We’ve all heard it before – sugar isn’t great for you. As delicious as it may be, it isn’t something we want to eat a ton of. In an attempt to maintain our healthy ways, we try to fill our diets with fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains rather than loading it up with sugar. But, unfortunately, sugar isn’t relegated to classic cookies and cakes; it’s present in a wide variety of savory foods, many of which you’d never guess contain more sugar than a candy bar.
It all started when food companies realized that convenience was a huge selling point for American consumers. In an attempt to increase convenience, food makers focused on increasing shelf life and wrapping things in individual packages. One prime ingredient in doing so? Sugar. Turns out, this little ingredient, in its many forms, increases the shelf life of a wide variety of products (cereal, oatmeal, cookies, cakes, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, etc.), allowing them to stay wrapped in convenient packages that help people make meals faster.
There’s another reason why sugar has unnecessarily found its way into so many of our foods, however: the sweet stuff is addictive, and that seriously increases sales. Turns out, our bodies are literally hard wired for sweets. One study quoted in Michael Moss’ Salt, Sugar, Fat states that, not only are the sweet receptors in our tongue’s taste buds pleased by sugar, “scientists are now finding taste receptors that light up for sugar all the way down our esophagus to our stomach and pancreas.” Not only does the sweet stuff taste great, our bodies – all the way down the digestive tract – react positively to sugar.
Food scientists are constantly trying to figure out how to optimize humans’ natural inclination for sugar. Moss’ book also discusses the “bliss point,” or the “precise amount of sweetness – no more, no less – that makes food and drink most enjoyable.” Through consumer taste studies, food scientists learn just exactly where humans most adore sweets – and maximize that bliss point effectively to make their sugar-laden foods that much more irresistible.
But how, exactly, can you avoid sugar, particularly when its found its way into so many of our normally savory foods? Rule one: always read the label. The classic wisdom in the nutrition world is that men should consume a maximum of 9 teaspoons daily, women no more than 6 teaspoons. This is equal to around 36 grams for men or 24 grams for women (note: food labels list sugar in grams; 4 grams of sugar is equal to around 1 teaspoon). Of course, less is always better.
Rule two: always read the ingredients. Nutrition labels often list sugar in many different forms: you could see fructose, galactose, agave nectar, cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, maltodextrin, ethyl maltol, rice syrup, and more. If sugar is one of the top ingredients, chances are that food is very high in the sweet stuff.
All in all, awareness is the most effective step in limiting your intake… and you’re already there! The more you know, the less sugar you’ll take in — and the healthier you’ll be.