) than sucrose. So a little goes a long way.

2. How much are we consuming?
From 1970 to 2005 sugar intake has increased by nearly 20%. According to the American Heart Association’s Report on added sugars, the average intake for sugar is 22 tsp/day. Here’s a quick breakdown by age group: 1-3 (12tsp), 4-8 year (21 tsp), males 9-13 (29tsp), males 14-18 (34tsp), females 9-13 (23tsp) and females 14-18 (25tsp).

That’s a lot more than the American Heart Association recommends for women (6 tsp) and men (9 tsp). The primary source of added sugars are soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

During this same time period (mentioned above) the intake of high fructose corn syrup has gone up by nearly 1000 percent and has become the food industry’s sweetener of choice.

“As a liquid, high fructose corn syrup can be mixed into food without forming crystals,” says Dr. Richard Johnson, author of The Sugar Fix. ”That’s why food manufacturers prefer to use it.”

3. What are the health consequences of over-consumption?
Excessive sugar has been linked to nutritionally inadequate diets, obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides and hypertension. And while many rush to blame high fructose corn syrup, Johnson says that “sugar and high fructose corn syrup are not hugely different.” There may be problems with fructose and glucose not being bound together [in high fructose corn syrup], he explains, but more studies are needed.

While too much sugar can increase calories and displace nutritious foods in the diet, researchers are beginning to believe that too much fructose in general is contributing to health problems. Unlike glucose that goes into the blood stream to be used by cells, fructose goes directly to the liver where it is more likely to be turned into triglycerides (blood fat) and stored in the abdomen as unhealthy visceral fat.

Take a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigations. Overweight individuals consuming a diet with 25% fructose developed insulin resistance, more visceral fat and high blood lipids than those who consumed the same diet with 25% glucose.

Of course studies like this give fructose at much higher-than-normal levels. ”Most people can handle 30-35g fructose without problems,” says Johnson. “To give you an idea a large cookie has 20g and soft drinks contain about 25g”

4. What’s role does the market plays?
The market is always responding to demand — especially the demonizing of ingredients and foods. When high fructose corn syrup started getting bad press products with “natural” sources of sugar skyrocketed. While these products may be marginally better, they often contain the same amount of sugar. And as we just pointed out, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are similar.

Artificial sweeteners were supposed to be the answer to the obesity epidemic. According to a recent review study published in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine on artificial sweeteners, our bodies react strangely to sweetness without calories:

“Animals seek food to satisfy the inherent craving for sweetness, even in the absence of energy need. Lack of complete satisfaction, likely because of the failure to activate the post-ingestive component, fuels the food serving behavior.”

The theory is artificial sweeteners gives us the sweetness without the calories so the body is left wanting more.

Sometimes the alternative to a supposed “bad” item the market provides, is not all that much better. So check labels for all sources of sugar which come under many code names such as evaporated cane juice, corn sweetener, corn syrup, brown rice syrup and polydextrose (and other “ose” words). Grams of sugar also tell you how much is added, except in the case of yogurt, fruit and milk which have natural sugars.

5. Is sugar all bad?
According to the American Heart Association report, when sugar is added to milk, yogurt and cereals the diets of children and adolescents improve. Sugar can increase the palatability of nutrient-dense foods.

The truth is sugar is not bad, it’s just we are consuming too much of it, and kids are getting used to an extra-sweet taste world. Instead, we need to be picky about how much sugar we add (all types) in our family’s diets so that we consume enough to satisfy our sweet tooth while preserving good health.


Dietary Sugars and Cardiovascular Health, Report from the American Heart Association

Johnson RJ, Sanchez-Lozada, Nakagawa T. The effect of fructose on renal biology and disease. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010; Dec;21(12):2036-9. Epub 2010 Nov 29. Review.

Stanhope KL et al. Consuming fructose sweetened, not glucose sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. 2009; J Clin Invest 119: 1322-1334.

Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010; Jun;83(2):101-8.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen is a registered dietitian, mother of two and creator of Raise Healthy Eaters, a blog that provides parents with simple and sound nutrition advice.

The Myth That Keeps You Eating Too Much Sugar is part 5 in a series Maryann has written in her Managing Sweets Series.