Sugar Traps and How to Avoid Them

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Let's just call sugar what it is:  sweet crack.  Anyone who has been paying attention to diet news over the past few years knows that sugar is a villain in the fight against obesity and many chronic diseases.

But it is so yummy!  Sweet, delicious.  It's part of our traditions - who has a birthday without a cake?  A dinner party without dessert?  It's part of our daily lives - a supersize choco-mocha-soy latte with extra caramel whipped cream to get started for the day?  Yes, please.  Cookbooks, cooking shows, blogs are devoted to how we can use the white stuff in deliciously new and creative ways.  It's how we reward people (and ourselves)!  Just a little treat, right?  Sugar is socially accepted.  No one will look at you funny if you take a cupcake at a social.  And we start young - we give sweet treats, candy, sugar loaded cereals and juices to babies and toddlers everywhere.  

And it can be incredibly addictive.  Because sugar triggers the opiate receptors in our brain, it provides us with an "award" of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which makes us feel good.  That's why when we experience a breakup or other similarly sad experience, we turn to sugar - the "bucket of ice cream" - to make us feel better.  More sugar = more release of dopamine = we want more of that, and it takes more and more to keep us satisfied.  We get addicted to our sugar high.  In fact, sugar has similar addictive properties as nicotine, cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids such as heroin.

We start to think that foods without added sugar just aren't as good.  Food producers are well aware of our cravings for sugar, and they are more than happy to oblige our addiction.  One of the reasons processed foods are so bad for us is that so many of them contain added sugar.  I took a quick inventory of foods with sugar in my kitchen cabinets and refrigerator.  Ketchup - of course!  Barbecue sauce, marinades, tomato sauce - yep.  Yogurt - yes.  Green chile enchilada sauce and organic chicken bone broth - yes and yes - who knew?  

I fully expected to find sugar (or its alter egos, corn syrup and molasses) in ketchup, jarred sauces, and marinades - but I did not expect it to be in bone broth.  And that's just how sneaky food processors can be.  There's no good reason to add sugar to many of the products it is in - but there it is anyway.

And just as with other addictions, the consequences of all this added sugar in just about everything we eat aren't pretty:  cravings, binging, and withdrawal symptoms when we try to eliminate it from our diets.  We can get a sugar rush when we consume a food that is high in sugar, and a subsequent sugar low when our bodies produce extra insulin that burns up the sugar quickly, leaving us feeling shaky and wiped out.  A continuous "diet" of these sugar highs and lows can cause us to develop insulin insensitivity, so that our bodies have to produce more and more insulin, eventually wearing out the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. And the longer term consequences add up to chronic health problems from headaches, hormone imbalances, and weight gain, to morbid obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity-related cancers.

With a little thought, we can avoid the obvious sugar traps - the ones in plain sight.  We can add less sugar in our coffee, choose not to eat the cupcake at the office party, avoid the candy rack at the checkout.  It's the hidden sugar traps that can sabotage our way of eating and undo all the hard work we are putting in to improve our health.  A recent survey from Healthline.com found that most consumers don't know how much sugar is in their foods and are confused about how to read food labels and how to cut out added sugar.  The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories a day in the form of added sugars.

Below are some of the food products that are hiding added sugar, and how you can avoid them by making a smarter choice.  Of course, always read food labels (see the infographic below for a list of common sugar synonyms used on food labels).  The higher up an ingredient is on the ingredient list on the label, the more of that ingredient there is in the product.  Some producers try to hide just how much sugar they have added by breaking it up into different sugar ingredients and listing them separately in the ingredient list, so read carefully.

1 teaspoon of sugar = 4 grams

Note:  Beginning in 2020, manufacturers of packaged foods will have to include the percentage of added sugars in a product as a separate line item.

  Source:  Food and Drug Administration

Source:  Food and Drug Administration

Food Sources of Hidden Sugar

Beverages.  The average American consumes 14% of their daily calories in added sugars, and a lot of those sugars come in the form of sugary beverages - drinking our calories, as it were.  From so-called "healthy juices" and energy drinks, to sugar laden coffee to soda to sweet tea to alcoholic beverages, our drinks are all-too-often loaded with sugar.  Even smoothies can be sugar traps when purchased at a commercial smoothie shop or hiding under the label of a "healthy" bottled beverage product.  The best thirst quencher of all - plain water.  If you can't stand the taste of plain water, add a bit of lemon, lime, or other fruits to infuse and flavor it.  You can do the same with coffee and tea.  Make healthy smoothies at home, limiting sweeteners to the fruit in the smoothie or a bit of stevia leaf.  

Yogurt.  On its own, yogurt is a very healthy food.  But we want it sweetened - with fruits, sauces, honey, granola, or just sweetened vanilla.  A favorite strawberry-flavored yogurt from a major manufacturer has 24 grams of sugar in a single serving size - that's almost the full daily allowance for a woman!  Instead, choose a plain, unsweetened yogurt or kefir and add fresh or frozen fruit or a dash of vanilla extract.  If you simply must have it sweetened, try adding a bit of stevia or choose a yogurt with lower sugar content.

Instant oatmeal.  Here again, we have a product that, by itself, is a nutritious food, but manufacturers create a product with a lot of added sugar.  Instead of resorting to instant oatmeal for a quick breakfast, make refrigerator oats overnight and add a bit of fresh fruit in the morning.

Bread, pasta, bagels, crackers.  You think your whole grain bread or pasta is safe.  But even these products have added sugar to help them taste better.  Try a sprouted grain Ezekiel bread instead - and skip the bagels and crackers.  If you need something to scoop up your dip, try carrot and celery sticks instead.  Oh, and speaking of that dip...

Dips.  Yes, that delicious honey mustard dip has sugar.  So does the ranch dip and the french onion dip.  Even the commercial salsas have added sugar.  Better choices:  homemade salsa, hummus, guacamole, tzatziki, or baba ghanoush.

Coleslaw.  At the restaurant, you might get the coleslaw because you think you are getting the healthiest option on the menu.  But it is probably has too much sugar to be really healthy.  Try a side salad instead.  And at home, make your own low sugar slaw.

Soups and broths.  I was surprised to see sugar as a key ingredient in my organic cream of chicken soup and in my organic chicken bone broth.  We often purchase these products to make our lives easier, but it's relatively easy to make soups and bone broth in the crockpot and then freeze in individual portion sizes for use later.  When we make it ourselves, we control what does and doesn't go into our recipe. 

Sauces and marinades.  Just about any sauce or marinade you can purchase in the grocery store will have added sugar.  Many sauces are simple enough to make at home using fresh ingredients, and you can leave out the sugar.  

Chinese food.  I'm not talking about a simple stir fry you make yourself.  Rather, just about all the favorites at your local Chinese buffet are guaranteed to have sugar in the sauces.  Do yourself a favor and make your stir fry at home.

Frozen dinners and prepackaged frozen meals.  A popular product in recent years is a frozen meal that you prepare in your kitchen, often combining meat, vegetables, pasta or rice, and - sugar heavy sauces.  I know we are all busy so we try to choose foods that will be convenient and still healthy, and many of these meals are marketed as a healthy alternative.  But read the labels carefully for added sugar.  You can create your own frozen meal-in-a-bag alternatives, given some planning and a few hours on a weekend afternoon.

Processed meats.  Often, processed meats such as sausages, pepperoni, salami, and deli meats are cured with salt and sugar and other preservatives.  Sugar is often added as flavoring as well.  Even some bacon (such as maple glazed bacon) may have added sugar. Check the ingredients list on your lunch meat package and you may see some form of sugar, such as corn syrup, or evaporated cane syrup, or even multiple forms of sugar.  At the deli case in your local supermarket, check your meats for added sugars before ordering.  You can also get meats from local butchers or farmers, or try your hand at learning the art of charcuterie to make your own. 

Energy bars, snack bars, and protein bars.  They are marketed as a healthy fuel source for the health conscious who exercise.  With added sugar, they are anything but healthy.  Instead of opting for an energy bar pre- or post-workout, choose nuts, a boiled egg, sweet potato, or fruit.

Salad dressing.  You might be tempted by low-fat salad dressings thinking they are healthier.  Instead, manufacturers have added sugar to make them taste better.  Try vinegar with olive oil and a spritz of lemon juice to keep your salad on the healthy side.

Condiments.  What makes ketchup so delicious?  Sugar, and lots of it.  Mayo?  Sugar.  Barbecue sauce?  Sugar.  Just about the only condiment without added sugar is mustard.  Try substituting a homemade salsa instead.

Seasonings and rubs.  Who doesn't love a good seasoning mix rub on a pork roast?  The problem is that most of the commercial seasoning and rub mixes have loads of sugar added in.  Ditch the sugar and add more flavor by making your own seasoning mix using a variety of herbs and spices.

The best way to avoid added sugar is to prepare your own meals using whole foods and minimally processed ingredients.

If you think you are seeing a trend here on how to avoid added sugar in your diet, you are right!  The best way to avoid added sugar is to prepare your own meals using whole foods and minimally processed ingredients.  Of course, with our busy lifestyles, that is not always possible, but every little bit we can do will help to cut down the amount of sugar we eat on a daily basis.  Always read the label, and look for products with low or no sugar.

If you want to know how much sugar is in the products you commonly buy, here is a great resource.

So what about fruits?  Of course, fruits contain sugar as well.  Sugar is sugar is sugar, no matter what form it takes.  But fruits include a lot of fiber that slows down the absorption of sugar and fruits are loaded with vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need.  Fructose, the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, is often present in lower levels than you would expect.  For example, in a cup of blueberries, fructose only accounts for 30 calories.  Fruit can be enjoyed as a healthy alternative to cookies, cakes and candy, and in fact, the American Heart Association recommends daily fruit consumption as part of a healthy diet.  To lower the impact of sugar, choose fruits that have a high glycemic index such as berries, apples, or grapefruit.

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