First, some good news—the steadily growing voices of concern over the harmful effects of sugar appear to be having a positive impact.
Sugar consumption in the US peaked in 1999. Current usage compares to 1980 levels. A major contributing factor to the drop appears to be a reduction in soft drink consumption.
The most recent USDA nutritional guidelines are another indicator of constructive change in the wind. The USDA establishes guidelines that influence the amount of sugar consumed in the American diet. These guidelines have been issued every five years since 1980; between 1980 and 2010 the guidelines ranged from a vague “avoid too much sugar” to a just as vague “limit intake of added sugar.”
The most recent dietary guidelines (2015-2020) are more specific, calling for a restriction of added sugar to 10% of our daily calorie intake. The American Heart Association translates this into a tangible nine tsp (37.5 g) of added sugar for men and six tsp (25 g) of added sugar for women. To put these numbers in context, the average American currently consumes 17 tsp of added sugar per day.
To have a bold impact on the high cost of sugar on both the US and world health, bold action, both public and private needs to be taken.
Civil action. The government needs to take steps to change its role from sugar industry benefactor to public welfare guardian. Public health agencies and legislators can petition the food industry to self-regulate and reduce or eliminate added sugar in processed foods. Appropriate agencies, through public awareness campaigns, can educate the public on the adverse effects of too much sugar and promote the benefits of healthy alternatives.
Farm subsidies can be phased out to allow market forces to work. Healthier, natural foods will become more cost competitive with processed foods, making healthier food choices more viable.
Private action. The food industry needs to acknowledge its role in promoting an unhealthy diet. By reducing the amount of added sugar, salt, and fat in processed food, food processors and packagers can make a significant contribution to public health.
Finally, each of us has to take personal responsibility for making healthy food choices and avoiding added sugar, as much as possible. Specific actions we can take include:
- Read food labels. Look for hidden sugar. Often low-fat foods contain added sugar to improve the taste. Even fruit juices often contain added corn syrup.
- Read the ‘carbs as sugars’ on the Nutrition panel. Less than 5g per 100g of the product is low; more than 22.5g per 100g of the product is high.
- Replace soft drinks with no-calorie beverages like water, tea, and herbal teas. An average can of soda pop contains the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar.
- Sugar-free foods often contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame. Although these taste sweet, they don’t satisfy the body and brain’s need for sugar. These sweeteners tend to send confusing messages to the brain, which can lead to over-eating.
- Check the ingredients list for other forms of sugar, such as those ending in ‘ose’ (e.g. glucose, sucrose, or fructose). Other added sugars include honey, agave, molasses, and corn and rice syrup.
- Natural fruit and plant-derived substitutes (e. g. xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol) provide sweetness but with fewer calories. Look for foods containing these sweeteners. These can also be used as sugar alternatives in cooking.
- Healthy snacks like whole fruit, a handful of nuts or a small tub of plain yogurt contain complex carbohydrates and protein which help balance blood sugar and energy levels.
As the rest of the world becomes more affluent through engagement in the global economy and more “Americanized” through exposure to Western media and ideas, for better or for worse, the processed American diet is part of the package. The concern over harmful effects of sugar has gone global, as well. The most recent World Health Organization nutrition guidelines (2014) call for a reduction in added sugar to 5% of daily calorie intake. These guidelines, as do those of the USDA, place the responsibility of control of our sugar consumption, squarely on our own shoulders.
So, is sugar killing us? Only if we let it.