Another Perspective on Added Sugars

Consuming Modest Amounts May Improve Overall Dietary Quality

As a Registered Dietitian, I approach designing an individualized eating plan or group menu with an eye on science-based nutrition as well as an eye towards acceptance.  After all, if people don’t like their food and it ends up in the trash, it doesn’t matter how fabulously nutritious it is.

Sugar is one of the key nutrients in this balancing act between giving people what they want (“This tastes good!”) and giving people what they need (“Eat this. It’s good for you!”). Most of us will happily eat foods that taste sweet, but foods with excessive amounts of sugars can displace more healthful foods in our diets. And, some people blame sugar — particularly in the form of high fructose corn syrup — for the obesity epidemic, even though there is no strong scientific evidence to support that claim.

As most of us in nutrition are aware, concerns about excessive sugar consumption led the Food and Drug Administration to require that “Added Sugars” be listed separately, by weight and as a percent daily value, on the newly updated Nutrition Facts Label, with a compliance deadline mid-year 2018 for most larger manufacturers. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, alarmed by the global rise in childhood obesity, is recommending that infants and young children not be given foods with added sugars.

Added sugars are any caloric sweeteners that are put into food during preparation or processing.  The list includes honey, sugar/sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, molasses, and syrup. (By the way, no sweetener is more healthful than another – sugar is sugar, whether it is naturally occurring or added.)

It’s no secret that some foods are loaded with added sugar in various forms, while coming up short in important nutrients. Regardless of whether they are store bought or home-made, those are the “treat” foods that should be eaten only very occasionally like cookies, cakes, pies, candy, sodas, etc.

Foods that have solid nutritional value also can have sugars added to them during processing, but usually in very modest amounts. You might wonder why healthful foods would need any added sugars and may not be aware that sugar plays important roles during processing beyond sweetening.

  • Aids browning: The appealing browned surface and caramel flavor tones of bread – including 100% whole wheat bread – come from the Maillard reaction when sugar reacts with proteins in the dough.
  • Brings balance: Sugar enhances other flavors in food, while reducing the impact of undesirable flavors. As an example, small amounts of sugar are often added to pasta sauces to balance their flavor profile.
  • Improves texture: Sugar attracts water which improves the texture of baked goods, including whole grain foods.
  • Acts as fat substitute: Sugar can be used in reduced-fat products to enhance flavor and provide bulk.

Because added sugars can make nutritious foods like yogurt, cereals, and whole grain baked goods more palatable, those foods are more likely to be eaten, bringing important nutrients to the diets of children and adults alike.

According to data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2006, ‘ready-to-eat cereal’ and ‘yeast breads and rolls’ contributed just 6 percent of the total added sugars consumed. Those two food categories also contributed significant amounts of several important nutrients including folate (38 percent), iron (29 percent), vitamin B12 (14 percent), fiber (16 percent), calcium (7 percent), and vitamin D (6 percent).

Researchers who analyzed this data expressed concern that overly restricting added sugars could encourage people to exclude healthful foods from their diets just because they have some added sugars.

This concerns me as well.

Most of us don’t eat perfectly.  And, over time, it’s hard to stick to a nutrition plan when you just don’t like the food.  It’s even harder to get kids to eat what they don’t like.

So, in that balancing act between acceptance and nutrition, by all means watch out for excesses of any nutrient – not just sugar – but keep in mind that a diet with lots of good nutrition doesn’t have to be perfect.  It just has to be an eating plan that helps you and your kids stay healthy – and happy.


Ellen Stokes 5.19.17Ellen Stokes, MS, RD, LD is an award-winning video producer, director, and writer in addition to being a registered dietitian. Ellen writes and creates videos about nutrition education, food safety, menu planning, grocery shopping, and healthful cooking on a budget. Ellen has worked with organizations and companies including WebMD, the Partnership for Food Safety Education, and the University of Georgia Food Science Department. Ellen formerly worked for CNN as a writer and producer and teaches food safety and nutrition for Georgia State University. Check her out on Twitter @EllenS_RD.