The real danger of hidden and added sugars

Early this year, I intend to cut back on sugar. It doesn’t seem like a huge feat since I’m not a dessert person. Sure, I love the occasional good scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt, but I’ve never been a big cake, pie, cookie or brownie-type guy. I also have a total distaste for “sweet” savory food. I like my good food to be rich and, well… tasty, with nothing wrong with a sweet tone.

Unfortunately, if you mix some kind of dairy with some kind of sweetener or spice and a few shots of espresso, you’ve got me. Between coffee drinks and Mountain Dew, in all its frothy, neon green glory, I love a sweet drink, but even those indulgences are pretty easy to resist.

Where things get trickier, however, isn’t when cutting out sodas, candy, cookies and chocolate — but when there’s excess sugar in places you least expect it, like your salad dressing or your protein shake. They’ve come to be known as “added sugars” or as the slightly scarier “hidden sugars,” and everyone from Harvard Health to Johns Hopkins has issued warnings about just how widespread they are. But in our current food system, where Americans are eating more and more ultra-processed foods, is it really possible to avoid them?

“They’re only ‘hidden’ if you don’t know what to look for,” says Jessica Sylvester, a clinical, registered dietitian, nutrition practice owner and National Media Spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Added sugars are simply defined as any sugars added over and above any naturally occurring or present sugars, such as those found in fruit. Usually added sugar is meant to “enhance flavor, texture, shelf life or other properties,” according to Nichole Dandrea-Russert, a dietitian and author of and “The Vegan Athlete’s Nutrition Handbook.”

“They’re only hidden if you don’t know what to look for.”

Dandrea-Russert warns that some products are marketed as “healthy,” but they’re really anything but — they just say it’s because they’re not made with traditional sugar. Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist Deborah Malkoff-Cohen actually notes that there are 62 different names for sugar, from agave and malt syrup to dextrose and barley malt. Also, watch out for sugars that end in “-ose,” like fructose or dextrose, as well as any syrup, cane juice or fruit juice concentrate (“because,” as Dandrea-Russert says, “it’s condensed and not in the form of a whole fruit, it is considered added sugar”).

According to the American Heart Association, men should consume no more than 36 grams of sugar per day and women should limit their consumption to 25 grams – but in a world of added and hidden sugars, the threshold that can be reached relatively quickly. You can go to town and consume a certain product every day that you mistakenly think is “healthy” and it actually increases your sugar consumption dramatically.

For example, Malkoff-Cohen uses a specific example of Greek yogurt: a plain carton may contain three total sugars with no added sugar, while a flavored yogurt carton contains 11 total sugars, with 7 grams of added sugars. Clearly there is a stark difference, and the key to understanding that is right there on the pesky nutrition label.

It can be tempting to avoid nutrition labels, but Malkhoff-Cohen recommends consumers become “label detectives” to avoid sneaky sugary treats or products, especially if you want to prioritize your health in the New Year.

In addition to yogurt, Dandrea-Russert points to salad dressings as a big culprit when it comes to hidden sugars, while Malkhoff-Cohen lists other common culprits: pasta sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, cereal, coleslaw and dried fruit. Beverages, including soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, are often loaded with added sugars. Dandrea-Russert also specifically mentions chocolate milk, which can “have up to 12 grams of added sugar, making it a whopping 24 grams of sugar for just one cup of chocolate milk.”

So, where do you start if you want to start cutting added and hidden sugars from your diet? Malkoff-Cohen offers some straightforward suggestions. The first is to prioritize packaged foods — like fresh fruits and vegetables — because they won’t contain added sugars meant to extend shelf life. She also advises to “eat the real thing” when it comes to sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, but in smaller portions. He also said that in many cases, artificial sweeteners can be more than “real sugar”; from aspartame to acesulfame potassium and sucralose, all of these seemingly “better for you” alternatives may actually cause an increased risk of coronary artery disease.

Worried about how your body (and taste buds) will react to the changes? Well, did you know that our taste buds really change every week? Sylvester says that “how we perceive flavors is affected by the foods we’re used to eating and any changes in our taste buds,” pointing out that if you legitimately cut out all sugar and artificial sweeteners, you’ll be surprised at how much you are natural sweet many meals really are all by themselves.

He challenges consumers to try it for themselves — cut out all sugar and artificial sweeteners for two weeks and see your taste buds, behavior and physiological changes — you might be surprised at how much the saccharine in some “diet” foods, drinks and candies. (often due to the fact that most artificial sweeteners are generally more “sweeteningly potent,” as Sylvester puts it, than sugar.)

Dandrea-Russert agrees that eliminating any and all added sugar from your diet is completely doable and gradually “you can reduce and eventually eliminate added sugar from your diet.” Use whole foods, fruit, date paste, making your own salad dressing and soon enough, your “taste buds will slowly acclimate to less sweetness.”

Although it’s harmful to give up these disgusting sugars, it’s definitely both tolerable and possible. It may just require more vigilance and research when deciding what to get for dinner or what to eat for a snack.

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