Health feature: Added sugars are highly prevalent in our diets
Text by Kirsten Dobroth
Special to the Vail Daily
If we are what we eat, the average American is a 150-pound bag of refined sugar, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Give or take a few pounds, add in a hearty portion of high-fructose corn syrup and sprinkle some non-caloric sweeteners on top and we’ve got a pretty frightening sundae to represent what has happened to America’s food supply.
Although the presence of added sweeteners in our food has become ubiquitous, identifying the risks of high sugar consumption is an important step in addressing the problem and has begun having a ripple effect in the market, with communities making moves to reduce sugar in schools and at the dinner table.
Identifying the culprit
All forms of sugar shouldn’t be demonized, with natural sugars — fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy — being important dietary staples. The problem with sugar comes in the form of added sugar, or essentially refined sweeteners added to food. This can be confusing for consumers, as the grams of sugar listed on nutrition labels refers to both natural and added sugar in a product, although the two forms have drastically different effects on the body.
“It’s important to note that when we get our sugar from whole foods, we also get vitamins, minerals and fiber not found in refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup,” said Christine Pierangeli, a certified master nutrition therapist at The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon. “Fiber slows the absorption of sugar and keeps blood sugar levels more stable. Added sugars bring no nutrients and contribute to the highs and lows of the blood sugar roller coaster, which is deleterious to our health.”
Thought of in a different way, the body’s reaction to sugar can be observed in what happens after eating calories from different forms of sugar.
“If you think about the body’s response to eating an apple, your body will metabolize the sugars in the apple in a way that tells you that you’re full, whereas your body doesn’t have that response when you drink a Coke; it’s essentially empty calories,” Pierangeli said.
By the spoonful
According to the USDA, sugar is the No. 1 food additive in the American diet, with refined sweeteners making an appearance in products ranging from soft drinks to salad dressing and everything between. The figures for the American dependence on added sugar is striking; according to the USDA, annual American consumption of sweeteners rose by 43 pounds per person, or 39 percent, between the 1950s and 2000.
Looking at daily consumption, the American Heart Association points to 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar per day going into the average American’s diet, although both the American Heart Association and USDA recommend no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men.
Dr. Rebecca Adochio, an endocrinologist at the Vail Valley Medical Center, explained that this rising presence of sugar in America’s food supply has led to an elevated risk for much of the population in terms of degenerative health effects.
“The amount of sugar Americans consume every day is quite astounding,” she said, “This large amount of sugar consumption has severe health consequences, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease.”
The numbers don’t lie in this regard; more than a third of Americans are obese, with one in three Americans expected to develop Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Limiting kids’ access
Along with refined sweeteners that are often hidden in what parents perceive as healthy food options, sugary beverages have had a prominent role in skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and juvenile Type 2 diabetes. In particular, children are highly susceptible to marketing campaigns put out by soft drink companies and other beverage manufacturers that advertise drinks that have no real nutritional value.
Raymond Edel, the director of nutrition development for Eagle County Schools, said while high sugar consumption, particularly in sweetened beverages, has been a problem throughout the United States, schools in the Vail Valley have tried to limit students’ access to overly sugary drinks during the school day.
“The standards for beverages being sold are very strict,” he said. “At the elementary level only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent juice can be sold, with a portion limit of eight ounces. At the middle school level, the regulation is the same except portions can be sold up to 12 ounces. At the high school level, the regulations loosen a bit, mostly because of the large amount of kids playing sports. Low-calorie sports drinks or flavored waters with 10 calories or less per 20 ounces can be sold.”
Similarly, schools in Eagle County have limited what percentage of sugar can be found in snacks sold at school, along with limits on caloric values of snacks so that the corresponding percentage of calories coming from sugar isn’t too high.
While residents of this area tend to have pretty healthy daily habits, the amount of sugar found in foods commonly considered healthy can be confusing. Reading nutrition labels is an important part of making educated food decisions, while keeping in mind that the listed ingredients are ordered by the most to the least amount of each ingredient. Looking past the advertising commonly found on food labels is also important in deciphering what has gone into a product.
“Unfortunately, the food industry often highlights or advertises something perceived as healthy in their product, such as ‘a good source of calcium,’” Adochio said. “But the product may still not be a healthy choice, based on the high amount of added sugar. Yogurt, for example, can be part of a healthy diet, but try finding a cup of fruit-flavored yogurt that has less than 26 grams of sugar; it’s quite difficult.”
Similarly, popular non-caloric sweeteners, such as aspartame, often don’t end up answering a sugar addict’s sweet tooth in a healthy way.
“Using artificial or non-caloric sweeteners doesn’t change behavior and only perpetuates the desire to seek sweet-tasting foods,” Adochio said. “In addition, there have been studies that show drinking diet drinks leads to increased caloric consumption at the next meal.”
Pierangeli advocates seeking out fresh, whole foods to help reduce daily sugar intake and getting the entire family involved in meal preparation in order to teach kids about healthier options.
“When it comes to a healthy diet, bio-individuality must be taken into consideration,” she said. “However, if we focus on eating real food, reducing or eliminating packaged, processed and fast food, we would be well on our way to achieving better health. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where you’ll find fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods, then get back in the kitchen as a family. The goal is to get everyone involved in a new health journey.”
And while it may seem like the war on sugar is raging, health-conscious consumers have begun having more of a presence in the grocery store.
“I believe the tide is turning; the conversation about how food impacts our health gets louder every day,” Pierangeli said. “Forty years ago, smoking was a cultural norm and we have come such a long way in creating awareness around the health implications of smoking. We get to vote three times a day with our food dollars, and we can make a positive impact in our food supply if we vote wisely.”
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