The Truth About Sugar

Teri Cettina

I was momentarily stunned. As a healthconscious mom, it had certainly never crossed my mind to put sugar on a sandwich. But when I gently raised the issue with the daycare provider (a mom of five grown, healthy kids), her words spurred a major “Aha!” moment for me: “Have you looked at the sugar content of most store-bought jams? My little dusting of sugar is nothing compared to what’s in those jars.”

Really? I checked my own jar: It had 12 grams of sugar per serving, or about 3 teaspoons. I had to agree with her: A pinch of straight-up sugar wasn’t even close. Still a little horrified? It’s understandable: Sugar is a substance that strikes fear in the hearts of many nutrition-minded parents. But as with most foods that are touted as the “bad guy du jour,” there’s more to the sugar story than just the fear-based claims.

All About Sugar

So just what is sugar? The crystals we stir into our coffee and bake into our kids’ cookies are a natural substance derived from either sugar beet or sugarcane. The plants are sliced and soaked (beets) or shredded and squeezed (cane), then spun in a contraption to shake off the juice, or molasses. A hot-water spray separates out the white crystals that, when dried, we know as table sugar, or sucrose. Many of the health concerns about table sugar stem from it being so simple in its molecular construction that it breaks down quickly and is rapidly swept into the bloodstream, explains Paul Kaplowitz, M.D., chief of endocrinology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Too much simple sugar of any kind in the bloodstream at one time can raise the body’s blood sugar above healthy levels. When this happens, it sets off a complicated process by which the pancreas must produce and release the hormone insulin, explains Kaplowitz. “Insulin sweeps excess glucose out of your blood and into storage in your liver, muscles, and fatty tissues,” he says. And those extra calories from the sugar—if they’re not burned off—get stored as fat in the body. There are also naturally occurring sugars in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Should you fret about those?

Whole fruit does not pose much of a sugar problem.

It comes with built-in fiber that slows down the body’s absorption of the sugar, making it much less worrisome. But fruit juice, drinks, or lollipops—even those that claim to be 100 percent fruit juice—are actually no better for your kids than white sugar because that fiber from the whole fruit is missing.

Milk is not high on the radar of the sugar police, either.

It includes fats that slow down your child’s absorption of the lactose. Milk also offers important calcium and vitamin D, says Kaplowitz.

Sugar, Sugar Everywhere

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that most of us get a whopping 22.2 teaspoons (or 355 calories) of added sugar a day. (“Added sugar” means sugars and syrups added to foods during processing or cooking, or sugars and syrups you add at the table.) That’s significantly more than the 6 added teaspoons per day limit the AHA recently began suggesting for women (no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men). The AHA doesn’t make a specific recommendation for kids, but it would certainly be even lower. “In addition to the sugar we consciously choose” (the sprinkle on our child’s peanut butter sandwich, ahem, or in her lemonade), “many processed foods we give our kids include tons of hidden sugar,” says New York City–based registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, author of Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds, and Lose Inches. Wondering how to make sense of the sugar in your food? Find the total sugar grams on a food’s nutrition label and divide by 4 (a teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams).

Myths &Truths

Does sugar make kids hyper?

No. Parents swear that sugar is the reason their kids bounce off the walls after eating cake and ice cream at a party. But The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed dozens of scientific studies and concluded, amazingly enough, that there’s no link between sugar and hyperactivity. Scientists say it’s the event and excitement that hypes kids up, not the sugar.

Does sugar cause cavities?

Yes. Sugary beverages like soda, which many experts consider “liquid candy” because of the incredibly high sugar content, are particularly hard on teeth (the phosphoric acid in soda makes matters worse). Also, be judicious about lollipops, hard candies, or chews, which take awhile to eat. A Tufts University School of Dental Medicine study found that it’s not the sugar content of the food, per se, that causes cavities: It’s the amount of time teeth are exposed to the acids formed by oral bacteria that eat sugar.

Does sugar cause health problems?

It can. Anyone—adult or child—who continually consumes heavy amounts runs the risk of severely stressing the pancreas (the organ that produces the glucose-sweeping insulin) to the point where it doesn’t work properly and they develop Type 2 diabetes. The AHA now also links high-sugar diets to high blood pressure, obesity, and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

The Real Thing

If you’re concerned about the health effects of too much sugar, it’s smarter to reduce your use of it rather than offer kids food containing artificial sweeteners (like aspartame or sucralose). “These chemicals don’t occur naturally, and we don’t really know enough about the health impact of using artificial sweeteners in high doses over many years,” says Kaplowitz. “I’d just avoid them, especially for kids.” You should also be wary of high-sugar processed foods.

The worst offenders:

  • Regular soft drinks (a 12-ounce soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar)
  • Candy Cakes, cookies, pies
  • Fruitades and fruit punch
  • Dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt)
  • Other processed and sweetened grains (like cinnamon toast and honey-nut cereal)

Some less obvious kid favorites:

  • Canned soup (tomato, for one)
  • Condiments like ketchup or salad dressing
  • Fruit bars

The good news: “You don’t need to say ‘No more sugar in our house!’ ” Sass says. The trick is to maintain a balanced diet, eat sugar in moderation, and keep your family’s intake to natural (not added) sugar as much as you can. The truth is, “For many people, sweetness adds to the pleasure of food and eating, so I don’t think of sugar itself as a dietary evil when consumed consciously and in moderation,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Eating Well for Optimum Health. Go organic, too: If the sugar you buy has that USDA Organic seal, you can feel confident that the original plant was grown responsibly and healthfully. Hey, you might even find yourself putting it on a sandwich once in awhile.

High Fructose Corn Syrup: Just Corn Sugar?

The producers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) claim it’s “just like sugar.” In fact, they are pushing to have it labeled as “corn sugar.” However, HFCS is chemically different from sugar. Sucrose is composed of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, but most HFCS is a chemically altered compound of 55 percent fructose, 42 percent glucose, and 3 percent other sugar molecules, which aren’t naturally occurring. A recent Princeton study suggests that the body metabolizes HFCS differently from sugar, and the researchers linked HFCS to abnormal levels of abdominal fat and high triglycerides in rats. Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Eating Well for Optimum Health, says HFCS behaves in the body more like a fat than a sugar. “I, along with a growing number of experts, believe that HFCS is a chief driver of the obesity epidemic in this country, particularly of childhood obesity,” he says. “I recommend that parents avoid purchasing any products that contain HFCS.”

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