REFINED SUGAR: THE SNEAKY TRUTH
Updated: Jan 22
Most North Americans knowingly consume refined sugar in desserts, candy, and soda, but foods that are often perceived as healthy, or you wouldn't think had any sugar, can also contain hefty amounts of refined sugar.
Once in a while, a sweet treat is okay, however, most of us need to significantly reduce our intake of refined sugar unless we want to face the consequences, which go far beyond excess calories and weight gain . . .
Everywhere we go we are surrounded by the temptation of sugary foods and drinks. Sweet tooths' are getting sweeter, and to satisfy this need more and more sugar is being pumped into our foods, including those that absolutely do not need to contain sugar.
The term "sugar" listed in the nutrition facts table is inclusive of all types of sugar a food item contains, natural or refined. More than 50 different variations of refined sugar can be listed in an ingredient list, and many are unrecognizable to the untrained eye. Some are worse than others, but all of them have a similar effect on the body. Common types of refined sugar include high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, maltose, cane sugar, cane juice, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, barley malt extract, coconut sugar, molasses, beet sugar, corn syrup, maltodextrin, and so on. The earlier it is listed in the ingredient list, the more there is. Some companies are tricky in hiding their sugar content by including several types of sugar to avoid having them at the beginning of the ingredient list.
According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, refined sugars should account for less than 5% of our calories, which is 24 grams or 6 teaspoons per day. A number most of us exceed on a daily basis.
WHY IS REFINED SUGAR SO BAD?
Excess consumption of refined sugar has been scientifically proven to lead to a number of adverse health effects and complications. A diet high in refined sugar does not guarantee you will get any of these, however, it will certainly increase your chances. Below is a list of just some of the ways prolonged consumption of excess refined sugar can impact our health.
Refined sugar abruptly raises our blood glucose level. Because they are already in the simplest form needed for use by the body (unlike complex carbohydrates which need to be broken down and slowly release glucose), they are released into our blood quickly, all at once. This results in a quick boost of energy which soon plummets to below what it was initially, causing what is know as a sugar crash. Sugar crashes are associated with fatigue, irritability, hunger, anxiety and a long list of other symptoms.
Refined sugar can rot our teeth. It causes increased bacteria growth in our mouth leading to plaque, eroding tooth enamel and an increased risk of cavities. This bacteria growth is also the cause of bad breath.
In excess, refined sugar can cause permanent damage to the liver, similar to how excess alcohol does.
Refined sugar can cause the liver to become resistant to insulin, a hormone that regulates our blood sugar level. This leads to type 2 diabetes, which is extremely prevalent in North America and strongly correlated with sugar intake.
Too much refined sugar can lead to weight gain. Each gram of refined sugar has 4 (empty) calories that do not provide us with any nutrition or sense of fullness, resulting in excess calorie consumption. Excess calories are stored as fat.
Excess refined sugar has been correlated with increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, and stroke.
Excess refined sugar increases inflammation in our body, which over time can become damaging to our tissues and organs, and increase the risk of disease. Acne, wrinkles and lackluster skin are some of the less serious, yet undesirable, results of inflammation caused by refined sugar.
Refined sugar is addictive. Similar to other addictive substances/behaviors (such as smoking or drugs), refined sugar causes the release of dopamine in the brain. The more you have it the more you crave it, creating a positive feedback loop. This is one of the reasons why non-calorie sweeteners are not recommended. We still crave the sweet taste and maintain our addiction.
SUGAR IS CHEAP
Refined sugar, in most forms, is dirt cheap. Long-ago companies in the food industry realized that by increasing the sugar content in certain food products they could save money on other more expensive ingredients. Take dried fruit, for example, nature's candy. Despite already being quite sweet, most dried fruit found in stores has added sugar. This sugar serves two purposes. 1) It adds weight to the product so they can charge more and cut down on the amount of fruit per package (fruit costs more than sugar), and 2), sugar is addictive and keeps you wanting more. Unsweetened dried fruit is available, however, the price tag is typically higher and it can be hard to find.
Another example is peanut butter. Peanut butter tastes great (like peanuts!) when it is just peanuts, however most peanut butter you find in the store contains a few different types of sugar among other unnecessary ingredients. Sugar and oil are cheaper than peanuts, keep you wanting more, and make it hard to transition back to a natural option. Again, something so simple is no longer. The same goes for other processed foods such as jarred pasta sauce and canned soups. Processed savory foods are often unnecessarily pumped full of sugar. Always check the label, or better yet, make your own.
FOOL ME ONCE . . .
Many foods that are often perceived as "healthy" simply are not. At one time some of these were considered healthy, however, they have morphed into something that has been chalked full of refined sugar and other unnecessary additives, no longer resembling the original.
Take yogurt for example. Besides plain yogurt, which few people eat, many yogurts have a similar sugar content to ice cream, yet most people do not consume yogurt as a dessert. Yogurts advertised as low or non-fat are often the highest in sugar to make up for the loss of flavor. Artificially sweetened yogurts may not pack the same calories, but facilitate your cravings for sugary foods and are unhealthy in other ways. Every 4 grams of sugar equates to a full teaspoon. A single serving of yogurt (usually 100-150 grams) can easily contain more than 16 grams of sugar. That is 4 full teaspoons! Always check the label as the variation in sugar content can be significant.
Breakfast cereals are another culprit. Everyone (hopefully) knows that fruit loops and frosted flakes are full of sugar, but there are a number of cereals with similar sugar content that you wouldn't expect. For example, original Shreddies contain 9 grams of sugar per serving (banana bread and honey contain 13), and multigrain cheerios contain 6 (as compared to regular Cheerios with 1 gram). Vector, which advertises as being a healthy high protein meal replacement, contains 11 grams of sugar per serving. Always check the label as most cereal has sugar content comparable to desserts.
Another example is Vitamin Water. Due to marketing (and adding a few vitamins that can easily be obtained from food), Vitamin Water is sometimes perceived as healthy, despite containing around 32 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar per bottle. This is more sugar than what the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends adults consume per day! Again, read the label. Anything with this much refined sugar can not be healthy, even if it has a few vitamins.
Other foods to watch out for include granola, granola bars, specialty coffees, muffins, and bottled drinks. These too can vary significantly in the amount of sugar they contain and are often high. Healthier choices are available, but it can take some work to find them. Always read the label and look for products that contain little to no added sugar, or make your own.
WHAT ABOUT SUGAR IN FRUIT?
Sugar can be confusing. Fruit, and many vegetables, contain naturally occurring, unrefined sugars. Our bodies process these VERY differently than refined sugar. Research shows that a diet high in whole fruit and vegetables is beneficial for the maintenance of good health, and has not been linked to weight gain. Unlike refined sugar, whole fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. The fiber, in particular, slows the release of the sugar into our bloodstream, as compared to refined sugar which is released into the bloodstream furiously resulting in a sugar high and subsequent crash. Think of fruit as a freebee to indulge in sweet treats guilt-free!
Don't believe me? Check out this quick video from nutritionfacts.org.
HOW TO CUT DOWN
Reducing your sugar consumption takes time. Your brain has become accustomed to a certain level of sweetness and craves this. The constant exposure doesn't help. Cutting refined sugar out completely, all at once, is not realistic for most people. Making accumulative small changes to reduce your sugar consumption is realistic if you are motivated to do so. Over time your taste buds will adjust to foods that are less sweet and you will find it difficult to tolerate sweeter foods. Some simple ways to do this include the following.
Read the label. Being knowledgeable and mindful of how much sugar is in the different foods you consume will help you monitor your intake and make healthier choices. Read the post GET THE NUTRITION FACTS STRAIGHT to learn how to properly read a nutrition facts table and ingredient list.
Stop drinking sweetened beverages (specialty coffees, pop, fruit juice, sweetened alcoholic beverages, etc.). Water should always be your drink of choice, but there is nothing wrong with drinking healthy homemade smoothies, fruit-infused soda water, or unsweetened herbal teas. If you need time to wean, dilute your pop or juice with soda water, ask for your specialty coffee half sweet, or cut the number of sweetened beverages you consume in half.
Eat fruit for dessert. This can be as simple as mango, pineapple, fresh berries or an orange, or something more creative but just as healthy such as a smoothie, nice cream (blended frozen fruit with or without a splash of milk or unsweetened yogurt), or apple slices with cinnamon or peanut butter. All of these are satisfying and easy. Be creative.
Buy plain yogurt (with no added sugar) and add fruit, homemade granola, nut butter, chia jam and/or other healthy foods to it. If you are not ready to switch to unsweetened yogurt try combining it into your yogurt of choice. Gradually increase the amount of unsweetened yogurt as you become accustomed to the taste. Buying artificially sweetened yogurt is not recommended.
Ditch breakfast cereal. Besides being pumped full of refined sugar, breakfast cereal has little nutritional benefit. Most of them have been fortified with vitamins and minerals as a way to make us think they are healthy, however, these can easily be obtained from alternate healthier food. Most breakfast cereal has as much sugar as foods we consume as dessert, so if you must, eat it for dessert, or at the very least, look for cereals with less than 4 grams of sugar per serving.
Choose fresh foods whenever possible. Anytime something is processed, refined sugar, in one of its many forms, is typically added. Foods without labels in their natural state are always a better choice.
Make your own. Making your own anything will almost always result in a product with less sugar (and random, questionable ingredients), and that is healthier overall. Try making your own granola, muffins, bars, dried fruit, pasta sauce, soup, etc. You might be surprised how easy it is and how much better it tastes.
Always keep healthy snacks on hand to avoid resorting to sugar-packed foods such as store-bought muffins, donuts, cookies, and other pastries. The sugar in these adds up quickly and the nutritional value is low.
Avoid candy. Candy is pure sugar with tons of calories and zero nutritional value. Swap it out for dried fruit if you need something sweet with a similar mouth feel.
Reduce your portion. It is inevitable that at some point someone will hand you a piece of cake or you will be faced with a dessert table full of delicious sweets. If saying no is out of the question, reduce your portion. Sometimes a small taste is all we need to satisfy a craving.
Don't buy it. Grocery shop online or with a specific list to help avoid filling your pantry with sugary foods you can't resist. If you are surrounded by healthy foods that is what you will eat.
Get others on board. You will be much more successful in reducing your sugar intake if others in your household are as well. Otherwise, it will be difficult not to give in to temptation.
To start, pick just one way you will reduce your sugar intake and focus exclusively on that. Once you are successful, systematically reduce your sugar intake in other areas. Use the Goal Setting page to set SMART goals and stay on track. Keep in mind that according to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, no more than 10% of our calories should come from added sugars (based upon a 2000 calorie diet), and ideally, they should account for less than 5%, which is 24 grams or 6 teaspoons.