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And food labels will only deceive you

When it comes to watching your sugar intake, desserts, beverages, candy and what you add to your food and drinks are the obvious culprits—but have you considered the hidden sources of sugar?

The average Canadian consumes 18 teaspoons of added sugar a day. The World Health Organization recommends limiting added daily sugar intake to no more than 12 teaspoons. Research shows reducing to six teaspoons per day provides additional health benefits.

Too much sugar has health consequences, including cavities, weight gain and heart disease. Sugar doesn’t directly cause diabetes, but for someone with diabetes or pre-diabetes, too much sugar can lead to complications that affect blood pressure, heart, kidneys and eyesight.

Differentiating between sugars

Sugar can also be called carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy.

Not all sugars sources are created equal, however.

  • Dietary (natural) sugars are present in fruit, some vegetables, milk and milk products (not flavoured).
  • Added sugars are those we add at the table and the sugars and syrups added to foods in processing and preparation.
  • Other “natural” sugars, such as molasses, honey and maple syrup, are often regarded as healthy choices—but the truth is, sugar is sugar.

Detecting the devil in disguise

Nutrition labels state total sugar in grams. Check the portion size when comparing similar products. The label does not distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar, so go to the ingredient list. A product’s ingredients are listed according to highest to lowest weight—the nearer sugar is to the top of the list, the more sugar it contains.

Determine the accumulative amount. New label regulations will standardize serving sizes, provide a percentage daily value for sugar, and all sugars will be compiled together.

The hidden culprits

Yogurt—A healthy choice, but not so much when flavour is added. Comparing an equivalent three-quarter cup serving—plain yogurt has about two teaspoons of natural sugar. The fruited varieties have six to eight teaspoons.

Best option: Go plain. If you don’t like the tanginess, add berries, or a dash of cinnamon or splash of vanilla extract. Or try mixing the sweetened variety with half plain to decrease the sugar. Greek yogurt has more protein, which may fill you up longer.

Condiments—A big blob of ketchup may be the perfect pairing with French fries or a burger, but a tablespoon of ketchup is one third sugar.

Best option: Try using alternative flavours on your burger: tzatziki, hummus, peanut butter or homemade salsa. Load it up with raw, roasted or sautéed vegetables, such as onions, red peppers and mushrooms. For French fries, try opting for vinegar.

Cereals—Most cereals are marketed as providing seven essential nutrients. Unfortunately, that doesn’t override the sugar content of more than six teaspoons (24 grams) sugar per serving. Even the “healthier” options with bran and oats can be laced with sugar.

Best option: Choose cereals with no more than five grams of sugar and at least five grams of fibre. Instead of flavoured hot cereals, try plain oats, steel cut oats or quinoa, and add fruit and cinnamon.

Muffins—Often perceived as healthy, especially when made with whole grains and fruit, many prepared muffins have more than six teaspoons of sugar and a lot of calories. (Double the sugar and more calories than a doughnut).

Best option: Make your own as you can often reduce the sugar in a recipe by a third without ruining the taste.

‘Fruit’ Smoothies—Sounds like the healthy option on the fast food and coffee shop menu, but a medium mango pineapple smoothie can contain 15 teaspoons of sugar.

Best option: Make your own. Add leafy greens, cucumber and carrot to your favourite fruit smoothie and you’ll add bulk without the sugar.

Bottom line: Eat sugar when it’s planned so it can be enjoyed—like that delicious piece of cake!

Maureen Tilley is a registered dietitian and author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!

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