Sugar is a complicated word. Part 1 of 4.

What is sugar?

As an Registered Dietitian, that's a loaded question to ask me, not one I'm really sure I can even give a good answer to. An apple has sugar, so does your soda or juice well as that ketchup and hamburger bun. So whats the difference? Does it even matter?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "sugar" as:

a : a sweet crystallizable material that consists wholly or essentially of sucrose, is colorless or white when pure tending to brown when less refined, is obtained commercially from sugarcane or sugar beet and less extensively from sorghum, maples, and palms, and is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate and as a sweetener and preservative of other foods
b : any of various water-soluble compounds that vary widely in sweetness, include the monosaccharides and oligosaccharides, and typically are optically active

What a terrible definition. Sorry Merriam-Webster, but sugar is SO, SO much more; and I have to disagree with "is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate..."

There are various types of sugar, derived from different sources (fruit, corn, beets, sugarcane, etc.). Sugar is really a generalized name for sweet, short chain, soluble carbohydrates. There are other types of carbohydrates, like fiber, but sugar is one that has been getting a lot of attention. There are a lot of reasons why- lets look at some of them.

Does it matter if you eat some of the doughnut or the entire apple? They both have sugar. Does it really make a difference?

You bet it does.

There are two types of sugar- naturally occurring and added. Naturally occurring sugars are found in whole, unprocessed foods. Some examples are milk (lactose), fruit, and some vegetables. Added sugars are "added" to processed foods and drinks while they are being made, manufactures can add natural sugars (fructose, honey) and/or processed sugars (high fructose corn syrup). The sugar you add at home to coffee, baked goods, etc is also considered "added sugar."

Sugars are added for a variety of reasons. They can improve the flavor (duh), color and texture of foods as well as preventing some things from spoiling. The major one is FLAVOR. Have you ever had PLAIN yogurt? What did you think? Check out the yogurt section (which is almost as large as the cereal section) and look at all the SWEETENED yogurts. Some have as much (if not more) sugar as a candy bar. This helps companies SELL MORE (grocery manufacturers always want to sell more, it is a business), they are not trying to make you healthier. I repeat: grocery manufacturers are not trying to make you healthier, they are trying to sell you more.

Back to sugar.

What are some other names for sugar that you can look for on the ingredient list?

I know there are A TON! Even "healthy" foods can have sugar hidden in them! Check out these snacks that are marketed as healthy ALL THE TIME. Have you seen them? The 100 Calorie Packs?

This is the Ritz Snack Mix variety...

Look at the ingredient list, how many sources of added sugar do you spot?

Enriched Flour, Niacin (as Niacinamide), Reduced Iron, Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid (Folate) Vitamin B12, Whole Wheat, Soybean (Glycine Soja) Oil, Sugar, Corn Syrup SolidsMalted Barley Syrup, Salt, Whole Wheat Flour, Cottonseed Oil (Partially Hydrogenated*), Leavening (Baking Soda, Calcium Phosphate, Yeast), Cheddar Cheese (Made from Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes), Malted Barley Flour, Flavors (Natural), Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Spices (includes paprika), Dried Garlic, Monosodium Glutamate (Flavor Enhancer), Soy Lecithin (Emulsifier), Dried Soy Sauce (Made from Soybeans, Wheat Salt), Sodium Caseinate (Milk), Tamarinds, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6, Folic Acid), Lactic, Acetic Acids, Vitamins & Minerals (Reduced Iron, Niacinamide), Thiamine Monohydrate (Vitamin B1) (Vitamin B1), Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5)

I see THREE (plus some partially hydrogenated oil as a special treat). So even the foods you are told are "healthy" have added sugars. I know. Disappointing.

So what does all this mean? How much added sugar are you really eating?

To give a good visual, which I always love, the American Heart Association (AHA) has provided some guidelines when it comes to sugar. They recommend that females consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar and males 9 teaspoons to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health issues. That seems like a lot, BUT it adds up quickly when consuming food products found on the grocery store shelves.

Sooooo what does that mean?

1 gram of sugar = 4 calories

4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar

That means that the following items HAVE 6-11 TEASPOONS PER SERVING! Your sugar limit is maxed out in just one beverage!

Even if you try and stay away from "sweet" foods, the teaspoons pile up quickly!

Let's walk through what most people would assume is a relatively healthy, low sugar day.


1 1/2 C Honey Nut Whole Grain Cheerios (4 teas)

1 C Milk (3 teas*)

1 greek yogurt, fruit flavored (2 teas)


1 whole grain granola bar (3 teas)


Green Salad with grilled chicken (no sugar!)

2 Tb low fat vinaigrette (1 teas)

1 serving Kashi whole grain crackers (1teas)

Water to drink


1 serving Pringles (1.5 teas)

3oz beef jerky (3 teas)

1 apple (2 teas*)


1.5 C whole grain pasta (1/2 teas)

1 C organic marina sauce with meat (3 teas)

1 C broccoli (NO SUGAR)

Water to drink

Late night snack:

1 C ice cream (because you were SO good today and didn't "eat that much sugar") (8 teas)


32 teaspoons! 

If you drink anything sweet you should knock that number UP! Our example meal plan was with drinking water ONLY. You don't eat ice cream? Then that numbers gets a little lower, but you may be eating other sources of added sugar instead.

I tallied both ADDED sugar and those naturally occurring because I think its good to keep an eye on your total sugar intake, BUT technically the AHA recommendations (6 or 9 teaspoons) is for ADDED. Those items on our list with a * are the naturally occurring ones, even if you subtract them (just the milk and apple)- you are still left with a total of 27 teaspoons!

SO WHY DOES ALL THIS MATTER? Why does the American Heart Association care about sugar?

Because there are long term health consequences to eating too much sugar, and as you can see from above MOST Americans are eating too much (even though they may not realize it). Sugar has an impact on our mental health, cardiovascular system, hormones, digestion and more.

Project for you- tally up your sugar for the next couple days. Look at the "grams of sugar" on the nutrition panel and add them for an entire day. Divide that number by 4 to see how many teaspoons you're consuming. If you want to see just your "added" sugar, then don't include whole fruits (in my opinion you should include juice in your tally- it's just concentrated sugar) and plain milk (yes there are some other small sources of naturally occurring sugar).

Do this and then stay tuned for my next post about the health consequences of sugar! 


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