bowls of sugar

When Mary Poppins sang about a teaspoon of sugar helping the medicine go down, she meant just one little teaspoon – not 7,200.

Shockingly, that’s how many teaspoons are in the 150 pounds of added sugar each American gobbles up per year. All that adds up to a super-sized 115,000 calories per year. Fact is, that much sugar isn’t really helping anything go down, except maybe your health. And there’s nothing delightful about that.

First, a little lesson about sugar. Actually, everything we eat is eventually turned into sugar – glucose – through digestion. It’s basically our main fuel for energy. But there are different ways to get that fuel into our bodies.

Good sources of natural sugar are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. Bad sources are processed sugars found in anything packaged or canned, plus white rice and white flour. We all know many breakfast cereals are packed with added sugar, but shockingly, so are flavored oatmeals and yogurts, as well as condiments like ketchup. Added sugar – it’s everywhere.

It might be a different story if that added sugar had some nutritional value. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any. It’s not only void of any nutrients, it adversely affects your health.

As your body breaks down sugar, it produces cytokines which increase inflammation throughout the entire body. These compounds could eventually result in arthritis, cataracts, heart disease, poor memory and wrinkled skin. On top of that, sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, tooth decay and cancer.

If sugar is so bad for us, then why is it even added to food? That’s easy – we like it! We’re attracted to sweet foods because we instinctively crave them as a source of energy. That’s why sweet receptors are literally right on the tip of our tongue. Before processed sugar, we associated sweet foods – like fruits – with energy. Food manufacturers have capitalized on that basic biology.

Plus, adding sugar is not only less expensive than adding fat to make food taste better, it’s also highly addictive. The more sugary-laden foods we devour, the more we crave them. It’s a vicious circle. But how can we tell how much sugar is being added to keep us hooked on the sweet stuff?

To find out about hidden sources of sugar in each product, check out the Nutritional Facts Label. It’s required to be on most food processed throughout the industrial world. Sugars are listed in grams, which is not always an easily understood measurement for most Americans. Basically one teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4 grams, with each gram having about 4 calories. So, one teaspoon has 16 calories. When you consider an average can of soda has 44 grams of sugar in it – a whopping 11 teaspoons bursting with 176 calories – it’s easy to see how the numbers quickly add up. And it’s not only how much plain white refined sugar is lurking in our foods, it’s also the countless other types.

To understand what kinds of sugar are in your foods, look at the list of ingredients. The higher sugar is to the top of the list, the more sugar is in there. That seems obvious, but that’s only a small tip of the problem. It would be easy if manufacturers only used the word sugar, but that’s not the case. As Americans have become more aware of the woes of processed sugar, manufacturers have become savvier by giving it new – and misleading – names to dupe us. Hidden sugar can be labeled as sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose or levulose. Basically anything ending in ‘ose.’

If that wasn’t confusing enough, manufacturers have also found a loophole in the system to label their foods as low carb or sugar-free, when they actually aren’t. It’s a compound called sugar alcohol. As a hybrid of sugar, and between a third and a half less calories than regular sugar, it definitely has its own special side effects.

Because of the way sugar alcohols are metabolized, they’re infamous for causing gas, bloating and intestinal issues, including diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are hiding incognito in anything that ends in ‘itol’: xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol, lactitol and maltitol. Of course, it’s even more complicated than that.

It’s not just those mysterious chemical sounding names that are sources of unwanted sugar in our foods. Manufacturers try to conceal sugar with names that might deceptively sound like they’d be beneficial. However, they cause the same concerns as regular plain granulated sugar and go by the names of barley malt, molasses, cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn solids, evaporated cane juice, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sorghum, agave, rice syrup, date sugar, caramel … and many, many more. With all of these hidden forms of sugar, how can we possibly stay healthy?

First, reduce foods with added sugars. A packaged product can contain a number of the above sugars. With each one only being listed as a smaller part of the ingredients, they fall farther down the list. But they all add up to being sugar. Tricky. When you shop for packaged or canned foods, check out the labels to see what’s actually in there. If you have a smartphone, Google a specific ingredient right on the spot to see what it really is. If it’s not a common word, it’s generally something that’s not good for you.

Second, eat fresh foods loaded with natural nutrients. Most produce is naturally sweet. Once you kick the processed sugar habit, you’ll learn to love the natural flavors in fresh fruits and vegetables. But, you don’t need to give up on everything sugary and sweet. Just save those treats for special occasions – not everyday foods.

It may not be easy to eat well, but it’s worth it in the long run. Eating a nutritious diet free of processed sugars not only reduces your risk of countless diseases, it can reduce your belt size. One little teaspoon at a time.

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