Added sugars seem to be the latest food component to get a bad reputation, with many people claiming “sugar is the new fat”. In this series, we’ll talk about why added sugars are a concern, how to identify them in processed foods, as well as what the recommended intakes are and ways to reduce intake of added sugars.
What are Added Sugars?
Added sugars are used to sweeten foods and beverages. They are called added sugars because they are not naturally present in that food. This also refers to recipes that call for sugar in baking or cooking, since sugar is being added to the final product.
What’s Wrong with Added Sugars?
Consuming too many added sugars can make it challenging to stay within our daily energy requirements. Added sugars are considered empty calories, meaning that while they provide energy, they do not have significant nutrient value in terms of vitamins and minerals. Often, added sugars are also not satisfying in terms of fullness – think about soft drinks, sugars added to flavoured yogurt, or those included in baked goods and cereals. Sugar adds sweetness and calories without adding volume or fibre that will help keep us feeling full.
Added sugars have also been linked to promoting and worsening chronic disease conditions like cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome1,2. Why? Briefly, continued exposure to excess calories and excess added sugar causes our body’s natural metabolism to shift and promote a more inflammatory environment, which in turn is associated with symptoms linked to developing chronic conditions1.
What to Look For
According to the new proposed food label changes from Health Canada, sugars will now have a %DV (percent daily value) per serving assigned on each nutrition facts label, and will be grouped together clearly in the ingredients list as Sugars, with each type of sugar listed by weight in brackets3. This will make it a lot easier to check in with the sugar content of a given food, and to identify added sugars when their ingredient names are less common or less obvious. However, these proposed changes are not in effect yet – so it’s still important to be able to recognize added sugars on the nutrition facts label or ingredient list.
Unfortunately, the nutrition facts label does not separate out naturally occurring sugars from added sugars when it lists how much sugar (g) is in one serving of a given food. For example, these labels for plain milk (right) and chocolate milk (left) list 12g and 26g of sugars, respectively.
Natural milk has lactose, a naturally occurring sugar, which is why it has 12g of sugar. Chocolate milk has it too – meaning there are 14g added sugars to chocolate milk in addition to the 12g of naturally occurring lactose. However, this is not clearly laid out on the nutrition facts table. To know whether sugars have been added to a food, we need to look at the ingredient list.
Added sugars can go by many names, which makes it confusing and challenging to identify them in some foods. Even high fructose corn syrup, one of the more commonly known added sugars, goes by glucose-fructose in Canada! As a guide, we put together the following list of 28 Names for Sugar4
Natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, agave, and coconut sugar can certainly be less processed than some other types of sugar. However, they provide approximately the same caloric content as processed sugars and are still considered an added sugar when they are included in recipes and processed foods. Sometimes recipes or packaged foods will advertise themselves as being “naturally sweetened” – BUT this still means that there are added sugars.
What About Fruits?
When people start considering sugars in their diet, they sometimes become concerned about sugars present in fruit. The key difference is: Sugars present in fruit are naturally occurring – meaning they aren’t added to the fruit, they are supposed to be there. In addition, sugars in fruits come as a package: fruits also provide phytochemicals, antioxidants, fibres, vitamins and minerals – all of which help control the rate at which our body absorbs those sugars and blood sugar increases as a response to those sugars.
1SugarScience. SugarScience Research: The Toxic Truth. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved from http://www.sugarscience.org/the-toxic-truth/#.VtDfS5wrLIU on 2016-02-26.
2SugarScience. SugarScience Research: Too Much Can Make Us Sick. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved from http://www.sugarscience.org/too-much-can-make-us-sick/#.VtDfc5wrLIU on 2016-02-26.
3Government of Canada. 2015-08-11. Proposed Food Label Changes to Sugars Information. Retrieved from http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/health-system-systeme-sante/consultations/food-label-etiquette-des-aliments/sugars-sucres-eng.php 2016-02-26.
4Dietitians of Canada. Added Sugars; Healthy Eating Tips. In: PEN: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition ®. 2016-01-29 [2016-02-26]. Available from:http://www.pennutrition.com . Access only by subscription.