There was a time, long ago, when sugar was a rare luxury, reserved in small quantities only for the few who could afford it. These days, we have it in such abundance that it’s as if food manufacturers are sneaking it into anything they can just to get rid of it.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day for the average woman, and no more than nine teaspoons for the average man. Yet in general, American adults consume 22 teaspoons per day, while the kids are scarfing down a daily average of 32 teaspoons. (Note: Four grams of sugar is equivalent to one teaspoon.)
All the while, rates of obesity and diabetes have risen on a scale that corresponds neatly to our increasing consumption of sugar. There are a number of doctors and experts who suggest that sugar goes beyond the dangers of cavities and corpulence. In fact, they argue, sugar is a disruptive toxin that harms our organs and hormonal cycles, and most likely is mostly to blame for the obesity epidemic, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
So how did we get here? Most of the added sugar we consume comes in packaged food; early on, manufacturers learned that the more sugar something contains, the better it seems to sell. And although we know to expect plenty of sugar in cookie dough ice cream, for example, who knew that many seemingly healthy foods are also chock full of it?
Naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruit and milk, are generally accompanied by nutrients; added sugars are the naughty ones that need to be minded. They come in many disguises on the ingredient list. The Harvard School of Public Health cautions to look out for these code words for added sugar: agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar and syrup.
1. Barbecue sauce
You might as well be brushing your grilled foods with chocolate syrup. One popular brand of barbecue sauce offers 15 grams of sugar in two tablespoons; yes, that’s almost four teaspoons of sugar in two tablespoons of sauce. For comparison, chocolate syrup typically has about 19 grams of sugar in the same serving size.
2. Nutrition bars
What a great concept, the nutrition bar: a handy portable snack bursting with nutrients. But wait! In our survey of 7 nutrition bars that are worse than candy, we present one nutrition bar that has the audacity to include 32 grams of sugar — 8 teaspoons, that is — all in the name of “nutrition.” And there were many more that were found to be nearly as sinful.
3. Tomato sauce
Tomato sauce is a fantastic and low-fat source of lycopene, an important compound associated with reduced risk of cancer, as well as a bevy of other fetching vitamins and antioxidants. When you make a batch at home, you can add a pinch of sugar to a large pot of simmering sauce and it works wonders to enhance the flavor. But in one of the greater mysteries of the modern world, makers of tomato sauce feel compelled to pump it up with sugar; some leading brands have as much as 15 grams per half-cup serving, and few people only use half a cup of sauce. Can you imagine sprinkling more than four teaspoons of sugar on your dinner?
4. Flavored yogurt
The calcium, protein and beneficial probiotics in yogurt make it a great choice; the added sugar? Not so much. Typically, a 6-ounce container of plain yogurt has about 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose – since nutrition labels don’t require the separation of naturally occurring and added sugars, the consumer has to do a little math to figure out the added sugar. So, for example, if you subtract 12 grams from the 28 grams of sugars listed on the Yoplait Thick and Creamy Blackberry Harvest label, you know that the product contains 16 grams of added sugar. That’s four teaspoons of added sugar in a six-ounce serving.
5. Fruit juice
Sometimes fruit juice isn’t really fruit juice; it may have some fruit in it, but it may also just be glorified sugar water. Again, since labels don’t differentiate between added and naturally occurring sugar, it may be hard to tell by the sugar grams alone. But you might suspect something is up with, for example, V8 Splash products, which ring in at the 18-grams-of-sugar range for an eight-ounce serving. (Four and a half teaspoons of sugar in a regular size glass of juice.) The smoking gun here is hidden in the ingredient list: the first two ingredients are water and high fructose corn syrup.
6. Grown-up breakfast cereal
Anyone with properly functioning neurons might deduce that a children’s breakfast cereal – let’s say, one that offers a rainbow of neon-colored loops and “fruity shaped marshmallows” (that’s almost as good as fruit, right?) – is fairly loaded with sugar. But some adult breakfast cereals are not much better; they may come in sedate boxes and be lacking in candy-colored hues, but don’t be fooled. Some of the leading brands that emanate health in their packaging contain at least 17 grams of sugar in one serving.
7. Vitamin drinks
Water infused with vitamins and antioxidants sounds like a good idea, but it seems that water infused with vitamins and antioxidants and eight teaspoons of sugar is an easier sell. Popular brands of vitamin and antioxidant water regularly deliver up to 32 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle. While that’s less sugar than is found in most sodas, it’s still eight teaspoons of sugar in your “healthy” drink.
Somewhere along the road, muffins swerved out of control and went from being responsible, bran-and-fruit packed snacks into cupcakes for grown ups. They may not have frosting and sprinkles, but other than that there may be little difference. For instance, let’s say you were to find yourself at a Dunkin Donuts and decided to opt for the healthier choice of a muffin over a donut. You might have a sneaking suspicion that the Coffee Cake muffin is really just coffee cake in a cup shape; and with its 51 grams of sugar — almost 13 teaspoons worth — you’d be correct. But would you suspect that the freshly baked Honey Bran Raisin muffin weighs in at 40 grams of sugar? 10 teaspoons? Three glazed donuts have one teaspoon less sugar than the Honey Bran Raisin muffin.
Relates stories on MNN:
- 12 tips for kicking the refined sugar habit
- Visualize your sugar consumption
- Complete guide to sugar and sugar substitutes