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Mar 4, 2016

Sugar series part 1: What is an added sugar?

The first of a three-part series on sugar written for the Fryeburg Town Matters.

It's about that time of year when all of us need a little nudge on our New Year's resolutions. I made a resolution to eat less added sugar this year, and if you have similar aspirations, I am here with a three-part series on sugar to give you a boost. If you don't, perhaps this series will convince you to come on board!

Usually, I would rather concentrate on eating things that are good for me, rather than deprive myself of foods that are bad. But as I've read more and more about how extra bad added sugar really is for you (and considering my ample sweet tooth) I've decided that sugar deserves special treatment.

I want to tell you what researchers are finding about sugar and health, and how I'm reducing my added sugar intake without feeling deprived. Those will be the focus of parts two and three in this series. But first, I have to explain why I'm saying "added sugar" and not just "sugar."

Sugar is what you get when you break chains of carbohydrates such as starch into their littlest molecules, such as glucose and fructose. These little molecules sometimes combine in pairs to form other sugars, such as lactose and sucrose. Some sugars are produced naturally by plants and animals, like those found in fruits, milk, nectar, sugar cane, sugar beets, and sap. Others we create by chemically breaking down carbohydrates in plants like corn.

When we eat sugar straight from the source (like an apple, or a glass of milk), we get those sugar molecules, but they're mixed in with a bunch of other things like fiber and fat and minerals and antioxidants. Those other things dilute the sugar so we eat less of it, and they also buffer the sugar's effect on our bodies.

When we refine that sugar, however, we take most of the other good things out. Apple cider has more concentrated sugar than an apple, but still has a bunch of other nutrients to act as a buffer. Apple juice has less of a buffer, and apple juice concentrate even less. Some sweeteners, like molasses (made from sugar cane or sugar beets), honey (helpfully refined for us by bees) and maple syrup (helpfully refined for us by our neighbors), still have traces of minerals and other nutrients floating around with the pure sugar molecules. The more you refine a sugar, the more it's just pure, unadulterated glucose and fructose.

Once sugar is refined, it's easy to consume huge quantities of it without any of the pesky other stuff filling you up first. That's why it's so dangerous for your health. Plain yogurt naturally has some sugar in it, but it's a small amount: usually about 12 grams in a 6-ounce container, or 6 for Greek yogurt. Most yogurt you buy, however, has a bunch of added sugar on top of that. Stoneyfield's French vanilla yogurt, for example, has 25 grams of sugar total; more than twice as much sugar as their yogurt naturally contains. They have literally taken three teaspoons of table sugar and stirred it into that one little cup of yogurt in your hand.

Without the added sugar, that yogurt was perfectly healthy. This bears out in the research on added vs. natural sugars, which has mostly focused on fruit. While it's hard to isolate the effect of fruit on health from other factors, studies show that people who eat a lot of fruit tend to be healthier than those that don't.  And while not all studies show a benefit from eating more fruit, none show it to be harmful. You can read more about these studies here.

It takes a bit of research and math to figure out how much sugar was added to fruit and dairy products, though, as opposed to the sugar they started with. Within a few years, the FDA will begin requiring that food labels separate out added sugar on labels, so it will be easy to see how many grams of sugar have been added to your yogurt. Until then, the easiest way to control the added sugar in your food is to read the ingredient lists, avoid foods with added sugars (the obvious, plus anything that ends with -os), and add them yourself. You'll almost always add less than a company will.

Siena Kaplan-Thompson is an executive assistant at White Mountain Community Health Center