Nutrient Spotlight Series: Sugar

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Over the last decade, the major nutrients of concern in most dietary recommendations have shifted to include sugar. Although a large body of evidence relating long-term sugar consumption to health disparities is lacking, sugar has become one of the more targeted nutrients when discussing healthful eating. The negative view on sugar is spurred by the fact that it provides calories without many other nutritional benefits, like vitamins or minerals. It also is a major dietary contributor to poor dental health and has become more abundant in packaged products. Sugar has become a topic of controversy and deserves a deeper investigation to understand concerns regarding this nutrient.

Sugar is a carbohydrate that contributes an average of four calories per gram. Despite negative concerns surrounding carbohydrates, they are crucial in the human body because sugar is the number one source of energy used in the brain and most cells. Carbohydrates as a group encompass starches and sugars. Sugars come in different forms and chemical structures with varying names, but on the surface, we can classify sugar into two categories: added and naturally occurring. Fructose and lactose are the most commonly occurring natural sugars that are found in milk and fruit, respectively. Added sugars include table sugar (sucrose), syrups, honey, coconut sugar and many other sweeteners. Whether added or naturally occurring, sugar plays an important role throughout the body.

Looking beyond desserts and sweets, sugar can be found in a wide variety of common foods due to its ability to make foods more flavorful and appetizing. Pre-made items like sauces, dressings and marinades often contain high concentrations of sugar. High fructose corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, and many other sources of sugar can be added to products. Nutrition facts panels list the amount of sugar in a product, but this can be misleading if the product contains natural sources of sugar such as lactose. To identify which products contain added sugar, it’s important to review ingredient statements. Identifying products that contain added sugar is a simple way to monitor sugar intake.

There is not an official daily value for added or naturally-occurring sugar consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 Edition recently released recommendations to consume less than ten percent of calories a day from added sugar. For an individual following a 2,000 calorie diet, this equates to 200 calories, roughly the amount in a 16-ounce serving of soda. Individual calorie consumption and needs should be considered when determining the amount of sugar in a diet.

Although sugar has recently been suggested as a nutrient to limit, naturally occurring sugar is found in foods containing numerous other nutrients. Fruits contain fiber, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins that are all key to eating healthy. Often, foods with added sugar lack accompanying healthful ingredients; making natural sources of sugar more beneficial than other products with added sugar.

In a restaurant, the amount of sugar can quickly add up in a dish. From sauces to sides, added sugar is an ingredient to monitor in all menu items. In order to help your diners find a tasty meal that contains lower levels of added sugar, focus on desserts, sauces and dressings, sweet batters and coatings like those used in coconut shrimp, as well as beverages. For dessert, provide a healthier fruit-based option that features natural fructose rather than added sugar. Reduce sugar quantities in sauces and dressings by incorporating more house-made items or selecting products that contain no added sweeteners. Many fat-free and reduced-fat items contain high amounts of sugar to compensate for the reduced fat content, so this is an area to hone in on if sugar amounts are too great. Lastly, offer smaller servings of sugar-sweetened beverages to help diners keep sugar in check. These revisions can help menus feature fewer grams of added sugar and become more attractive to many diners.

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