Hiding in plain sight: added sugar

We tend to think that added sugar is mainly found in desserts like cookies and cakes, but it’s also found in many savory foods, such as bread and pasta sauce. And some foods promoted as “natural” or “healthy” are laden with added sugars, compounding the confusion. In fact, manufacturers add sugar to an estimated 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food producers to list all ingredients in their foods. But added sugars appear by more than 60 different names. Common names for sugar are: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, fructose, dextrose, fruit juice (or fruit juice concentrate), sucrose, and molasses. A list of different names for added sugar on a food label has been compiled by the University of California – San Francisco;  a list of FDA-recognized names for added sugars is available in Choose My Plate information.

How much is too much? Unlike salt and fats that are added to foods, nutrition labels don’t provide you with a daily reference value for added sugar. However, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women. The AHA limits for children vary depending on their age and caloric needs, but range between 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) per day. Beginning in 2020, food processors will have to list the amount of added sugars in processed food products as part of the nutrition facts panel.

Why is sugar added to food? Sugar, in one form or another, is added to many of our favorite foods and beverages. Most people know that sugar adds sweetness but many may not know that sugar is added to help preserve foods, stabilize emulsions, add color and browning capabilities, or improve texture or mouthfeel.

With a few exceptions, the types of sugars we eat are nutritionally equivalent – each provide about four calories per gram and are metabolized in similar ways.

Here’s what we know about some of the major forms of sugar:

  • Table sugar. Also known as granulated sugar, table sugar is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. Chemically speaking, table sugar is sucrose, a disaccharide that is a 50/50 mixture of two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. Brown sugar is white sugar with a little molasses added.
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a syrup made from corn. HFCS isn’t really ‘high’ in fructose, it’s 55% fructose and 45% glucose, a little higher than the 50/50 mixture found in sucrose.
  • Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners known. Bees collect nectar from flowers which they convert into honey in the hive. Nutritionally speaking, honey is about 50% fructose, 44% glucose, with a small amount of sucrose and other sugars.
  • Dextrose is another name for glucose.

One of the newer sweeteners is agave syrup. Agave syrup comes from the agave plant, with blue agave being a primary source. Agave syrup is high in fructose (82%), with the remaining 18% comprised of glucose.

Sugars vary in sweetness. A particular type of sugar may be chosen as a food ingredient because of its sweetness. Sucrose (table sugar) has a relative sweetness of 1.0. Glucose has a relative sweetness of 0.8, and fructose has a relative sweetness of 1.6. A given amount of fructose, or sweeteners with increased fructose content, will contribute more sweet flavor to a food than will table sugar or glucose.  Stay safe and healthy! Barb