How much sugar should we eat? Is high fructose corn syrup bad for me? What sweeteners should I use in my home? These are questions I frequently get asked. A dietitian friend of mine, Melanie Betz (@the.kidney.dietitian) did a great post on instagram recently about sugar.
First off. Sugar is sugar is sugar. I don’t care if it is white sugar, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or whatever other sugar you have seen. These are all sugar. They all are broken down into sugars that are used by our bodies. Having too much of ANY of these isn’t a good thing. There is no evidence in human studies to date that shows a strong difference between caloric sweeteners.
What about non-calorie sweeteners? People are often concerned about these. In moderate amounts, these are generally considered safe. However, it likely isn’t good to rely on these as a stop gap to solve your eating pattern issues. If you are eating too many sweet treats or drinks, just switching to a sugar free version will not fix the overriding problem. The overriding problem is you are consuming these foods that do not provide necessary nutrients. Switching from regular Coca-Cola to Diet Coke saves you 140 calories per can, yes. But did you gain any nutrition? No. Plus you’ve consumed lots of other additives that can have health effects – phosphorus on your bones and kidneys for example.
So how much sugar should you eat in a day. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to 10% or less of calories per day. For the generic 1800-2000 calorie diet, that translates to 45-50 grams of added sugar per day. For reference, one 12 oz can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association is even more strict. They recommend 100 calories per day of added sugar for women and 150 for men. That translates to 25 and 38 grams respectively.
But how do I look at added sugars? The Dietary Guidelines points out that what we are looking at is an overall eating pattern. MOST people consume too many added sugars in sweet beverages and desserts. However, not all sugar is evil. Sometimes it is added to make healthy things more palatable.
I think the classic example to look at is cereal. Here are pictures of 3 cereal labels I found in my cupboard. Let’s take a look and compare.
So let’s look at the carbohydrate section. Both Raisin Bran and Frosted Mini Wheats have more total carbs than Honey Nut Cheerios. For total sugars, Raisin Bran has the most at 17 grams. Until a few years ago, this is all a label would say, total sugar. Why is Raisin Bran, which you think is healthy, so high in sugar you say? Two reasons. First, it has raisins (and bananas in this box), which NATURALLY has sugar in it. Second, you do need some sugar to make the bran palatable for most people.
Now let’s look at the added sugars. Raisin Bran is actually the lowest at 11 grams, compared to 12 grams in both of the others. This is a classic example of why I’m so incredibly glad “added sugars” has been added to nutrition labels.
But wait? Mini Wheats and Cheerios are the same in added sugars? Let’s delve one step further then. In this case I would go look at the fiber. Mini Wheats’ 8 grams of fiber definitely beats out the 3 grams in Honey Nut Cheerios. (Another place you could look would be protein, but that is a discussion for a different day).
I hope you found this helpful as you look at added sugars and nutrition labels!
Disclaimer: I have no vested interest for or against any products mentioned in this post. Similar comparisons could be made between any regular vs diet soft drink. These three cereals happened to be in my cupboard that I purchased at the most recent sale at the grocery store.