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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

The Question of Sugar
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By Susan Raatz

There is a debate raging about the role of sugar in today’s diet and its relationship to disease. 

There are those who say that sugar is ruining the nation’s health, that it is a primary dietary evil leading to obesity and related diseases.  Recently, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco claimed that sugar is essentially a toxin that causes all sorts of lifestyle diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. They proposed that sugar be regulated like tobacco and alcohol with taxes on sugary products, age limits applied to certain foods and beverages, and restrictions on advertising (especially on ads targeted to kids). They also argued that sugar is addictive.

Can sugar really be addictive? The FDA defines addiction as craving for and continued use of a substance that is hazardous to your well being.  Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that sugary foods cause—in the brains of animals—a chemical effect similar to that of addictive drugs like cocaine.  Whether this response constitutes addiction in the technical sense is still debated.  What is clear, however, is that people have a hard time giving up sweets.  That may be rooted in a combination of nostalgia (the memory of mom’s cookies baking), habit (always having something for dessert) and chemical attraction (the releases of feel good chemicals in your brain). 

We consume large amounts of sugar.  The average American eats (or drinks) 34 teaspoons of sugars a day, which is equal to 500+ calories.  This averages more than 100 pounds of sugars per person each year.  Sugar intake has drastically increased over the last century.  In 1822, the average American ate in 5 days the amount of sugar found in one of today's 12-ounce sodas. Now, we eat that much every 7 hours! 

Sugar intake doesn’t just come from cake, candy, or sugar added to your tea. Almost all processed foods in the supermarket contain extra sugar.  In fact, a large number of sugars are used in processed foods, so that reading food labels can be confusing. Some of the worst offenders are sodas (which can contain as much as 10 teaspoons per can) and many "low fat" products.

High Fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has replaced sucrose (sugar) in many of the food products that you purchase. HFCS is a mixture of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose, which is similar to the composition of sucrose.  This sweetener is only sold for processed foods; yet, it provides about 8% of the total calories in the American diet. Some scientists contend that HFCS contributes to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Others reject this hypothesis citing weak evidence for such effects.

Sugar contains calories and only calories; it provides no other nutrients – no protein, no vitamins and no minerals. When sugar calories replace more nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, your whole diet (and, maybe, your health) suffers. 

Anthropologists tell us that we like sweetness for a reason.  Sweet foods are generally safe source of calories – something that has been important to survival throughout most of history.  Today, with an ample supply of safe food, the appeal of sweetness is no longer protective.  Most people must work to keep their caloric intakes at healthful levels. 

So how do you keep your sugar consumption at healthy levels? The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults get no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day – a third of the current average. Uncovering all the sugar in your diet isn’t easy. Sugar often hides under several names and turns up in foods you wouldn’t suspect, like bread, crackers, salad dressing, ketchup and light mayonnaise.  The following tips will help reduce the total sugar intakes of both you and your family—while still enjoying sweetness.

  • Serve smaller portions of sweets and desserts so you can still enjoy these foods.
  • Switch to unsweetened beverages like water, 100% juice or low-fat milk products instead of sugar-laden sodas and juice drinks.
  • Avoid impulse buying of sugary foods in checkout lines.
  • Don’t offer sweet foods as a reward, especially to children.
  • Make fruit your everyday dessert – baked apples, berries, frozen juice bars or a fruit salad should be your go-to desserts.
  • Make sweet treats really “treats,” not every day food items.
  • Read the labels of food items carefully and choose those that contain the least amount of total sugars.
  • Avoid foods that have been modified to be low-fat, but have increased sugar.
  • Visit www.choosemyplate.gov to get more advice on general nutrition and to help reduce your sugar intake

Researchers at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center are currently evaluating the effects of different sweetening agents on the control of blood sugar in a study called the Glycemic Effects of Honey. You can help with this research by applying to be a participant.  Go to the website: www.ars.usda.gov/npa/gfhnrc to apply if you are interested in participating.


Last Modified: 9/18/2012
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