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Published on November 12, 2015

Rethink your sugar habit to improve your healthRethink your sugar habit to improve your health

Have a sweet tooth? You may want to start reining it in. With evidence mounting linking dietary sugar to chronic illnesses like obesity and cardiovascular disease, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time is urging Americans to reduce the amount of sugar consumed each day.

The new guidelines recommend that for anyone over 3 years old, intake of added sugar be limited to no more than 10 percent of total daily calories.  That amounts to 12 ½ teaspoons or 50 grams of sugar- just about the same amount contained in a 12-ounce can of regular Coke.

The change recommended by the FDA won’t be easy for most of us. On average, Americans get 16 percent of their total daily calories from sugar.

Soda, sports and energy drinks and breakfast cereals are the most common sources of added sugar. However, it may be a surprise to know that sweeteners are hiding in healthier options like whole wheat bread, baked beans, dried fruit, and low-fat yogurt. Condiments like salad dressings, marinades, ketchup, and pasta sauce also contain added sugar.

The new guidelines are good news to Courtney Driscoll-Shea, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Cape Cod Healthcare. However, she feels that this is only a very small first step and offers words of caution.

“We have to recognize that sugar is only a part of the issue. Portion control and eating a well balanced, nutritionally rich diet based on whole foods is really the key to living a healthy life.”

Driscoll-Shea cautions against looking at sugar in a vacuum. “The biggest mistake we make, particularly when there is a guideline change, is to focus too heavily on one food source. I’d rather see a message that preaches eating all things in moderation, with whole foods as the rule and not the exception.”

Reading food labels is an important first step in reducing added sugar in your diet. The FDA is also requiring new labeling changes to make it easier for consumers to identify how much added sugar they are actually getting. Currently, only the total amount of sugar is listed. Under the new guidelines, the amount of added sugar will now be included, as well as the 10 percent total daily value.

Sugar comes in many forms, so knowing what to look for in a label is key. Be on the lookout for:

  • Agave nectar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane crystals
  • Cane sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Crystalline fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert syrup
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Syrup

As Americans, we have gotten used to a fast paced life style with a grab and go mentality. When possible, advises Driscoll-Shea, choose fruits and vegetables and other nutrient-rich food. Even though some may contain higher amounts of naturally occurring sugar, they come with added benefits.

“Whole foods are nutrient dense and contain a lot of other essential ingredients besides natural sugar. They make you feel fuller for a longer period of time. Even though four Oreos contain about the same sugar as an apple, you are unlikely to be satisfied for very long after eating the cookies and are more prone to overeating,” she said.

With the new guidelines, the FDA joins other prominent organization like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Heart Association (AHA) who endorse stricter limits on sugar intake.

WHO excludes naturally occurring sugar from their recommendations, but urges an even lower intake of added sugar not to exceed 5 percent of caloric intake. AHA goes one step further suggesting restrictions by gender: caloric intake of added sugar limited to 100 calories, or just 6 teaspoons for women, and 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons for men.

What remains to be seen is how the food industry will respond to these new guidelines.

The FDA expects that manufacturers will find new ways to reformulate their products to offer better nutritional value. However, Driscoll-Shea points out that there may be unforeseen and unintended consequences.

“When the FDA guidelines were revised to lower fat intake, the food industry responded by adding sugar to make up the losses in taste when fat was removed. That change contributed to where we are today.”