Rethink Your Sweets

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch
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Do you think a child who has never had candy before would enjoy it? Would he think it was too sweet? My guess is he would love it. However, could we say the same thing about a child who has never had broccoli? The fact is, we crave sugar from birth. Unlike salt which we learn to enjoy through exposure, sugar signals the release of serotonin and endorphins that make us feel good while it also tastes good. Sugar is very addictive and there are many health risks that come from ingesting sugar, especially when we ingest too much of it.

Our specialists at N.C. State University have been encouraging the practice of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Dr. Carolyn Dunn is a professor and head of the Department of Agriculture and Human Sciences at N.C. State University. She has provided a series of webinars monthly through, with her most recent video called “Rethink Your Sweets”. The topic of this webinar was, you guessed it, sugar. I know personally that I am addicted to sugar, and the more I consume it the more I crave it. Sugar has been called the new fat and it is making us sick. High sugar diets are associated with a number of health problems including tooth decay, heart disease, metabolic syndrome (a conglomerate disease that consists of high blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides, lower “good” cholesterol, and more belly fat), obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and gout. Sugar also causes chronic inflammation, as do many other chronic diseases. So how much sugar is too much sugar? Are Americans really consuming too much of it?

The recommended amount of sugar to be consumed in a day is six to nine teaspoons regardless of sex, based on average caloric intake. In perspective, one 20-ounce Coke has about fifteen teaspoons. This is almost twice the amount of sugar that is recommended. The average sugar consumption in the U.S. is 152 pounds per year. That is 26 to 32 teaspoons of sugar a day. Where do American’s get all of this sugar? Sugar is either found naturally in food, such as in fruits, some vegetables, and dairy products, or it is added to foods. The sugars that are being referred to in this article are the added sugars. These include all the sugars that are used as an ingredient in processed and prepared foods such as breads, cakes, soft drinks, jams, chocolates and ice cream, and sugars eaten separately or added to foods at the table. Added sugars are what American’s are consuming too much of and need to be decreased in the diet. Of the 152 pounds of sugar consumed a year, almost half is from soft drinks. Another twenty percent is from grain-based desserts like cake and cookies, sixteen percent from candy, and about nine percent from dairy desserts or flavored milk. As you can see, the predominance of where we get our sugar is from drinking sugar.

So let’s say we cut back on desserts and stop drinking soft drinks. If you are someone who consumes many soft drinks and desserts a day, you will most likely find your pants fitting loosely. However, you may still be getting more than the recommended amount of sugar in your diet through processed foods that we don’t even realize are sweet because of this added sugar. Seventy-four percent of processed foods contain added sugar. This is three-quarters of the processed foods in the grocery store. What is this doing to our taste-buds? Dr. Dunn says consuming these processed foods that we don’t think are sweet, but have sugar added to them are actually assaulting our palate. This means, it’s making foods that are not even supposed to be sweet taste sweet, so that we crave more and more sugar. When we finally taste something that doesn’t have sugar added to it, it may taste funny or weird to us because it’s lacking that added sugar we are used to consuming. It is fatiguing our palate so that we can’t get used to what real food is supposed to taste like. It’s important to monitor your sugar intake, even in foods you may not think have added sugar.

With the majority of American’s diets containing some processed foods, it is important to read the labels when shopping at the grocery store. To find out if a food has added sugar in it, look at the ingredients list. Sugar goes by many names such as agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, syrups and anything ending in –ose. In July of 2018 we’ll get help from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who governs the nutrition facts panel. There will be a change to all food labels to provide the words “added sugars” under the Total Sugars. This comes into play when you have a food that may have both added and natural sugars. For example, strawberry yogurt may have both natural and added sugars. Yogurt’s natural sugar comes from milk and, in this case, strawberries, but how do you know how much is added? Unless you do the math and know the exact amounts of sugar in milk and strawberries, it’s difficult to find out the amount of added sugars. The same is true for cereals with dried fruits, or cereal bars, any foods that may contain both added and natural sugars. Until then be sure to read your labels.

As a health educator, I get many sugar related questions with some that are difficult to answer. Many people ask whether honey is better for us than table sugar and if artificial sweeteners are OK to use. Dr. Dunn explains that honey and agave, two natural sugars, are fine to consume, but still need to be counted as some of our added sugar content for the day (remember, it’s recommended we only consume 6 to 9 teaspoons). I like to drizzle honey on my peanut butter and banana toast or add some to my tea, but still in small amounts. As for artificial sweeteners, FDA and the USDA do not have any data that shows that any of these are harmful or they would not be on the market. Dr. Dunn suggests to not have that incredible sweetness artificial sweeteners give you and to get used to the natural sweeteners in foods found in nature such as your fruits, nuts, fish, and vegetables. If you can’t shake the habit of soft drinks they are a better alternative calorically as diet versus regular soda but remember they are still assaulting your palate.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid added sugars:

  1. Be aware of marinades. Most marinades have a lot of added sugar in them. If you look at the ingredients list and sugar is listed as one of the top ingredients, it’s best to go with another marinade. You can always make your own marinade by using just three ingredients. Take an acid (vinegar, citrus juice, wine, or a combo of the 3), an oil (olive oil, canola oil, or sesame oil), and a seasoning or combination of seasonings (oregano, cumin, garlic, chili powder are some suggestions). Mix together and you have your own marinade, most likely made from things already in your pantry!
    2. Don’t drink sugar! Living in the south definitely has its perks, but sweet tea is not one of them. Sweet tea typically has just as much sugar as soda, making it an unhealthy beverage choice. Although drinking juice provides a serving of fruit, it is best to consume fruits in their whole form so you get the added fiber. Calorically, juice is still as high as many sodas. Gatorade and sweetened coffees should also be avoided to reduce our sugar intake. Why are we so concerned about adding calories to liquid? Liquid calories are different than food calories because it causes our bodies to react differently. Liquid tends to go unnoticed by our body versus if we consumed the same amount of calories through food. A solid form of those calories (through food) is much more satisfying.
    3. Break that sugar habit! Assess your sugar intake and cut back gradually (starting with beverages). Give your palate time to adjust to consuming less sugar in foods. Allow yourself small sweets so that you don’t feel deprived, such as one small cookie or a small piece of chocolate. Buy high-sugar foods in small quantities so that you will be less likely to over-indulge. You can also use the natural sugar in fruit to calm your sugar cravings.

Reduced sugar recipes to help kick that sugar habit:
Cranberry Lime Soda

-1/3 cup cranberry juice
-2/3 cup club soda
-1 lime slice
Combine cranberry juice and soda. Splash with lime and enjoy.

DIY Yogurt:

Buy plain yogurt with no added sugar. Stir in a small spoonful of your favorite jam or preserve. (Yes this is pure sugar, but at least you can control the sugar amount rather than the manufacturer dictating how much sugar is added to your foods.)

No Sugar Added Oatmeal

Makes 4 servings, serving size is 1½ cups
-1 cup steel-cut oats, uncooked (alternative: 2 cups rolled oats, uncooked)
-1/2 cup walnuts (unsalted)
-1 cup blackberries
-1 medium banana, sliced
-Cinnamon sprinkled on top

Prepare oatmeal according to package instructions. Add nuts, fruit, and cinnamon to prepared oatmeal. Enjoy!