200 years ago, the average American would have consumed about 6.3 pounds of added sugar per year – the equivalent of drinking one 12 ounce can of soda every five days. Fast forward to today, and we are consuming 120 pounds of sugar each year – enough sugar to fill an industrial sized dumpster over one lifetime. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this is problematic – but in case you need convincing, 200 years ago the rate of type II diabetes was about 1 in 100 people. Today, it is closer to 1 in 10. Houston, we have a problem.
Our growing sweet tooth
There are two main stories behind the rise of sugar in our food, and our willingness to consume it. The first is the obvious explanation – we are hard wired to love the taste of sugar (thanks to evolution – ripe fruits contain the most vitamins, for example, so preferring sweet foods actually helped us survive for most of human history). Add more sugar to food, and consumers will buy more of it. Not only do we like sugar, but it is basically a miracle ingredient as far as food producers are concerned – it is cheap, readily available, addicting, and serves the added benefit of being a preservative. The simple laws of supply and demand would predict that our food would grow sweeter over time.
But there is a second story running behind the scenes here, spurring on the increasing the amount of sugar in our foods while other ingredients that we love to eat, like fat for instance, have been (for better or for worse) stripped from many processed foods. The long story is worth reading – the short version is that the sugar industry has spent a lot of money keeping fat as public enemy number one, and while food producers have jumped on to the low-fat craze they have replaced the fat with sugar so that their food remains palatable (because nobody wants to eat a low-fat, sugar free piece of cake.)
And so, over the last 200 years, our love affair with sugar (as both consumers and producers) has grown to the point that we consume more sugar than just about any other nation in the world – not a statistic worth bragging about.
Sugar – it’s everywhere!
Another huge issue with sugar is that many of us don’t realize how much sugar is in foods marketed as fresh or healthy. 120 pounds of year? Sure, that’s terrible, but that’s not me! Well dear reader, by the simple definition of average meaning well… average, it most likely is. In our workshop we go through a day in the life of what we think is a pretty normal diet – here is what they ate:
Breakfast – honey nut cheerios with skim milk, plus a small vanilla latte.
Snack – 1 nature valley granola bar
Lunch – footlong turkey sub with 1 small bag of lays potato chips (barbeque flavored)
Snack – 1 cup of coffee with 2 teaspoons of sugar, and a handful of trailmix
Dinner – chicken stir fry with teriyaki sauce, a small salad, and kombucha.
The grand total? 190 grams of sugar, or 120 pounds of sugar a year. Yes yes we know, you probably saw that coming, this being the paragraph where we reveal how sugary foods actually are. But even still, it’s a depressing picture- you eat what you think you’re supposed to eat, and you end up consuming far more than the 30 grams of added sugars that the FDA sets as the daily recommendation. What gives?
Processed foods contribute 90% of the added sugar in our diet.
Many processed foods are high in sugar, even if they look healthy. Take Naked fruit juice – one bottle can contain over 50 grams of sugar (more than a can of soda!). It looks so healthy….its green for crying out oud! To add insult to injury, the front of the container boasts “No Sugar Added.” A true but deceptive marketing trick – sugars affect your body whether they are naturally occurring (for example, the sugar in all of the apples that were pressed to make this juice) or added (as is the case with sugars added to sports drinks and sodas). Your body doesn’t magically react differently to naturally occurring sugars – the issue isn’t where your sugars are coming from, it’s all about how much you consume.
Other common culprits? Sauces and marinades (like teriyaki or barbeque), salad dressings, sports drinks, flavored yogurts, and even some spaghetti sauces.
Sound Food Tips:
Indulge intentionally – Sugar is delicious – enjoy it! Some foods are meant to be sweet, and we are meant to eat them in moderation. The real culprit of our overconsumption is all of those healthy-looking foods that hide their sugar content behind deceptive marketing (like energy bars) – unless you are burning a lot of energy, opt for whole foods and snacks that are naturally delicious but lower in sugar, like nuts, whole fruit, hummus, or salty snacks.
Check the nutrition label – It’s so easy! Sugars are listed right there, in grams – it takes about two seconds to check out the sugar content. If it’s crazy high, consume that product less. (One note – make sure the serving size matches what you will eat. Caution: some light math may be required.)
Don’t go cold turkey – Because sugar is addicting, quitting cold turkey can be unpleasant to say the last. Start decreasing the amount of sugar you consume slowly, and over time your taste buds will adapt to enjoying less sweet foods.
Beware of artificial sweeteners! – As consumers try to decrease the amount of sugar in their diets, food producers have started swapping artificial sugars in for the real deal — without labeling their product as “sugar free” on the front. If your food tastes sweet but boasts low sugar, beware! Artificial sugars go by many names, and have been ironically linked to weight gain.