With so many different kinds of sugar out there – sugar in the raw, high fructose corn syrup, regular corn syrup, etc. – you might be wondering if one sugar is truly “better” than the others or if it’s all just bad for you.
Added Sugars are Unhealthy…Period
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no, there is no added sugar out there that is “better” for you than the others – they are all bad. And some of the ways in which they can impact your health are downright disturbing.
For instance, eating added sugars – like high fructose corn syrup and sucrose – can increase your chances of developing such diseases as diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, obesity, and even cancer.
How does sugar cause cancer, you might ask? Well, insulin is responsible for controlling how quickly (or slowly) cancer cells grow, so if you eat a lot of sugar and your insulin levels are always elevated, then you may be increasing your risk of developing cancer.
Controlling Your Sugar Intake
Sugar has come a long way since we used to harvest sugarcane and drink its sweet juice. While we have dramatically changed the types of sugar we eat and the forms in which we eat it, this is actually a good thing because we now know how to control how much sugar we eat.
Before farming, we as a species could only eat what was around, so we didn’t know how to control how much sugar was in our diets. (And chances are we weren’t too concerned about how much sugar we were eating back then either.)
It is recommended that we keep our added sugar intake to around 50 grams per day (though, 24 grams a day is optimal, especially for women). However, a quick trip to your local supermarket will show you how that is an almost impossible goal to maintain.
For example, you want to snack healthier, so you load up your cart with yogurt – but hold on. Before you head to the checkout line, you may want to double-check just how much sugar is in each of those containers.
If you are not buying regular yogurt (that is, if you are buying yogurt that is flavored in any way whatsoever), you might find that the container you just picked up contains upwards of 15 grams of sugar! That’s nearly half of your recommended daily sugar intake in one container of yogurt.
And if you’re adding yogurt to your smoothie, you have to factor in the sugar that’s in the yogurt along with the sugar that occurs naturally in the fruit. So while you think you’re eating healthier, you’re actually having a snack or meal that contains just as much sugar as if you were to opt for a half of a candy bar instead.
And that’s just yogurt, something that is already considered a snack. What if we look at food items that you would never expect to contain sugar, like bread, crackers, salad dressing, or milk? You might be surprised to find that your favorite brand of English muffins contains high fructose corn syrup as one of its main ingredients.
Interestingly, this can work in reverse, too. You might be avoiding things like syrup on your waffles, or jelly on your toast because you’re worried about their sugar content. However, there are options available for both foods that do not contain high fructose corn syrup and, in the case of jelly, you might have to do a little digging, but you can find a jelly that is made with natural fruit.
Sure, the jelly might still list “sugar” as an ingredient, and if you really want that jelly, then you will have to factor that added sugar into your daily limit, but at least it won’t say “sugar” and “high fructose corn syrup.”
The best way to shop is to look at the first few ingredients. The ingredients are listed in order by how much of that ingredient is in the food. So if the first few ingredients show “sugar,” “high fructose corn syrup,” “corn syrup,” “fructose,” “dextrose,” “agave nectar,” etc., then you’ll want to choose a similar food that has low or no sugar added.
Believe It or Not, “Healthy” Sugar Does Exist
The good news is that naturally occurring sugar, like the kind you find in fruit, vegetables, and even low or nonfat dairy products, is totally fine, even healthy. Even though these things might be very sweet to taste, they actually don’t contain a lot of sugar, and the sugar they do contain has not been proven to have adverse effects on your health.
I like how David Katz, MD, the director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center put it: “[Sugar is] our body’s preferred fuel…but we eat too damn much of it.”
You might have heard that you have to be careful with fruit juice, and this is the exact reason why. If the label says “100% juice,” and you don’t find anything funky in the ingredients that may suggest otherwise, then this is the juice that you want to add to your shopping cart.
Most leading brands, however, add sugar, and these are the juices that you need to watch out for – especially if you see “juice cocktail” on the label. Most “juice cocktails” are juice blends that contain maybe 3 percent juice, or 10 percent juice, but it’s not all juice, and if you check the label, you will undoubtedly see that sugar has been added to that juice.
You would think that fruit is sweet enough without adding any extra sugar to it, and the thought might turn your stomach, but think of how you might add whipped cream or chocolate to a dish of fruit to “liven it up.”
You have to also take that sugar into consideration when adding up your daily intake. If you need to make a dish more exciting, consider adding the juice of another fruit for an interesting new taste.
It’s Okay to Indulge Once in a While
I mentioned before about how we’re allowed 50 grams of added sugar a day, and this is a relief to those of us who may have a sweet tooth and don’t know how we could possibly get through the day without that cookie or spot of ice cream after dinner.
And you shouldn’t feel guilty about your sweet tooth either. Research shows that having a sweet tooth is actually in our DNA, so we’re born with it – but that’s no excuse to not control it either. You can still live healthily while indulging every once in awhile on a snack that may not be so good for you.
Though, sugar has also been found to be highly addictive, causing the brain to release large amounts of dopamine when you eat it. So if you feel concerned that you might actually be addicted to sugar and that’s why you have such a hard time abstaining from eating it, then you might actually be correct in thinking you are addicted to it.
Though, it is recommended that if you are used to eating sugary foods and are trying to go on a diet, then you actually should enjoy an unhealthy snack every once in awhile. Going cold turkey when it comes to sugary junk food can actually cause you to binge on it later on, eating more junk than you might have eaten had you just given in to the initial craving.
What about Sweeteners? Are They Healthy?
You might be thinking: “What about ‘fake’ sugar, like Splenda, Sweet-and-Low, or Equal? Don’t they cause cancer in lab rats?” Yes, but they’re still considered healthy for you, and certainly better for you than sugar. Let me explain.
So the National Cancer Institute has an informative breakdown on their website of the different kinds of sweeteners and whether or not they have been linked to new cases of cancer. Interestingly, while an increase in bladder cancer cases in lab rats was documented after their exposure to higher doses of saccharin, saccharin has since been deemed safe for human consumption.
How can that be? Well, the main reason is simply because rats have different chemical processes than we do, so the same processes that cause them to get cancer do not cause us to get cancer.
Aspartame, sucralose, and cyclamate have all been accused of being carcinogenic as well, and each of these sweeteners has also been cleared of being a potential cancer-causing agent by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Trick to Eating Healthy
So, with all of the added sugar that exists in our daily diets, how does one eat healthily? It all comes down to the age-old trick of just reading the label. Opt for foods that are either low in sugar or that don’t contain any sugar at all.
But you don’t have to kick sugar out of your diet entirely. If you want to enjoy a juice box, make sure that it says 100% juice before you buy it. And you don’t have to start counting your grams of sugar until after you’ve had that juice because 22 grams of sugar that occur naturally in fruit is not the same thing as 22 grams of sugar that have been added to a cup of yogurt to make it taste sweeter than it naturally is.
You could also always opt to make your own juice right at home so that you know exactly what it is that you are putting into your mouth.
Have you ever experienced an addiction to sugar? Were you able to overcome it and, if so, how? Are there any sugary foods that you have a hard time saying “no” to?