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January 24, 2012

The Difference Between a Peach and a Pop-tart

By: Laura Cochrun, RD, LDN, Community Dietitian 

When I say “sugar” what comes to mind?  Do you think of the white table sugar you added to your morning coffee?  Or, the sugar in a summer peach that makes it so delicious?

Well, those are both types of sugars called sucrose and fructose, respectively.

The term, sugars, actually describes a type of carbohydrate. And, our bodies need carbohydrates!  In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that 45-65% of our total daily caloric intake comes from carbohydrates.

There are many types of carbohydrates that are divided into 3 main groups: fibers, starches and sugars. Fibers and starches offer many health benefits, so it is important to make the majority of our daily carbohydrate intake from these 2 groups.

Sugars are intended to make up a smaller portion of our daily carbohydrate intake.  However, it’s hard to minimize our sugar intake when it has become such a ubiquitous flavor force in today’s food supply.

In order to monitor our daily sugar intake, we need to know where sugars are found.  Sugars can be:
  1. Naturally occurring: Present in fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products
  2. Added: Present in soda, cookies, candy bars, cereals, soups, prepackaged items, etc.
Foods with naturally occurring sugars have many added health benefits.  For example, a large orange has 23 grams of sugar, but it also has fiber and Vitamin C.  A cup of skim milk has 12 grams of sugar, but it also has calcium and Vitamin A.  Nature made these foods, so they provide sugars in a moderate amount and in combination with other vital nutrients.

How about added sugars?  These are sugars that have been commercially produced and then added back into many common foods, including pasta sauces, soups, cereals, breads, and prepackaged snacks.

If your breakfast is 2 strawberry pop-tarts, you're eating 34 grams of sugar.  If you drink a McDonalds chocolate shake, you are drinking 121 grams of sugar. On average, 4.2 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon.  The 121 grams of sugar in the shake adds up to more than 28 teaspoons of sugar!  Many foods that harbor added sugars have little nutrient value.  So, not only are you eating a load of sugar, but you may also be ingesting high levels of sodium, saturated fats or trans-fatty acids.

The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that the average American is consuming more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day.  This increased intake of added sugars can play a role in weight gain and the development of other chronic conditions.  Based on their research for optimal heart health, they recommend slashing the intake of daily added sugars by more than 1/2.  Recommendations for men:  no more than 9 teaspoons a day of added sugar; for women: 5 teaspoons and for children: 3 teaspoons.

In order to limit the amount of added sugars you are eating on a daily basis, you must become a sugar detective!  Go into your kitchen and grab a packaged item.  Then, locate the nutrition label.  On the nutrition label listed under carbohydrates you will find “sugars” with a number listed next to it.  This number does not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars. So, in order to know if these are added sugars, you will also need to locate the ingredient list.  Did you find it?  Great!  As you read through the ingredient list, you may start to see terms like high fructose corn syrup, honey or fructose.  These are all terms that mean sugar.  There are several words used to describe sugar - I’d recommend doing a little additional research so you know the many ways sugars can be listed on an ingredient list.  If no sugars are listed in the ingredient list, then the sugars listed on the nutrition label are natural.

Spend a few moments looking through different products in your kitchen and you may be surprised at how many of them contain added sugars.  It can be overwhelming to think about eliminating them all together. So, set a realistic goal for yourself.  Try cutting back your added sugar intake by just 10-15% and your body will thank you for it!  Here are some simple steps you can take today to cut back on your daily added sugar intake: 
  • Pass on packaged snacks
  • Don’t drink your added sugars (coffee drinks, soda, juice)
  • Cut down on added table sugar
  • Focus on eating sugars from natural sources- like fruit, dairy and vegetables
After looking through your pantry, which items were you most surprised to find sugar added to? What is one thing you are going to begin doing today to cut back on your added sugar intake?

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