According to the American Heart Association, Americans are consuming about 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Most of this sugar is hidden within processed foods, so you could be consuming high amounts of sugar, without even realizing it.
“Healthy” Foods Contain Added Sugars
While it’s easy to believe that you’re limiting your sugar intake by cutting down on overtly high-sugar foods, such as donuts and ice cream, the added sugars hidden in everyday foods could be countering your efforts. Some foods that most people would consider “healthy” may actually have a lot of added sugar in them, such as:
- Low-Fat Yoghurt: A single cup can contain about 11 teaspoons of sugar
- Granola: A 100-gram serving of granola can contain between 400 and 500 calories and about 5–7 teaspoons of sugar
- Dried Fruits: Fruits don’t have a long shelf life, and these chewy sweet pieces are closer to processed sugary sweets than their original fruit form. Containing 33-68% sugar, a 100-gram serving of these can have about 13 teaspoons of sugar
Why Is Sugar So Dangerous?
Excess sugar consumption does more than add a few inches to your waistline. It puts your life in danger by increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends that we limit added sugar consumption to six teaspoons for women, and nine teaspoons for men.
There are over 60 names for added sugars, many of which don’t even allude to sugar. Knowing how these are concealed in your food allows you to beat added sugars in their game of hide and seek, ensuring that you’re not inadvertently putting your health at risk.
What Are Added Sugars?
Added Sugars describe sugars and syrups that are added to food during processing, for numerous reasons, including:
- Preservation: Added sugars allow products to have an extended shelf life, due to sugar’s ability to absorb water. Water is needed for yeast and bacteria to grow, so the higher the sugar content, the longer the shelf life.
- Changing product texture: Sugar is able to tenderize products by competing with starches and proteins for any present liquid, which has an impact on the texture of the product.
- Taste: Research has shown that people are more likely to opt for sweeter options. According to dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES, “sugar releases brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good.” This leaves us hooked on the feeling, wanting to experience it over and over again. This is why sugar is considered a drug because it is addictive.
What to Look Out For
Aside from the common added sugars we’ve probably seen or heard of a few times before (including Dextrose, Fructose, Lactose, Glucose, and Maltose), there are a few added sugars that carry a lot of health risks, even increasing your risk of various diseases.
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
As an artificial sugar made from corn syrup, many health experts have cited HFCS as a key factor in today’s obesity epidemic. Being linked to diabetes and heart disease, there are numerous reasons we should be staying away from this added sugar:
- Adds Unnatural Amount of Fructose To Diet: Research has shown a correlation between excess Fructose consumption and a rise in obesity, cardiovascular disease risk, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and an increased level of visceral fat.
- Increased Inflammation: Shown to drive inflammation, HFCS has been shown to increase substances called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Not only can these harm your cells, but they also exacerbate inflammatory diseases such as gout.
2. Agave Nectar
Well known for its manufacturing of tequila, agave is native to the Southern United States and Latin America. While the sap of this plant is high in sugar, it contains healthy fibers which are shown to benefit insulin levels and metabolism rates. However, once it’s processed into a syrup, these are extracted and broken down, destroying all the healthy qualities of the plant. We are advised to stay away from this for the following reasons:
- Extremely High Amounts of Fructose: Containing 85% fructose, consuming agave nectar can severely damage your metabolic health, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes. Your liver becomes overloaded and begins to convert this fructose into fat, thus raising blood triglycerides.
- Increased Risk of Liver Disease: A 2017 study found that fructose through excessive agave nectar consumption was linked to liver damage, including fatty liver disease and liver cell death. Another study found that the increase in fatty liver disease was not attributable to alcohol, but rather, to increased consumption of agave nectar.
3. Ethyl Maltol
This added sugar doesn’t cause any harm in small doses, but if we look at how much is added to our favorite snacks and breakfast cereals, it can pose a serious health risk. This added sugar tends to mainly target the kidneys, in an attraction scientists describe as a “moth to a flame.”
It is understood that excessive exposure to Ethyl Maltol can damage the kidney, with it acting as a slow poison, only showing symptoms after about two years. The impact of this is the formation of severe kidney lesions.
Acute Hemolysis and altered Hepatorenal function are the most common side effects of this sugar chemical. This can be extremely dangerous and potentially deadly if not treated immediately. Along with this, it can induce hemolytic anemia, with research showing that excessive consumption of Ethyl Maltol had prompted abnormal red blood cell production, and altered the normal functioning of these blood cells.
Intentionality in Knowing
Added sugars do more than add an extra kick of sweetness to a yummy treat. These addictive substances can be extremely dangerous, and potentially deadly, as they can cause a number of dangerous health conditions.
The FDA has since made it mandatory for all brands to include their “Added sugar” contents on their food labels, so the onus is now on us to be intentional about what we consume.
Reading the ingredient list before popping an item into your basket may seem a bit tedious, but looking at how these added sugars are basically everywhere, we need to be more aware of what’s in the food we eat.
- Khan, T.A., Tayyiba, M., Agarwal, A., Mejia, S.B., de Souza, R.J., Wolever, T.M., Leiter, L.A., Kendall, C.W., Jenkins, D.J. and Sievenpiper, J.L., 2019, December. Relation of total sugars, sucrose, fructose, and added sugars with the risk of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 94, No. 12, pp. 2399-2414). Elsevier.
- Debras, C., Chazelas, E., Srour, B., Kesse-Guyot, E., Julia, C., Zelek, L., Agaësse, C., Druesne-Pecollo, N., Galan, P., Hercberg, S. and Latino-Martel, P., 2020. Total and added sugar intakes, sugar types, and cancer risk: results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 112(5), pp.1267-1279.