One thing I’ve noticed from teaching a nutrition class is that people don’t know much about sugar. Instead of just giving away answers when I teach I like to ask questions to learn what kind of misleading information people have acquired. For example: Fruited yogurt tends to have a ton of added sugar. How can we make yogurt a healthier food? Almost every time someone answers with “Use honey instead of sugar.”
They’re not to blame; commercials and the false advertising that takes over food packages are sneaky with wording and make things sound healthier than they really are. In case you are confused when it comes to sugar, I’ve provided a *sweet* little lesson for you. I could write an entire book about sugar but I’ll just stick with a few key points.
What is sugar?
In a nutshell, sugar is the simplest form of a carbohydrate. When you eat a piece of bread, it starts as a complex carbohydrate but once you break it down it results in sugar. Carbs are not bad; we need them to function. We run into problems with carbs when we eat too many or when we eat processed foods with added sugars.
Added sugar vs. Naturally Occurring
There’s talk going on about giving the nutrition label a face lift and one change that might occur is adding a line for the amount of “added sugar.” Currently, labels don’t define if the sugar is naturally occurring or added. For example, the only ingredient in plain yogurt is milk but you’ll see a number under “grams of sugar” because the naturally occurring sugar in milk is lactose. If the “added sugar” line is added to the nutrition label, it will say zero.
Added sugars mean that there was sugar added in addition to the naturally occurring sugars. Think about when you used to make Kool-Aid as a kid- you added sugar to the powdered mix and water. Or when you added a spoonful (or spoonfuls for my childhood) to your Rice Krispies. That’s what I mean by “added sugar.” If you read the ingredient list of fruited yogurts you’ll often see milk, sugar, and fruit. They are usually listed in that order because the ingredient list goes by weight. That means there’s a whole lot of sugar and wee-bit of fruit.
The many faces of sugar
If you read the ingredient list you might find that it’s harder to spot sugar as an ingredient because it’s taken on a million different names.
To name a few different types of sugar:
Sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, glucose, evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown rice syrup, invert sugar… and any of the sugar alcohols like maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt, or xylitol.
Once you start reading ingredient lists you’ll be amazed at how many common products have added sugar like condiments, bread, dressings, or yogurt. I would hope you already know Pop Tarts aren’t a great choice but you’ll find corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sugar, and dextrose all listed in the ingredient list and then wayyyy at the bottom you’ll see some kind of dried fruit.
I don’t advise the use of any artificial sweetener. I know the FDA has said some are safe for use but I say our bodies still don’t like them. The only alternative sweetener I recommend is Stevia. Even as you read the word “Stevia” you still might have the wrong products in mind because, again, marketing tactics make things tricky with their false advertising. The product Truvia sounds like Stevia so that’s already enough to throw a lot of people off. The ingredients in Truvia are Erythritol, Rebiana, and Natural Flavors. Let’s learn about these ingredients…
- Erythritol is one type of sugar alcohol made by processing genetically modified corn. Since our body does a terrible job digesting sugar alcohols you can expect some unpleasant gastric distress. Mmmm.
- Rebiana is derived from the Stevia plant and there is such an insignificant amount in Truvia that I’m surprised they can even make the claim.
- As for “natural flavors,” there is no FDA regulation for the term “natural” so your guess is as good as mine.
What I recommend
If you need to sweeten something up, I suggest regular sugar or Stevia. You can swap sugar for a different flavor like honey, agave nectar, raw sugar, or brown sugar but there aren’t any advantages of using these products because they’re all still metabolized as sugar. Start reading the ingredient list; it will tell you far more about the product than the actual nutrition label. The closer you stick to whole foods the less you have to worry about deciphering nutrition labels and ingredient lists. If you need a refresher you can always check out my article on how to eat right.