Hidden Sugars in Foods: New Labels Will Help You Find Them

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Functional Medicine Specialist Dr. Marsha Nunley with H.E.A.L. Medical Provides Tips for Healthy Eating

Dr. Marsha Nunley

Many of us have cut back on sugar-sweetened soft drinks, candy, desserts and sugar we add from the sugar bowl. But it's harder to eliminate the less obvious added sugars in presumably healthy foods.

Americans eat too much sugar. On average, Americans consume 30 teaspoons of added sugar a day for an extra 475 calories, which is 3 to 4 times the recommended amount. The American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and a host of other health and nutrition experts recommend reducing the amount of added sugars – beyond the amount found naturally in food – in our diets. With an eye toward slowing the rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, the AHA recommends a limit of 100 calories a day from added sugars, or about 6 teaspoons, for women and no more than 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons, for men.

“We know the obvious sources of sugars in our diets,” says functional medicine specialist Dr. Marsha Nunley, founder of H.E.A.L. Medical. “Many of us have cut back on sugar-sweetened soft drinks, candy, desserts and sugar we add from the sugar bowl. But it's harder to eliminate the less obvious added sugars in presumably healthy foods, everything from salad dressing to pasta sauce to multi-grain breakfast cereal, even infant formula.” Now help is on the way from the Food and Drug Administration, which has announced that added sugars will be broken out on the new “Nutrition Facts” label that will appear on processed foods.

New Nutrition Labels, Tips for Healthy Eating
Added sugars are distinguished from the sugars that occur naturally in food, like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk products. Most of the added sugars in our diets are added by manufacturers to improve the flavor and texture of their foods. In a survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina, it was found that 68% of the packaged food and beverages purchased in a typical American supermarket contain added sugars(1). With current labeling, it takes some detective work to identify added sugars in an ingredients list. Some are easily recognizable like molasses, honey, syrups and various sugars, but more difficult to identify are those that are unfamiliar like maltose and drimol, and those we think of as natural and healthy like agave nectar and fruit juice concentrates, which are nothing but sugar.

“Added sugars are not metabolized any differently in the body than natural sugars,” says Dr. Nunley. “But they dilute the nutritional value of the food and make it difficult to get enough essential nutrients while staying within calorie limits. So while eating plain yogurt with fresh strawberries will provide some natural milk and fruit sugars it is far healthier – and will have fewer calories – than a packaged strawberry yogurt that also contains evaporated cane juice or strawberry juice concentrate.”

The new “Nutrition Facts” label will continue to show “total sugars” as on the current label and will add a new line for ”added sugars” in grams and as a percent of the daily value. Other changes include modifications to which nutrients have to be shown (adding vitamin D and potassium) and updates to serving size to reflect the amounts people actually eat. Most manufacturers will have to start using the new label by June 2018; some smaller manufacturers will have an additional year before they have to comply.

“The new label will make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions about what to eat, particularly in helping them reduce sugar in their diets,” says Dr. Nunley, “But the best nutrition advice is to avoid foods that have a nutrition label. In other words, replace packaged foods with fresh, whole foods that you cook yourself and focus more on the food than on specific nutrients.”

1. Sweetening of the global diet, particularly beverages: patterns, trends, and policy responses; Popkin, Barry M et al. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, Volume 4 , Issue 2, 174 – 186, February 2016

Marsha Nunley, M.D., founder of H.E.A.L. Medical is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatric medicine, and palliative care. Dr. Nunley specializes in functional medicine, a systems-based approach to treating the whole person. http://www.marshanunleymd.com

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