Is Sugar Toxic?

Recently sugar has been all over the news as it’s been linked with the growing obesity problem in the United States.

Earlier this month, Dr. Robert Lustig told CBS News’ “60 minutes” that sugar is addictive, toxic, and it’s killing us by increasing our risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, hypertension and cancer. The pediatric endocrinologist has even gone as far as to say that sugar should be regulated like cigarettes and alcohol.

Is sugar really toxic? Does this mean you should eliminate all sugar in your diet?  Not necessarily.

There are two kinds of sugar—naturally-occurring and added sugars.  Mother Nature provides us with many naturally-occurring sugars in our foods. For example, yogurt, milk, and fruit – all healthy foods- contain sugar. Lactose is the sugar in milk and yogurt; fructose is the sugar in fruit.

Added sugars are sweeteners that are added to food and beverages during the manufacturing process. Common sweeteners added to foods include fructose and high fructose corn syrup. Desserts, sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, energy and sports drinks, are the top sources of added sugar in most American diets.

Sugar may taste sweet but added sugars are not-so-sweet for your health. Added sugars add extra calories which may lead to weight gain. Weight gain increases your risk for many health conditions, including heart disease.  Additionally, if you’re eating foods with lots of added sugars, it’s likely you’re not eating nutrient-rich foods. For example, a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 25-35 grams of high fructose corn syrup but provides our bodies with no other nutrients. In comparison, one cup of blueberries contains about seven grams of natural fructose and also packs a powerful punch of fiber, antioxidants and important vitamins and minerals.

Recommendations on added sugar

The American Heart Association recommends that most women have no more than 100 calories per day from added sugar, which equals about 6 teaspoons (25 grams). For men, no more than 150 calories from added sugars or about 9 teaspoons (38 grams). That’s much less than you may think: 1 small candy bar, ½ cup of ice cream or frozen yogurt is equal to about 100-150 calories.

5 tips to cut back on added sugars:

  1. Learn the label lingo. Both kinds of sugar are included in “sugars” listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. To determine if a food has added sugar, check the ingredient list for these words:  brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, agave nectar) invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup and table sugar.  Tip: If any of these words are near the top of the ingredient list, then the food contains a large amount of added sugar.
  2. Make fruit your dessert. To satisfy your sweet tooth, opt for fresh fruit for dessert instead of sugary indulgences. If you buy canned fruit, choose fruit packed in its own juice or water, instead of syrup.
  3. Buy plain yogurt instead of sweetened yogurt. Add fresh fruit to yogurt instead of buying sweetened yogurt, which can contain a lot of added sugar and unwanted calories.
  4. Sip smarter. Avoid non-diet sodas and sweetened drinks. Choose water, sparkling water with fresh lemon or lime, low-fat or fat-free milk, 100% fruit juice or unsweetened tea.
  5. Spice it up! Try ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg to sweeten your food instead of sugar.

Amy Bowen RD, LDN is a clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital.


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