In February, we started that difficult conversation about the role of sugar in our lives. If you missed that column, do check it out for the background on why this is a difficult—and important—topic! And I introduced the challenge of “crowding out”—adding in more nutritious options with the goal of eventually pushing poor food choices away over time.
In March, the challenge was more specific [Terry, need to insert link to March column here]: start crowding out sweetened beverages (soft drinks, sports drinks, juices) with unsweetened, preferably non-caffeinated beverages (water—still or sparkling, plain or flavored—and herbal teas).
This month, let’s talk about where else sugar lurks….
What role does sugar play?
First, let’s consider where sugar—the added kind, not the kind that is naturally found in fruits, grains, dairy, and other whole foods.
Once upon a time, I worked in a (so-called) health food deli/market in Chicago. Our deli was known for it’s fat-free muffins—massive, tender pastries that had a hardcore fan group made up of people who lived or worked or worked out in the neighborhood.
Dirty little secret: the muffins were made from a mix that was doctored up with some more ingredients.
I was curious about the nutritional content and did a little analysis on my own based on the nutrition facts label and ingredient list. No surprise: they were fat free, and they were positively loaded with sugar and held about 500 calories each.
And people were coming in for 2–3 per day: breakfast, a mid-morning snack, an afternoon pick-me-up or quick charge before a workout.
A friend called me in distress because she had made the birthday cake recipe I had used for my daughter a few months before.
“It was terrible—so tough! How did you make it so tender?”
“Hmmm, I followed the recipe exactly.”
“SO DID I! Well, I did think there was an awful lot of sugar in there, so I cut that in half; otherwise, I followed it to the letter!”
Both of these stories tell you exactly what role sugar plays in baked goods: obviously, it sweetens things, and it also plays a major role in tenderizing. Think about a chewy loaf of good sourdough bread vs. a tender slice of cake: the former has no added sugar; the latter can be up to 50% sugar!
Sugar also serves as a preservative, which makes it doubly attractive to companies that make processed food, which is much cheaper to store at room temperature than under refrigeration.
And what sugar is the best shelf-life extender? Well, that just happens to be high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—big food’s dream ingredient because it’s cheaper than plain sugar and makes food last even longer.
There’s been a backlash against HFCS over the past decade, and I’ve been smirking when I see products that now proclaim, “HFCS-free. Sweetened with REAL SUGAR!” as though that’s such a great thing. I know, it’s all relative, and this is a victory of sorts.
Sugar by any other name
How good are you at reading food labels? If it’s all Greek (or as the French would say, all Chinese) to you, check out Label Reading 101 on my podcast.
Once you know how to read food labels, you’ll know that ingredients on a label must be listed in order of decreasing amount by weight. That means that whatever ingredient weighs the most will be listed first and so on.
Grab a few items from your pantry and fridge and check out the ingredient label. Go on, I’ll wait.
How many of them list sugar among the first few ingredients? If you’re looking at cookies or breakfast cereal you might expect it to be up there. But ketchup? salad dressing? savory crackers? fruit yogurt? “healthy” granola and/or protein bars? Yup, it’s in there, and it’s probably close to the top of the list.
Not listed near the top? You may still not be safe.
That’s because the food companies figured out that we were starting to pay attention to this, and they came up with a way to get around the labeling requirement: they use a variety of sugar’s relatives, so none of them weigh enough to get top billing.
Reread those labels and see if you find any (or all) of the following listed (and note that this list is not exhaustive!):
- Sugar (any kind, including cane, beet, coconut, date…)
- Syrup (any kind)
- Juice (any kind)
- Juice concentrate (any kind)
- Malt (any kind)
- Any word that ends in -ose
Does your list have a lot of those on it? If yes, I’ll bet that if you add them all up, “sugar” would be near or at the top by weight!
And yes—honey and maple syrup are better sugar choices than HFCS … and they’re still added sugar!
This month’s challenge: read your food labels!
This month, I challenge you to cut down further on foods that contain added sugars.
You don’t have to give them up entirely—just cut back by one portion a day for a week and see what happens! The next week, cut down by two portions a day; the third week by three portions a day, etc.
If you need a handy rule to follow, here it is—the rule of 5–10–10. Your food label should have:
- ≤ 5 ingredients
- ≤ 10 grams of total sugar per serving
- ≥ 10 grams of protein per serving
See how it goes for a month! This column comes out once a month—plenty of time to practice simplified label reading and reducing the amount of processed, added sugars for the next four weeks or so!
I’ll be back next month with a few more suggestions; in the meantime, I’d love to hear your progress! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to check in.
WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.