Week 5: The Deal With Sugar And Clean Eating

Did you know that the average American consumes about 20 teaspoons of added sugars per day (not including natural sugars found in fruit and milk)? That’s a whopping 66 pounds of sugar a year. It’s shocking, but it’s true. And not all of it comes from sodas, candies, and cakes, either.

Current nutrition guidelines recommend limiting your daily intake of added sugar to five percent of your total calories, which is about six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. That comes out to roughly 20 to 30 pounds a year for men and women, respectively.

And, honestly, we still think this is far too much sugar for anyone to be consuming. Keep in mind we’re talking about added sugar here. That’s any sugar that’s not naturally occurring in a food. Often it comes in the form of a word that ends in ‘-ose,’ but not always. Food manufacturers now have all kinds of names for this sweet substance. (You’ll get the full list later, don’t worry!)

Most of this sugar is coming from sugary beverages, pastries, candies, and sweetened dairy and coffee-based drinks. However, it’s lurking in savory foods, too. Pasta sauces, pickles, breads, and tons of condiments also contain added sugar.

What we’re not talking about are natural sugars or those found naturally in fruit and unsweetened dairy products like milk and plain yogurt. Unlike added sugars, natural sugars come packaged with nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber (in the case of vegetables), so we’re not putting them on the chopping block.

Consuming upwards of 66 pounds of added sugar a year can have some intense health effects, including:

  • poor blood sugar regulation
  • cravings and weight gain
  • low energy
  • immune system suppression
  • inflammation resulting in headaches or joint pain
  • depletion of vital nutrients important to our health
  • dental cavities
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • fatty liver
  • wrinkled or saggy skin
  • yeast overgrowth and increased susceptibility to infection

A diet that’s high in processed foods containing added sugars is often one that’s low in the nutrients needed to support optimal health and well-being like fiber, calcium, magnesium, and more.

A big part of the Eat Clean lifestyle involves reducing your intake of added sugar—but to do this, you first need to know how to find them in the foods you eat. Let’s start with that food label. Flip over any packaged food and you’ll see a Nutrition Facts Panel and an ingredients list. Both offer valuable information if you know how to use them.

Nutrition Facts Panel

There’s a lot of information here—serving size, number of servings per package, and calories. For now, we’re just looking at the number of grams of sugar. When you’re looking at candy or soda, you know this number is 100 percent added sugar.

But it gets a little trickier when you’re looking at foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars and potential added sugars. (Fruit and milk products, for example, contain naturally-occurring fructose and lactose, respectively.) It’s hard to tease out just how many grams are naturally-occurring and how many are added. The good news: new foods labels coming to packages in 2018 will list ‘added sugars’ separately in order to eliminate the guesswork.

For now, though, you can use the ingredient list to help you determine if and how much added sugars are present.

Ingredient List

Here you’ll find all of the product ingredients listed in descending order by weight. That means that the closer an ingredient is to the top of the list, the more there is of it in the food. It used to be that food manufacturers used just one or two types of added sugars in products like cereals, granola bars, and baked goods, which meant those sugars appeared pretty close to the top of the ingredient lists. But as consumers have gotten wiser, so has the food industry. It’s not uncommon now to see multiple sources of added sugars listed on a label, and since each one is used in smaller quantities, they fall lower on the list. This doesn’t mean, however, that the product is any lower in sugar!

Here’s just a few of the names you’ll see for added sugar on food labels:

  • agave
  • agave nectar
  • beet sugar
  • cane sugar
  • caramel
  • corn syrup
  • corn syrup solids
  • dextran
  • dextrose
  • diastatic malt
  • diastase
  • erythritol
  • ethyl maltol
  • evaporated cane juice
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • glycerol (glycerin or glycerine)
  • golden sugar
  • golden syrup
  • high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • hydrogenated starch hydrosylates (HSH)
  • invert sugar/syrup
  • isomalt
  • lactitol
  • levulose
  • light brown sugar
  • liquid honey (often with HFCS)
  • maltitol
  • malt syrup
  • maltodextrin
  • maltose
  • mannitol
  • sorbitol
  • sorghum syrup
  • sucrose
  • tagatose
  • treacle
  • yellow sugar
  • xylitol

*Those in italics are sugar alcohols

We know reducing added sugar seems like a daunting task—because it’s all over the place! But follow these five tips as you get started, and you’ll find the process may be less confusing than you expected:

  1. Whenever possible, choose products that have no sugar added. This goes for foods like tomato sauce, almond or coconut milk, pickles, mayonnaise, tortillas, bread, crackers, nut and seed butters, and seasonings.
  2. Read food labels and, when necessary, choose products with the fewest grams of sugar per serving.
  3. Choose more whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and fish to fill your plate.
  4. Make your own salad dressings. Try our Ginger-Sesame Vinaigrette, Citrus Vinaigrette with Thyme and Strawberry Champagne Vinaigrette We also have a bunch of added-sugar-free dips, sauces and marinades you can try.
  5. Skip the sugary coffee drinks and flavored coffee creamers. Instead, opt for organic cream or half-and-half—or gradually make the switch to black coffee or tea.

On Exceptions And ‘Natural’ Sweeteners

You may have been surprised to see dark chocolate chips in the trail mix we suggested as a go-to snack last week. Yes, the dark chocolate chips we recommended do contain added sugar—but they CAN be a part of your clean-eating lifestyle when you keep both quality and quantity in mind. We believe in progress, not perfection, and allowing yourself a small, healthy treat from time to time keeps you from feeling deprived.

We recommend choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate since it’s lower in added sugars. Plus, its stronger taste makes you less likely to go overboard. Choose chocolate bars and chips labeled 65 percent dark (or higher) such as Equal Exchange or Enjoy Life. You can also choose a dark bar sweetened with stevia.

And if you’re wondering about ‘natural’ sweeteners, we’ve got you covered. Along with fructose from fruit and fruit juices, we consider the following sweeteners to be natural, or at the very least, less processed or refined: honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar or nectar, agave nectar, and rapadura sugar. Some sweeteners, like coconut sugar, have a lower glycemic index, which means that they raise your blood sugar less than other sweeteners when compared gram for gram.

However, just because they’re less processed doesn’t mean you’ve got the green light for regular consumption. Remember, sugar is still sugar. These sweeteners should still be treated like special ‘sometimes’ foods—they just happen to be less processed and slightly better for you than the alternative.

And what about stevia? The South American herb has become incredibly popular because of its super sweet, calorie-free, flavor. Seems almost too good to be true, right? To date, there have been no long-term human studies on the safety of stevia leaf and stevia leaf extracts (stevia’s pure, natural forms.) And since stevia is 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, it can create a dependency or constant cravings for sweet foods or drinks. For these reasons, we recommend using it only in small amounts, just like you would with any other sweetener.

Ready, set…go find those hidden added sugars!

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge and tools to sleuth out added sugars, it’s time to put them to work. We challenge you to identify five items in your pantry with hidden added sugars and replace each with lower-sugar or sugar-free alternatives for each. Remember, it’s about progress, not perfection. When it comes to decreasing your sugar intake, making small changes each week can add up to major health rewards over time.