Sunday, January 15, 2012

La Vita e Dolce, Part One: How Much Is Too Much?

“Anything in Moderation is Fine”
Nicely timed with Sugarfest Trifecta (Halloween-Christmas-Valentine’s Day), my kids are listening to the soundtrack from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Stella the Baby requests the Oompa Loompas' songs every time we turn on the radio (“doo-pa-dee-doo!”). And Michael (3yo) tries to learn the lyrics, which, though super blunt, point out a legitimate concern:

Is Wonka's Chocolate Room a fantasyland?
"What do you get when you guzzle down, SWEETS,
Eating as much as an elephant, EATS?
What are you at, getting terribly, FAT?
What do you think will come, of, THAT?
I don't like the look of it."

Sugar Confusion
For some time I've wondered if "sugar" by any other name is really the same thing in the body. I want to understand sugar choices both for myself and to make sure I am giving my kids good advice.

What finally motivated me to research sugars -- excepting artificial sweeteners, which due to their very name, are instantly outside the purview of this blog -- was the launch of the Corn Refiners Association's $25 million marketing campaign. Its ads depicted high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) objectors as tactless, arrogant and uninformed.

The commercials built a fire under me, but it was lit by an individual: the day I asked if the syrup used to sweeten their iced tea was HFCS, and the lady at the Dunkin' Donuts drive-up window quoted these ads, "I'm not sure what kind of syrup, sweetheart, but even high fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation."

That was IT! That one of Grandma Reina's favorite adages should defend an ingredient that didn't even exist when she was teaching her own children, "everything in moderation" is preposterous. And demands investigation - subito!

I set out to discover:
  1. How much IS a moderate amount of sugar for an adult, and for a child?
  2. Is HFCS as “natural” as white sugar? Isn’t honey better than refined sugars?
  3. To the body, is there any real difference between eating a whole fruit versus a glass of juice, a sweet tea, a soda, etc..?
To Clarify: 1. Because our bodies can derive all the blood sugar they need from whole foods alone, there is no such thing as a “normal” or “required” amount of added sugar. All added sugar is superfluous to a healthy diet.
2. “Overeating sugar” or "sugar overdose" refers to consuming any food or drink that causes blood sugar to spike quickly, and/or the liver to be overloaded with fructose (i.e., sweetened foods, sugary drinks and refined grains - aka things made of flour).

After two years of research, here’s what I’ve learned and will share in this series:
  1. Sugar is not evil! The human body needs about one teaspoon of glucose circulating in the blood, to support brain function among other things. But too much blood sugar can result in coma or death. So the body aims to regulate blood sugar when we eat by breaking down carbohydrates into glucose and storing any excess for later. (Blood sugar aka glucose should not be confused with white/table sugar aka sucrose, which is 50% glucose, 50% fructose).
  2. Americans drink and eat too much sugar every day, largely because we have no idea how much is too much, and how often we are consuming it in a day.
  3. A high sugar diet is an addiction, which doesn’t just create diabetes, it also creates heart disease, infertility, newborns predisposed to sugar addiction and...
  4. ...Maintaining a sugar surplus in your body keeps you fat (specifically in your belly).
  5. Drinking juice, soda and other sweetened beverages forces the liver to digest unnaturally high, toxic amounts of fructose (whether from HFCS, white sugar, or fruit concentrate).
  6. Minimally processed, organically grown sugars contain trace amounts of beneficial nutrients and vote against genetically-modified, synthetically grown and chemically-processed ingredients (better for planet and body).
My cousins Crystal and Alex pointed out it’s hard to accept that something so commonly consumed can possibly be a killer (like smoking in the Baby Boomer generation). That’s exactly the kind of paradigm shift we need again.

Towards the end goal of making smart sugar choices, this series will:

I. How Much is Too Much Sugar?

Take a gander at the average American man’s, woman’s, teen’s or child’s sugar consumption any day of the week, and there’s how much is too much sugar.

This table compares Americans’ average daily sugar intake to the recommended allowance published by the American Heart Association (AHA) in the 2009 journal Circulation. Find it strange that a heart association would set sugar intake guidelines? Read onwards to see why.

Using the AHA’s guidelines as a reference point, we see that Americans are nowhere near consuming sugar “in moderation.” American adults consume more than 2 days’ worth of sugar in one day, while our children consume more than 4 days’ worth of sugar in one day. If the AHA’s sugar allowance seems small, remember we are discussing added sugars, which we can literally live without altogether, because we are designed to get all the sugar we need from whole foods (more about this in Part Three).

How much sugar do you consume daily?
How many sugars do you take in your coffee or tea? How much sugar is in your creamer?

As is ever more often discussed in our media, added sugar is ubiquitous in our country. Of course you expect to eat sugar when you have dessert, candy or soda; but are you checking labels and calculating your sugar intake from your juices, sports drinks, bread, pasta sauce, cereal, salad dressing, prepared meals, yogurt, flavored milks, frozen dinners, canned vegetables, or any other “food” that comes from a factory?

Do you consume any of these products regularly? Here’s a sampling of the sugar content in some common foods and drinks, with the percentage of the AHA’s recommended daily added sugar intake each represents.

Sweetened drinks certainly defy the AHA’s concept of moderate added sugar intake. To follow the Dunkin’ Donut lady’s advice, I’d need to drink less than half the 16 oz. cup of sweet tea -- which alone delivers more than 2 days’ worth sugar -- and have no other sugar that day. Are you shocked too, to see how many of these items are highlighted in red, indicating that one serving contains more than a day’s worth of sugar? Like the flavored milk our kids drink every day at lunch? Check out this article on to see how you can get involved with campaigns to change this.

Why doesn’t the Nutrition Facts Label tell you what percentage of your added sugar “daily value” one serving contains?
“Sugars: No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day.” - FDA Website “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label"
Uh oh! Sounds like the people at the American Heart Association need introducing to the FDA. Or that the FDA has overlooked this petition submitted to them by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in 1999: “Petition for Proposed Rulemaking to Establish a Daily Reference Value for 'Added Sugars,' to Require Nutrition Labeling of 'Added Sugars,' and to Make Corresponding Changes to Nutrient Content and Health Claim Regulations.”

Would you keep buying these products and feeding them to your children if you could see on the label that 3 days’ worth of sugar is in one serving? Will you now?

Read II. Is Sugar by Any Other Name (like “HFCS”) The Same Thing? to identify sugar in all its forms

1 comment:

  1. Great opener! The very last point doesn't surprise me one bit. Remember that the FDA's mission is the advocacy and protection of the food manufacturers. They are not a consumer protection agency, as they may present themselves. I am outraged about the fact that the driving force behind what is offered in the super markets in America appears to be profit. Do the new adds that are popping all over the place now about "chubby not being cute anymore" mention anything about this? Thanks for dedicating two years of your life to this. This really helps further my education about what I choose to put in my family's mouth.