Is Added Sugar Bad for You: Taking the Bitter with the Sweet
In recent years, it seems the fear of sugar has largely superseded the fear of fat – and perhaps rightfully so. Gone are the days when a parade of popular songs used “sugar” as a term of endearment, and we were guilt-free in devouring the entire pouch of baseball-themed bubble gum. It’s safe to say we have learned, but have we changed?
Consider this: The average person in the United States consumes around 17 teaspoons, or 71.14 grams, of added sugar per day. 1 That’s a lot, and the pandemic lurks in all corners of the grocery store: a virtual minefield. You aren’t even safe in the plant-based beverage shelves of the natural section!
What is Added Sugar and Where Is It Found?
Sugar bears many names. Some visibly incriminating, others seemingly innocuous, which might lead you to suspect they have something to hide. Perhaps they do. To name a few:
- Cane sugar
- Raw sugar
- Organic cane sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Brown sugar
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Maple syrup
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
A minefield, indeed! Some of the more common nests for added sugars – often deployed in frightening quantities – include:
- Candies and chocolate
- Baked goods (cakes, cookies, muffins, crackers)
- Breakfast bars and cereals
- Peanut butter
- Sauces and salad dressings
- Canned soups
- Cured meats
- Dairy and plant-based beverages
- Canned, frozen, and dried fruit
- Low-fat and fat-free foods
While the degree of processing and micronutrient content may vary between the different kinds of sugar used in these foods, nutritionally speaking, there is no significant difference between any of them. This is because once eaten, your metabolism cannot tell the difference. However, when the sugar is consumed in the context of a food that is high in fiber, fat, and/or protein, the rate of digestion is slower, preventing a huge spike in blood sugar that would otherwise occur from consuming the sugar on its own. 2 This is why consuming sugar in the context of an apple is so much better than, say, an apple-flavored lollipop.
History of Added Sugar 3,4
In the early days of our nation, when George Washington humbly declined to be king (so the story goes), Americans consumed 6 pounds of sugar per year. Today, Americans consume about 130 pounds. How did this situation go so far off the rails?
Consumption began to grow with the ascent of the sugar beet industry and an 1876 treaty with Hawaii (which the U.S. later annexed). In 1898, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, resulting in a declaration of war against Cuba’s colonial landlord, Spain. As Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders brazenly ascended San Juan Hill, the flailing European power capitulated, placing the sugar-rich island (plus Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam) firmly in America’s sphere of influence. This meant lots and lots of sugar.
During the ill-fated Prohibition period (1920-33), soda surged in popularity as a substitute indulgence. Americans never stopped drinking it, with or without rum. The growth of industrial foods like cola pumped more and more sugar into the diet. As was so often the case, the war effort was the one detour in the path of sugar. With Asian supplies cut-off by Japanese imperialism, the limited supply was largely monopolized by antiseptics and explosives. It was rumored that a five-gun salvo consumed an entire acre of sugar cane yield, while cookbooks urged alternative sweetening methods.
Sugar returned to dietary prominence after the war and, indeed, expanded its influence behind the renegade availability of cheap opinions like high-fructose corn syrup. Today, the average American today consumes 130 pounds added sugar a year! Picture how that would look in a pile.
The problem lives in packaged goods. Shoppers who don’t have access to fresh produce tend to rely instead on caloric sweeteners in everything from cereal to pasta sauce. On the colonial farm, sugar avoidance was easy. George Washington may have cut down the cherry tree (so goes the myth), but at least he had one. Most of us don’t live amidst homegrown plenty these days. Hidden in plain sight on shelves and shelves of easy, cheaper options, it is now far harder to avoid added sugar than consume it.
Why Too Much Added Sugar Is Unhealthy
The FDA, as part of the sweeping Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is now requiring added sugars to be specifically quantified on nutrition labels. Previously, these were able to hide in the more generalized classification of sugars. This is bad news for some brands. 5
Investigative studies have revealed the potential for added sugars to increase the risk of:
- High intake of fructose can lead to leptin resistance, a hormone produced by fat cells that regulates hunger and satiety signals. 6
- Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages commonly increases deep belly fat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease, the primary cause of death throughout the world. 7,8
Type 2 Diabetes
- Excessive intake of sugar causes the body to produce high amounts of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that signals for the cells to uptake sugar. Prolonged intake leads to insulin resistance, resulting in uncontrolled blood sugar. 9
Fatty Liver Disease
- Sugar, as fructose specifically, can build up in your liver when excessive amounts are consumed, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. 10
- One investigation of nearly 6,000 adults found that those who consumed sugar sweetened beverages on a regular basis had a 56% higher chance of developing NAFLD compared to those who did not. 11
- In an investigation of 8,000 people over 2 decades, men who consumed 67+ g of sugar daily had a 23% higher chance of developing depression compared to men who consumed <40 g daily. 12
- Diet high in sugar have been linked to the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are compounds that form when sugars attach proteins and fat located on the outer surface of your body’s cells. These compounds can damage the collagen and elastin in your skin, leading to premature wrinkling. 13
- Having consistently high blood sugar levels can cause damage to the delicate blood vessels in your kidneys. This can lead to an increased risk of kidney disease. 14
- Did we even need to list this one? You probably hear this warning from your dentist all the time. Spoiler alert: he’s right! When bacteria in your mouth feed on sugar, they release acidifying byproducts that demineralize. 15
Current Dietary Guidelines for Added Sugar Intake
Added sugars are almost universally demonized as a fountain of poor health. This realization, coupled with their staggering overconsumption, has impelled medical authorities and organizations to respond aggressively.
The World Health Organization and US dietary guidelines currently advise people to limit their added sugar intake to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake. In a standard 2,000 calorie per day diet, this equals 50 grams of added sugar, or about 12.5 teaspoons. 16
Are you staying under these recommendations? We agree it certainly can be difficult given the sugary foods at our disposal, and decades of unhealthy dietary behaviors. Luckily, options grow with awareness. True, whole foods may be a bit more expensive than the cheap packaged standards, but as we budget our lives around our priorities, they may be an investment worth making.
Elmhurst® is the Healthier Alternative to Other Plant Milks
The primary purpose of added sugar is not to intentionally harm your health (as the list of risks, delineated above, proves). Rather, from a production standpoint, sugar is simply added to improve a product’s flavor. This is often needed for many plant-based beverages, in particular, as many of their natural flavor compounds are lost due to straining in most commercial processes. For example, you might say some are nut milks made with barely any nuts.
Due to Elmhurst’s HydroRelease™ process, which simply disassembles and then reassembles our source ingredients (e.g., nuts or oats) to yield a creamy emulsion, no flavor is lost because no straining occurs! In fact, our nut milk line, which includes cashew milk, walnut milk, and hazelnut milk, contain up to 4x as many nuts per serving compared to the other guys. So, very little or no added sugar is necessary! Albeit, we know there are still some individuals who like things a tad sweet, and since we want to cater to all people at all times in all places, we created our original lines. Rest assured, no Elmhurst plant-based milk exceeds 6g of added sugar per serving in any product, meaning it would take 8 glasses or more to exceed your daily allowance. Competitors, on the other hand, doctor their plant-based milks with up to 17g of sugar per serving. Try fitting that into your balanced diet!
Another positive is that Elmhurst’s HydroRelease™ process allows us to retain all the fat, fiber, and protein inherent to the source ingredient, which individually and collectively help prevent rapid spikes in blood sugar when a food with sugar is eaten.
Does all this still feel like too much? Maybe you want zero added sugars, no buts about it. We get it. This is why Elmhurst also has a supremely minimalistic line of unsweetened milks with two or three ingredients (water, nuts or oats, and sometimes salt).
No good can come from excess added sugar, which is why Elmhurst options are simply the best choice among plant-based milks for moderation of your intake.
- Azais-Braesco V, Sluik D, Maillot M, Kok F, Moreno LA. A review of total & added sugar intakes and dietary sources in Europe. Nutrition journal. 2017;16(1):6.
- Moghaddam E, Vogt JA, Wolever TMS. The Effects of Fat and Protein on Glycemic Responses in Nondiabetic Humans Vary with Waist Circumference, Fasting Plasma Insulin, and Dietary Fiber Intake. The Journal of nutrition. 2006;136(10):2506-2511.
- Gritz JR. The Unsavory History of Sugar, the Insatiable American Craving. 2017; https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unsavory-history-sugar-american-craving-180962766/. Accessed August 10, 2019, 2019.
- Horton M, Bentley, A., Langton, P. A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves. 2015; https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-sugar-the-food-nobody-needs-but-everyone-craves-49823. Accessed August 16, 2019, 2019.
- Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). 2019; https://www.fda.gov/food/guidance-regulation-food-and-dietary-supplements/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma. Accessed August 16, 2019, 2019.
- Vasselli JR, Scarpace PJ, Harris RB, Banks WA. Dietary components in the development of leptin resistance. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md). 2013;4(2):164-175.
- Amato MC, Guarnotta V, Giordano C. Body composition assessment for the definition of cardiometabolic risk. Journal of endocrinological investigation. 2013;36(7):537-543.
- Pagidipati NJ, Gaziano TA. Estimating deaths from cardiovascular disease: a review of global methodologies of mortality measurement. Circulation. 2013;127(6):749-756.
- Weiss R, Dziura J, Burgert TS, et al. Obesity and the metabolic syndrome in children and adolescents. The New England journal of medicine. 2004;350(23):2362-2374.
- Jensen T, Abdelmalek MF, Sullivan S, et al. Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of hepatology. 2018;68(5):1063-1075.
- Ma J, Fox CS, Jacques PF, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverage, diet soda, and fatty liver disease in the Framingham Heart Study cohorts. Journal of hepatology. 2015;63(2):462-469.
- Knuppel A, Shipley MJ, Llewellyn CH, Brunner EJ. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific reports. 2017;7(1):6287.
- Aragno M, Mastrocola R. Dietary Sugars and Endogenous Formation of Advanced Glycation Endproducts: Emerging Mechanisms of Disease. Nutrients. 2017;9(4).
- Karalius VP, Shoham DA. Dietary sugar and artificial sweetener intake and chronic kidney disease: a review. Advances in chronic kidney disease. 2013;20(2):157-164.
- Gupta P, Gupta N, Pawar AP, Birajdar SS, Natt AS, Singh HP. Role of sugar and sugar substitutes in dental caries: a review. ISRN Dent. 2013;2013:519421-519421.
- Agriculture USDoHaHSaUSDo. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. 2015; 8th: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed August 15, 2019, 2019.