Is sugar the root of all our health problems? In the second part of our series on the new Nutrition Facts panel, we move from fats to the similarly controversial topic of sugar. We just learned how type of fat matters more than total fat in our diets. The same goes with sugar, a carbohydrate. It is important to distinguish carbohydrate from carbohydrate, since our bodies may treat foods differently. The updated Nutrition Facts Panel will newly address added sugars. But what is the difference? Isn’t all sugar the same?
Why the focus on sugar?
Most public health and nutrition experts agree that Americans today consume an excessive amount of sugary foods devoid of nutrients. Excessive sugar intake appears to increase the risk of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease, though a clear-cut relationship between consuming sugar and developing disease still has not been shown. Because diets lower in sugar seem to be the most health-promoting, the most recent version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans established a maximum recommended intake for added sugar of no more than 10% of total daily calories, about 50 grams, or 12.5 teaspoons of sugar for a 2,000 Calorie diet. For comparison’s sake, this is about the amount found in a single 16 ounce bottle of regular soda.
Do our bodies need sugar?
Because of its association with serious health risks, sugar has come under fire as the main nutrient to avoid, mirroring our fear of fat in the 90’s. Before we go on a sugar-free lifestyle, let’s take a step back and talk about what our bodies actually use sugar for.
We all know how we feel after eating a handful of jelly beans, a bowl of cereal or a plate of fresh fruit. Energized! That’s because our bodies quickly use the carbohydrates in the sugary foods, whether natural or added, for energy. Carbohydrates all get broken down in our bodies into the same molecule: glucose. Glucose is taken up by our muscles and our brain to give us mental energy and physical power.
The problem is that energy from jelly beans and sugary cereal is absorbed so fast that it raises our blood sugar rapidly. This causes our body to release the hormone insulin, which signals our cells to use that glucose right away. Soon, because our cells have taken up all the extra sugar in our blood, we experience what is known as a “sugar crash,” or a feeling of extremely low energy, and usually a desire to eat more sugar. Problems arise when we eat more sugar than our bodies physically need or can handle at one time, which is why the recommendation has typically been to limit sugar intake in the first place.
Sugar rushes and crashes can be avoided by consuming it in in smaller amounts, and in combination with fiber, protein and/or fat. Eating these nutrients together in the same meal puts the breaks on the rate that our body absorbs sugar and delivers it to our cells. Our body still gets its necessary energy from the glucose, but at a slower, more sustained rate, keeping us mentally and physically active and our bellies full for hours at a time.
In short: It is important to understand how much sugar you are eating, and to aim to limit foods that are almost purely sugar, like jelly beans. One easy way to do this? Focus on real, whole foods, and get a sweet fix in small doses along with plenty of fiber, fat, protein and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
88 Acres’ philosophy is to use just enough real sugar to make our products tasty while staying true to a simple list of ingredients you would be able to find in your pantry. The combination of seeds and whole oats in our Craft Seed Bars provide natural fiber, protein and healthy fats to keep you satisfied and alert.
Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
Until the new nutrition facts panel goes into effect, the only way to determine whether a product has added sugar is to look at the list of ingredients. Sounds easy enough, but the food industry has so many different names for sugar (cane syrup, tapioca syrup, brown rice syrup, glucose, brown sugar, coconut sugar… you get the idea) that it can be difficult for anyone to really get an understanding of the amount of sugar added to a food or beverage. Until now, consumers had to use total sugar to determine which products were likely heavily sweetened. The problem is that this number includes both added and natural sugars.
Listing the amount of added sugar will differentiate sweetened products from those that are sweet because of naturally-occurring sugars. Sugars occur naturally in fruit, dairy products and some vegetables like onions and peppers. The great thing about natural sugars in food is that they come along with a host of vitamins, minerals and often fiber. Foods like honey, maple syrup, sugar cane, and molasses are natural forms of sugar, and contain small amounts of micronutrients and other beneficial compounds. On the other hand, refined, added sugars have no nutritional value.
88 Acres uses maple syrup, brown rice syrup and organic cane sugar to sweeten our products because we think they provide the best balance of natural sweetness and texture. They are not inherent to the food, though they are commonly found in a pantry.
The Take Home Message
When it comes to sweeteners, the body will treat all sugar, whether from a maple tree, cranberry or sugar cane, equally. The difference between sugar in fruit and other natural foods is everything else that comes along with it. Fiber, micronutrients and protein (in the case of dairy products) boost the nutritional quality of that food as a whole.
Instead of looking at nutrients, like sugar, in isolation, think about the bigger picture. Is the food in front of you going to provide you with more than just a sugary energy boost? Will you get micronutrients, fiber and healthy fat? Though the new nutrition facts panel will make understanding the amount of sugar added to a product easier to identify, it is still important to look beyond grams of sugar and make sure your choices are well-rounded, balanced and most importantly, satisfying.
Contributed by Hannah Meier, 88 Acres Nutritionist and a registered dietitian and food advocate based in Boston, Massachusetts. She completed her combined Bachelor’s in Dietetics and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2014 and moved to Massachusetts shortly after to complete her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is now pursuing her Master’s in Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She believes nutrition can and should be accessible, easy, fun, and flexible. An avid runner and budding yogi, she practices living life in balance, using food as fuel and helping others find a happy relationship with food and exercise. Her favorite 88 Acres product is a schmear of pumpkin seed butter spread on a slice of sprouted grain toast, topped with pomegranate seeds.