High fructose corn syrup has received plenty of attention these days from critics who warn it’s become pervasive in our diets.
Indeed, production and use of high fructose corn syrup has increased during the past three decades as it replaced more expensive sugar in food production. Food refiners make it by turning cornstarch into a sugary syrup. That syrup is then made into other syrups and added to sodas, candy, cereal, bread, dairy products and assorted processed foods.
That level of processing may alarm some, but nutrition experts suggest the recent focus on high fructose corn syrup may be misplaced. Rather, we should look at our overall dietary sugar intake.
“What does matter is that most Americans are consuming way more sugars than we recommend,” said Dr. Rachel Johnson, (retired) Bickford Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a volunteer for the American Heart Association.
Too Much Sweet Stuff, Period
The American Heart Association recommends limiting intake of added sugar to 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. For reference, one 12-ounce can of cola contains about 8 teaspoons of added sugar, for about 130 calories. Most American women should eat or drink no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, and most American men should eat or drink no more than 150 calories per day form added sugars. Americans are consuming about 17 teaspoons of the sweet stuff each day. That is more than double the daily recommended amount for women and nearly double for men.
But high fructose corn syrup isn’t the only type of sugar contributing to our over consumption. Some sugars are assumed to be healthier than others, but added sugars like agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, or date sugar have a similar effect on the body as other added sugars.
“Anything that ends in syrup or –ose, such as maltose or glucose, they’re all sugars,” Dr. Johnson said.
The American Heart Association does not distinguish between sources of added sugars, instead focusing on overall intake and how it affects heart health and other conditions such as diabetes.
“Sugars don’t cause diabetes,” Dr. Johnson said. “Overeating leads to being overweight and obesity, which are risk factors for diabetes.”
Tracking Added Sugars
Tracking your consumption of added sugars can be tricky, since packaged foods don’t list the number of teaspoons of sugar and some of us are getting our added sugar by spooning it onto our foods or into our beverages. Translating nutritional labels can take some number crunching.
Here are the important numbers to remember: There are 4 calories per gram of sugar and 4 grams per teaspoon. So if the label says it has 20 grams of sugar, that’s 5 teaspoons, or about 80 calories from sugar.
Scan the labels for all sources of sugar in processed foods and check the number of grams of added sugars in the nutrition labels. Some products are now using the updated Nutrition Facts label that provides added sugars information. If the product has an updated label, you can find the Added Sugars listed under Total Sugars.
Don’t be fooled by cane syrup or brown rice syrup found in many things marketed as “natural” foods such as granola or cereals, Dr. Johnson said. They also count as added sugars.
Not all sugar is added sugar. For example, sugars found in whole fruit or milk are naturally occurring. And you can easily avoid the added sugar in canned fruits by looking for those packaged in their own juices instead of syrup.
If you’re looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, there are plenty of delicious alternatives to sugar. For instance, you can always add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg to your food. Fresh or dried fruit is a great topping on cereal and oatmeal. Or you can try replacing added sugars with a non-nutritive sweetener. There are lots of ways to combine sweet with smart!