Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sugar by any other name...

I've noticed an interesting trend on food labels lately. More and more companies are moving away from using "sugar" in their products' ingredient lists. I think that there are a couple of driving forces behind the trend: 1) Health conscious consumers are trying to steer clear of "sugar" based on some of the latest recommendations. 2) People are interested in consuming more natural foods and ingredients, and "sugar", that white table kind that usually comes to mind when we hear the word, is not necessarily considered natural by many.

We can't simply take an ingredient, such as sugar, out of a food without some consequence...a sacrifice in flavor, texture, volume, and/or color. These are all characteristics that sugar contributes to food. So, if manufacturers aren't using "sugar" in their products, then what are they doing to maintain the quality? You may have to be a detective to figure it out, but if you browse through various food labels, you may be seeing ingredients such as "evaporated cane juice", "brown rice syrup", "grape juice concentrate", and "crystalline fructose". Technically, these are all sources of sugar (aka, simple carbohydrates). They are just different forms or are from different sources.

In terms of health, are these ingredients superior to the more refined table sugar? Not really. They are similar in calories at 4 kcals/gram. So, whether a product contains 20 g of "evaporated cane juice" or 20 g of "sugar", each contributes about 80 calories to the final product. Some will say, "But evaporated cane juice is less refined, so it's healthier." The additional nutrients contained in some of these alternative sources of sugar is minimal at best. Seriously, there are more significant and nutritious sources of these nutrients than evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, or fruit juice concentrate. Next, someone might ask, "Isn't "refined sugar" absorbed and metabolized more quickly by the body? Doesn't it turn into fat more easily?" It is true that some types of sugar are absorbed more quickly depending on their chemical make-up, but this feature isn't limited to the so-called refined sugars. Plus, once absorbed into the body, all sugars travel to the liver and are converted to other compounds, mostly glucose. Regardless of the source of sugar, if the body does not immediately use or store that glucose (in the form of glycogen) for energy, the excess is primarily converted to and stored as fat. Finally, I totally believe that if someone is going to consume something that contains sugar anyway but wants a product with less refined sugars for environmental, ethical, culinary, or other reasons (i.e., allergies), then go right ahead. However, I will state for the record that natural still does not equal healthful.

We have to ask ourselves what foods typically contain these alternative sources of sugar. Hmmmm...could they be...processed? Yes, and processed foods (i.e., comes in a box, bag, can, or package of some sort) are major sources of added sugar in the diet. So, what does this dietitian suggest?

To best achieve optimal nutrition, I propose the consumption of more fresh, minimally processed foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. These foods naturally contain fewer added sugars and will also be more nutrient dense containing more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals than more processed or refined foods. Nutrient dense foods, especially fresh vegetables and fruits, will also naturally offer greater volume for fewer calories. So, they will be more satisfying without contributing an abundance of calories, especially from added sugars. When we focus on increasing our intake of more nutrient dense foods, we will naturally consume fewer foods that contain added sugars as there's just less room for them in our diet...and our stomachs:) Just try it. I dare you!

Am I suggesting that we cut out processed food altogether? No, but I do emphasize the importance of meeting nutrient needs through less processed, nutrient dense foods first. However, in the {real world}, I understand that we are exposed to a wide variety of foods, including processed foods, that we enjoy. Can you say CHOCOLATE? We may have a lifestyle for which processed foods provide a satisfying and convenient option, like energy bars. Or we may actually have a need for processed products, such as sport beverages for endurance athletes. So my second piece of advice is to read food labels to identify sources of added sugar. I know a lot of people who look for the Total Sugar content on the food label, and while this does tell you how much sugar there is per serving, what it will not tell you is whether or not that sugar is naturally occurring or added. So, a good rule of thumb is to read the ingredient list and most often select foods and beverages that do not list sources of sugar as one of the first three ingredients. And don't be fooled into thinking it's healthier just because it's listed as "organic". Organic does not equal healthy either. Here are examples of added sugar that you might see in an ingredient list:
  • Agave nectar or agave syrup
  • Barley malt
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane crystals or cane juice crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Crystallized cane juice
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Date sugar
  • Demerara
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated or dehydrated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates (grape, peach, pear, and pineapple are common)
  • Glucose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • High maltose syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple powder, maple sugar or maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Muscovado
  • Oat syrup
  • Rapadura
  • Raw sugar
  • Rice syrup
  • Sucanat
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup
  • Tapioca syrup
  • Turbinado
So put on your investigator's hat and start scanning those food labels. If it seems too overwhelming to look at every food item you buy, you may want to start with the top 5-10 foods that you consume most frequently. Once you get the hang of it, you'll become a pro. Happy hunting!


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