SNEAKY SUGAR — FROM SNEAKY FOOD MANUFACTURERS — IS NOT SO OBVIOUS IN NUTRITION FACTS INGREDIENT LIST.
There’s refined sugar hiding in your food, and you probably don’t know it. And even if you do, you would be hard-pressed to know how much. These are just two of the reasons why Americans, on average, eat 160 pounds of the stuff every year — about five times greater than what leading public health authorities say is optimal.
It’s hidden largely because few food product manufacturers simply call it sugar. Illustrating how important a name can be, one agricultural lobbying group tried in 2010 to get away from a particular name, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is increasingly recognized as a negative on food products. The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the name of its product to “corn sugar.”
We can only speculate on the extensive research that decided this moniker would be a net-positive. HFCS is frequently referred to as “empty calories,” the kind typically found in soft drinks and many other highly processed food products. It’s hard to imagine corn sugar as well wouldn’t absorb that image within a short period of time.
Regardless, the FDA refused the CRA’s request, so shoppers can continue to make informed decisions on whether they want HFCS in their foods. The trouble is there are many other product ingredients that are basically the same thing, metabolically speaking, as HFCS. Sugar derived from grapes, beets, sugarcane (including molasses), apples, and agave are all, calorie for calorie, the same as those that come from corn.
Sugar by any other name is still, for better or worse, sugar
Consumers should know this, but most don’t. And the clueless shopper can hardly be blamed, since food manufacturers have learned to game the Nutrition Facts labeling system, established in the 1990s, in order to hide the sugar content in foods. When a product is sweetened, it rarely has “sugar” in its ingredients label. It could instead have “glucose,” “fructose,” “maltose,” “galactose,” “sucrose,” “lactose” or dextrose.” Or, concentrated apple juice or concentrated grape juice. Other sugar words are molasses, sorghum, honey, and beet juice. All add sweetness to foods, and all are carbohydrates with approximately 2.5 calories per gram.
But beyond calories, refined sugars (when the sweetness is separated from the fiber and other nutrients of the raw product from which it is derived) pose a serious health risk. That’s because without the fiber and bulk of that product (think corn, for example), the sugar is absorbed more quickly through the digestive tract and into the bloodstream (now think colas, where the high-fructose corn syrup is immediately digested). This stresses the pancreas, which in response produces insulin to counter the oversupply of sugar in your blood. That can cause a short-term sense of fatigue as the effect of the sugar is tamped down by the insulin. If ingesting refined sugars is habitual, it can overwork the pancreas, reducing its ability to produce insulin at all. This in essence is the cause of type II diabetes.
A double deceit — multiple sugars and grams
But so much of that sugar is hiding out there — in plain sight. Since the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 began requiring food manufacturers to show what is in their products, millions of American shoppers have learned to study the “Nutrition Facts” box on almost all processed food products. This attention by consumers unfortunately has led to some legal-but-deceptive practices from some of the most trusted food brand names.
The ready-made breakfast cereal category provides egregious examples. The rules state that ingredients are to be listed from the single largest ingredient first to the smallest at the bottom, with no actual quantities (on the belief that that would tip off competitors on product formulations). But sweetness can come from different sources, which then means the sugar content can be split into two, three, or more ingredients. Consequently, each individual sweetener appears lower on the ingredients list.
An example is Golden Grahams Cereal (General Mills). The first six ingredients are (in descending order) whole grain wheat, sugar, cornmeal, brown sugar syrup, canola and/ or rice bran oil, and dextrose. Three of the six top ingredients are sugar. If they were added together, sugar would be listed first, above whole grain wheat.
To foil that, the Nutrition Facts box tells you that there are 11 grams of sugar. All well and good, except, this is the metric system. And in the United States, we really don’t know that system very well. It amounts to about 2.5 teaspoons of sugar, assuming you or your child eats the .75 cup size single portion. A larger or second bowl would clearly increase the size of that.
A nondiet soda drink, such as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, lists high-fructose corn syrup right behind water on the ingredient list, while the number of sugar grams is 39. That’s close to 10 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving. If your alternative source of caffeine is coffee, would you put that much sugar in your cup?
Sweet, sweet … hamburgers?
But don’t think sodas and cereals are the only places you will find sneaky sugar. Comb through the shelves of a standard American grocery store, and you are likely to find one sweetener or another — but most often, HFCS — in thousands of products that you do not even consider sweet. Categories containing sugar include the following:
- Bread, including whole grains
- Cough syrup
- Dairy products
- Canned beans, pickles, tomatoes, and sauces
- Nutrition bars
- Salad dressings
- Steak sauces
The presence of sugar in bread in and of itself is disturbing. For example, combine a hamburger bun with the sugar (and salt) in condiments, especially ketchup, and you end up with a fair amount of sugar in a fast-food hamburger. And that’s before you get to the dessert.
So, are there solutions? One is to read labels carefully and hunt out the hidden sugar synonyms. Also, look for the number of grams of sugar. Five grams equals roughly 1 teaspoonful. If that starts to scare you away from a lot of your favorite food products, do a negotiation with yourself: Ask which of the worst offenders you could do without. And if you know how to do a little cooking or baking on your own, think of recipes that minimize sugar use. It might be your path to all kinds of healthier foods overall.