Sugar: What's the big deal?

Nutritionists from University of Maryland Medical System regularly provide a post to the Picture of Health blog. The latest post is from dietetic intern Kylie Hermansen.

Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day – almost double the amount the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommends (less than 10% of daily calories or just 12 teaspoons for a 2,000 calorie diet). You may be surprised to learn that one 12 ounce soda may contain up to 11 teaspoons of sugar or that 8 ounces of orange juice may contain up to 5 teaspoons of sugar. Many of us consume these and other high-sugar foods on a daily basis. We are eating more added sugar than we realize.


Why is added sugar a big deal?

Carbohydrates or sugar, in their simplest forms, give us energy. We need carbs in our diets. However, if we eat too many carbs or too much added sugar, our bodies become less able to manage high blood sugar levels. Over time, this can cause damage to our eyes, kidneys, heart and other organs. Excess sugars are also stored as fat. Diets high in sugar have been linked with higher risks of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Are all sugars created equal?

There are many types of sugar found in our food. Some are found naturally, such as in milk, fruit, honey and agave. Others are added to foods for flavor or preservation. While our bodies may process these sugars differently, research has not yet confirmed what that means for our health. So while the jury is out, focus on the amount of sugar you consume rather than the type.

Added sugar vs natural sugar

"Added sugar" typically refers to sugar in sweetened drinks, baked goods, processed foods or added at the table. Most of the added sugar in our diets is found in the form of sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. Sucrose, or table sugar, is added to foods during baking and at the table. High-fructose corn syrup is a manmade sweetener added to foods to preserve quality and flavor. These sugars add "empty calories" to our diet and very little nutrition. Not sure if your food contains added sugar? Check the label! Be aware that sugar can hide under names like dextrose, molasses and corn syrup, too.

On the other hand, natural sugars are found in whole foods along with a host of healthy nutrients. Fruit contains a type of sugar called fructose. Fruit also contains fiber. Fiber slows the absorption of sugar and helps control its effect on blood sugar levels. Fruits have phytochemicals which may lower the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and nerve and brain diseases, according to a 2013 study in Today's Dietitian. Fruits also provide many vitamins and minerals. Milk contains a sugar called lactose, as well as vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus.

Sweet Conclusion

As you consider your stance on sugar, remember: It's about quality and quantity. Your body needs carbs to provide energy, but experts suggest limiting your added sugar to about 12 teaspoons per day. Foods with natural sugars are packed with a slew of beneficial nutrients.